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Posts Tagged ‘Light’

"Flight Path Of Fireflies  Outside Okayama city, Japan", by Tsuneaki Hiramatu. Source - Light: Beyond the Bulb.

“Flight Path Of Fireflies
Outside Okayama city, Japan”, by Tsuneaki Hiramatu. Source – Light: Beyond the Bulb.

What better way to bring to an end the year, and my December-long series of posts on the subject of light in a variety of incarnations, than with a beginning? 2015 will be the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, organised by the United Nations. The official website states its purpose as follows:

In proclaiming an International Year focusing on the topic of light science and its applications, the United Nations has recognized the importance of raising global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society.

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The Book of Kells,  Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f27

The Book of Kells, Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f27

In the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, the gift on the fourth day (today) is “four calling birds”. These represent the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the writers of the four gospels in the New Testament. You can see their symbols in the picture above, on a page from the Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f.27). Matthew is the angel, or winged man ; Mark is the winged lion ; Luke is the winged ox ; John is the eagle. While studying the Book of Kells, I have heard tell again and again how Gerald of Wales described it as the work of angels, not of man, in his 1185 work Topographia Hibernica:

Hic Majestatis vultum videas divinitus impressum; hinc mysticas Evangelistarum
formas, nunc senas, nunc quaternas, nunc binas alas habentes; hinc aquilam, inde
vitulum, hinc hominis faciem, inde leonis; aliasque figuras fere infinitas. Quas si
superficialiter et usuali more minus acute conspexeris, litura potius videbitur
quam ligatura; nec ullam prorsus attendes subtilitatem, ubi nihil tamen praeter
subtilitatem. Sin autem ad perspicacius intuendum oculorum aciem invitaveris, et
longe penitus ad artis arcana transpenetraveris, tam delicatas et subtiles, tam
arctas et artitas, tam nodosas et vinculatim colligatas, tamque recentibus adhuc
coloribus illustratas notare poteris intricaturas, ut vere haec omnia potius angelica
quam humana diligentia jam asseververis esse composita. (Book V)

Translation:This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome,
where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied
colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic
symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here
the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost
infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think
it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you
might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very
shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of
knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this
were the work of an angel, and not of a man.

(Note: translation is from E. H. Alton’s Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex
Cenannensis
(Berne, 1950-1), p.15, quoted in Françoise Henry, The Book of Kells: Reproductions from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1977), p.165. I found the original Latin quotation in Amelia Sargent’s PhD thesis Visions and Revisions: Gerald of Wales, Authorship, and the Construction of Political, Religious, and Legal Geographies in Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Britain, University of California, Berkeley (2011).)

It is not certain that Gerald was writing of the Book of Kells, although recent scholarship suggests this to be the case; he may have been describing a similar book, a possible Book of Kildare, where he wrote this part of his text. The Book of Kells deserves such a description even were it not the original target, in the richness of its colours and the vivid strangeness of its patterns of text and image.

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François Boucher (1703 - 1770), "Madame de Pompadour", 1759.  oil on canvas, at the Wallace Collection, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

François Boucher (1703 – 1770), “Madame de Pompadour”, 1759.
oil on canvas, at the Wallace Collection, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Madame de Pompadour was born on this day in 1721. She started out in life as Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, from age nine nicknamed Reinette (meaning “little queen”), because, as she told it, a fortune teller foretold her one day being loved by the French King. Nancy Mitford’s wonderful biography of Reinette states that six hundred livres were paid to the fortune teller, ‘for having predicted … that I would be the King’s mistress’ (Nancy Mitford, Madame de Pompadour (Vintage Digital, 2011)). It was at a masked ball where Reinette and Louis XV met in 1745 ; while she soon became physically unable to have sex with the King, or with any man, the strength of their relationship was such that they remained close until her death. Her wit, her intelligence, her advice, were all important to the King. Such wit and intelligence are the light which I wish to celebrate in this post, in honour of her birthday. Look again at the picture – yes, this woman is beautiful, stylishly and gorgeously dressed, but the light which illuminates her blazes forth from her own person. François Boucher, to my mind, clearly recognised the brains and spark of his subject. She fostered the talents of such as Voltaire, although their relationship was tempestuous, and he came and went from court, and was careful to look after those who had played a part in her own education, such as the playwright and poet Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, to whom she gave a pension and a situation in the royal library. She was an early supporter of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, thus showing herself to be a true woman of the Enlightenment.

