Tag Archives: medieval

“With Her Own Blood…”

“By them there sat the loving pelican, Whose young ones, poison’d by the serpent’s sting, With her own blood to life again doth bring.”
– Michael Drayton

Hundreds of years ago, on a beach that perhaps no longer exists, a pelican was seen preening itself.  Watching the unwieldy beak pierce the feathered breast, this witness – with a typically medieval combination of romance and ignorance – believed that the creature was purposefully wounding itself, to feed its young with its own blood. 

Pelican Preen

The ferocity of parenthood –  its mindless, intuitive courage, found a symbol on that forgotten, salty day.  Thereafter, in the coiling margins of sacred manuscripts the pelican would nest:  fledglings at her feet,  sprayed with the blood dripping from their mother’s breast.  Devout and sacrificial, she faced inwards, towards a page of biblical and gothic story-telling.

The pelican became known as a symbol of the Passion of Jesus, its purity and feathers drifting throughout St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Adoro te devote”, trapped in frozen carvings  above the hair-shirted choirs.  During this ancient time the world was teeming with mystery, and its creatures lived forever in green myths and legends.  Their songs echoed in empty courtyards.

It lived in bestiaries, where creatures of the earth and of the imagination would lie together in a zoological parable – an ark that floated through literature for thousands of years. 

Love Hurts

It was sewn into a knight’s pennon, flying into the jousting air; it was a sculpture on his helmet:  golden and clumsy.  The pelican mixed into the alchemy of heraldry:  taking its place with lions, leopards, unicorns and oak trees – supporting the shields of nobility.

Noble Blood

 It glittered within jewelry – in baubles heavy with allegory, pearls and rubies. 

Hanging Nest

Elizabeth I wore such a metaphor: a  brooch all but lost in a maze of velvet, diamonds and seed pearls.  Thin, pale, pressed inside a corset of wood, she wore the emblem of love and voluntary pain.

Feeding Frenzy

Nature, in a fit of whimsy, had given the pelican a foolish profile – elongated and unbalanced.  But, as if to make up for her mischief, she gave pelicans the gift of dramatic flight.  Flying across the blue ceiling, they carve black chevrons in the sky…

Shadow Flight

or plunge directly into the water, as if Neptune himself had thrown a noose around their heads and was drawing them into the fishing depths.  They will fly a hand’s span above the waves, riding the maritime currents that held them in a pelagic grasp.

The earliest remains of the pelican are 30,000,000 old.  Ribs and pinions lay flat beneath slabs of shale and amber, the neck curled and broken – the body twisted into a prehistoric coil.  Motionless within the sediment and crumbs of centuries, it held within its bones an ancient story which was told inside books of veiled myth, which flew above fermenting oceans, and which perched on the spavined chest of a Virgin Queen.


The Architecture of History

Every medieval city had its castle – a dense shadow with pennants bearing complex ancestries and windows shaped like black crosses.  Yet at the same time these cities distanced themselves from such symbols with cathedrals.  Reaching high enough to touch the throne of God, built on such a scale that buttresses were needed to hold up man’s holy ambition – they proclaimed a population’s declaration of worthiness and hope for salvation.

The Cathedral of Siena is a 13th century design of pinnacles and portals, of lunettes rising over pediments;  carved with Gothic mysteries and biblical fears and promises.  Granite philosophers, apostles and gargoyles observed from carved recesses the developing city below them; the peculiar route of history it would take.

Beauty and the Bible

According to legend, Siena was founded by Remus’ sons, Senius and Aschius.  When they left Rome, they rode horses that thundered through myth and across the dry plains of central Italy.  The symbolic colors of the city were taken from the flanks of their horses – one black and one white – and are seen on the marble flanks of the cathedral.

By 1263 construction on this monument to belief and legend was finished.  A countryside of domes, towers and columns had finally come together in a Gothic wish for earthly deliverance.  In 1339 further building was planned, which was to begin in 1348.  But it didn’t.  All that remains is a striped shell; there is no ceiling to be carved and gilded;  the windows were not blessed with stained glass:  there were no  miraculous births of colored light.

Siena But Not Heard

1348 was the year of the plague, the Black Death.  What began as a rumor of pestilence fouling the silk and spice routes of China, Lepanto and Egypt, became reality as trade ships came to port in Europe, bearing caches of a ferocious invader.  No one blamed the rats living in the dark corners of the ships.  No one blamed the streets streaming with filth.  They blamed the devil, sowing disease across Europe like an awful crop.  They blamed an angry God, not impressed with their cathedrals.  They blamed the sins of man.  They blamed the Jews.

