The ladies who preen in the darkness, who let the evening sift through their fingers like gilded sand are of a singular beauty. They hide in the sky, their eyes reflecting the graceful planets, and watch the constellations pirouette beneath them.
All art mirrors this distant femininity.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written in the late 12th century, is an intoxicating voyage of words that gleam like the claws of a cat. Its quatrains are full of earthly visions – the sky’s soft breath scintillating the tall grasses…the sultan’s palace shining through a dawn that burns like melted jewels. They roam throughout the profane country, and reach towards the sacred skies.
“Earth could not answer: nor the seas that mourn/In flowering Purple, of their Lord forlorn;/Nor heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal’d/And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn”
Edmund Dulac illustrated The Rubaiyat in 1909. His vision of Night was of a queen that sleeps like a marble effigy, her skin polished and cold. Her weariness is so intense, yet tender, that she can float throughout countless galaxies without dislodging a single, spinning planet.
Stars rest on her gown like butterflies, and glow in the heavens that sing the gentle monarch to sleep. Night’s hem tangles in clouds and extends over horizons where it is turned bronze and gold by the sun, smoldering beneath the horizon. Before her twilight disappears in the heat, the queen impatiently draws up the errant fabric and wraps it around her delicate, decorated feet.
Centuries earlier, another Queen of the Night had appeared. She wore a robe of stars that pierced her flesh, and a malevolent crown that towered like a black cathedral. She was bound in swaths of twilight torn from the sky, with a train of subservient constellations trailing after her. She did not only rule the heavens, but cursed them as well, her angry gestures splitting the clouds into lightening, as a master jeweler would cleave a diamond.
Mozart’s creation was vindictive and ruthless, her voice disrupting the twelve signs that glittered about her in astrological contentment. Her ferocity is expressed in a stairway of octaves, in the key of D:
“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the creative world was poised on the cusp of modern art while still wrapped in the tendrils of Art Nouveau. During this graceful and confused time, Leon Bakst designed a costume for the Queen of the Night. His illustration was dainty and white, pierced with lightning rods like an ethereal St. Sebastian. Panniers of stars balanced at her hips and fountains of light burst from her shoulders like wings. The scent of pale flowers – those that blossomed only at night – touched her face and stroked her tinted hair.
This design was to be worn by another Queen of the Night.
The Marchesa Luisa Casati writhed throughout the twilight, harvesting symbols of the occult and astrology from their shadowy fields. Her fingernails were painted with incense. She wore pearl necklaces around her child-like waist and snakes – arching obediently – around her neck. As with all nocturnal animals, her eyes were enormous, and like jungles they glittered with mystery and a frightening, verdant life.
During the day Luisa rested in chambers dressed in black, purring velvet. She lay on marble floors that ran with streams of black oxide. During the night, however, she was Queen. And in 1922, she wore Bakst’s gown.
To those who saw her, she was exotic and lunar, wearing silver tissue and diamante as thin as the sky’s dark and sparkling skin. Magic prowled in her feline eyes, waiting for the first lurid shimmer of dawn, when they would close once more.
For millennia night has revolved on its axis of hours, on its allotment of time as ruler of the sky. Its beauties lie within the maelstrom of galaxies spinning like whirlpools; in the darkness that is pierced with a tapestry of planets. But another beauty also sleeps there. Should she wake, the stars will tumble from their clouds. And should she step onto the earth, she would do so as delicately as a mermaid taking her first steps on land.
But before her time is up, she will have returned to her galaxies and tapestries. And before dawn has denounced her rule, she will be asleep once again in her starry veil of tears.