Her own library survives – at the very least – in the form of a bibliography of her books, and you can read it at Archive.org, by clicking here ; I don’t know how many of the actual books are yet extant. To give you an idea of the scope of her reading, here are the headings from the contents page:

  • Theology ; Jurisprudence ; Sciences and Arts ; Belles-lettres ; History ; Music ; Prints
  • Trying to read through at least some of these titles may need to be my second reading project for 2015. For the interminably curious, the first project is picking up on my reading of the Discworld series in order of publication. I started this in London a year or so ago, but as my aim was to read them all by borrowing them from libraries, I came a cropper with Pyramids, and had to stop there. Now I have a new range of public libraries at my disposal, and I hope to start again from the beginning in January.

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    The ghosts of the Ark of the Covenant, in "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Image source: Freethoughtblogs.com

    The ghosts of the Ark of the Covenant, in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Image source: Freethoughtblogs.com

    Watching the original Indiana Jones trilogy is one of my unofficial Christmas traditions, which is helped along greatly by the BBC remembering to schedule them pretty much every year. [Warning: from here on in, there be spoilers, hence the film poster]. (more…)

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    The Winter Shower, by Jia  Hao (Mount Changbai, China). Image via Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA.

    The Winter Shower, by Jia Hao (Mount Changbai, China). Image via Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA.

    When planning this December series of pictures of light, it seemed sensible to make provision for days when I may not have the time or the energy to find an image and write the post. Today is one of those days; I’m not so well and have been sleeping all day. So I have gone to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website, and you can see today’s image above. Isn’t it beautiful? I love that it’s still possible to be stunned by the wonder of the skies and earth around us. NASA also provides an explanation of each image, written by a professional astronomer. Here is that for The winter Shower:

    Known in the north as a winter meteor shower, the 2014 Geminids rain down on this rugged, frozen landscape. The scene was recorded from the summit of Mt. Changbai along China’s northeastern border with North Korea as a composite of digital frames capturing bright meteors near the shower’s peak. Orion is near picture center above the volcanic cater lake. The shower’s radiant in the constellation Gemini is to the upper left, at the apparent orgin of all the meteor streaks. Paying the price for such a dreamlike view of the celestial spectacle, photographer Jia Hao reports severe wind gusts and wintery minus 34 degree C temperatures near the summit.

    Hopefully normal blogging practice will resume tomorrow.

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    The Phoenix, f.55v, Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library Special Collections MS 24). Image via Aberdeen University Special Collections.

    The Phoenix, f.55v, Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library Special Collections MS 24). Image via Aberdeen University Special Collections.

    Today is the second day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The poem reads as follows:

    On the first day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    A partridge in a pear tree.

    On the second day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the third day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the fourth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the fifth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the sixth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the seventh day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the eighth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Eight maids a-milking,
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the ninth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Nine ladies dancing,
    Eight maids a-milking,
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the tenth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Ten lords a-leaping,
    Nine ladies dancing,
    Eight maids a-milking,
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the eleventh day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Eleven pipers piping,
    Ten lords a-leaping,
    Nine ladies dancing,
    Eight maids a-milking,
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree.

    On the twelfth day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Twelve drummers drumming,
    Eleven pipers piping,
    Ten lords a-leaping,
    Nine ladies dancing,
    Eight maids a-milking,
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying,
    Five golden rings,
    Four calling birds,
    Three French hens,
    Two turtle doves,
    And a partridge in a pear tree!

    (more…)

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    "The Nativity at Night", by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c1490). Oil on oak, National Gallery, London.

    “The Nativity at Night”, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c1490). Oil on oak, National Gallery, London.

    Today’s light emanates from the Christian story that God’s son was born to Mary, a virgin, in a stable in Bethlehem, to save mankind from itself. Christians everywhere today celebrate the birth of that child. It’s a simple little story that has endured through art as well as through faith for over 2000 years, and has inspired beautiful acts of creativity. Many artists signal the child’s holiness through a golden glow surrounding him, as the only light in a dark stable. Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Little Gerard of Saint John) was one such artist, as you can see in the picture above. The National Gallery website (click on the picture to read more) references Saint Bridget of Sweden as the source of this light, so to speak:

    The idea of the infant Christ illuminating the Nativity scene comes from the writings of the 14th-century Saint Bridget of Sweden. She wrote that in her visions the light of the new-born child was so bright ‘that the sun was not comparable to it’. A century later, the interest of artists such as Geertgen in depicting naturalistically the contrasts of extreme light and shade served to heighten the sense of the miraculous birth.

    However you spend today, I hope it’s a good and happy day! Merry Christmas!

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