Siena Cathedral was never finished.  But do the microbes continue to live – taking sanctuary in a web of breathing spaces within the marble?  Are they suspended, caught like tiny dinosaurs in amber?  Do they circulate within the architecture, worlds of bacteria that had changed man’s world – his way of living?   Is it suitable imprisonment – or is it life – or is it proof of  a terrifying history?

I Pity The Dragons

They were never allowed the gift of reality – they never felt the temptations of Nature, the myriad sensations of air and earth.  Trapped inside the imagination of man, they prowled – fiery and lost – throughout the darkness of his misunderstanding and fear.

Imprisoned between bars of Latin, they were held motionless by parchment and vellum, the shredded skins of farm animals.  Their monstrous bodies shrank until they could fit inside a gilded manuscript, wet with jewels and gold.  Their status was degraded until they were nothing more than illustrations, flinching under the ignorant scratch of the artist's pen.

Their jaws were pulled wide, but they were silent, denied their reptilian speech, Their breath, smelling of smoke and cinders, melted into the undergrowth of words and margins.  The hand that fingered the story came away smudged with ink and ashes.

But when the book was set aside, lying open on the ground, it suddenly trembled and stirred.  There was a sibilant ripple through the fragrant grass, a hiss of rebellion.  The words reached in vain:  but their pages were empty.

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Hearts Of Stone

History is an act of remembering.  Sometimes its memories are mad and unhinged.  Sometimes they are as inscrutable as a face in the mirror.  History has lived through some stirring and shameful times.

Over 700 years ago, when dogs rooted through floors made of straw, when plague was breeding in the streets, when teen-aged brides cradled and sang to their babies…history had the nerve to play the sentimental fool.

"Lady, for your love
I join hands and worship you"

Far away from the cities, the fields were laden with sweet scents and ripened with broad embraces.  Buildings were pulled from the dreaming mind of legend and laid on these carpets of gallantry and romance.  On festival days, staged events were prepared on these delicate battlefields – as pretty and false as affection often is – for an assault on a popular Medieval affectation:  the Castles of Love. 

"A fantastic castle was built and garrisoned with dames and damsels and their waiting women, who, without help of men, defended it with all possible prudence."

These fragile houses were an architectural metaphor, built from a bluprint of cloudy and clouded emotions.  They were created for the daintiest of reasons:  to pretend, to act on a wish.  

The castles themselves were embroidered as thickly as a queenly gown.  Draped across the battlements were gold and silver tissue, lavender velvet, silks the colors of a summer garden, tangles of painted bells and tassels.  Dappled hides and skins – mink, rabbit, sable – hung from the windows like a slaughtered forest.  The portcullis was a latticework of roses – a slow-moving prism, from maidenly white to slatternly red.

The ladies were the only defenders.  Armed with baskets of flowers and jewels, they prepared for the onslaught.  Instead of helmets, they wore diamond crowns, velvet caps, feathers that swirled beneath their chins.  Wrapped in an armor of brocade and pearl, of satin and rubies, of linen and turquoise, these maidens were dressed bravely.

The knights were armed with golden keys (to unlock the lady's heart), and sweet gifts of dates, persimmons, apples and pears.  They held amber phials of rosewater, crushed violets and scented powders.  They carried shields bearing symbols of dedication and loyalty; of hearts offered and secrets accepted. 

They brought "all manner of flowers and spices that are fragrant to smell or fair to see."

But who won these bloodless battles?  The historians are never very clear.  When the ideals flew as high as the birds looking down on these castles built for an afternoon, perhaps both sides lost.

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The Terrible Light

There are times when foolishness does not go unpunished.

Many centuries ago the courts of Europe were selfish and lunatic worlds.  They glowed furtively like jewels trampled into the dirt.  Crossed in silver and gold, diseased and pampered hearts amassed their culture, a purchase of eternity.  Greed - ready with its dagger of embroidered steel – hid behind curtains writhing with velvet forests and brocaded gardens.

These worlds glittered with an ugly and magnificent light.  Beauty grew unnaturally out of this darkness, like toadstools.  Tragedy and celebration merged to create a ragged coat of arms, entwined and symbolic.

In 1393 the Valois court in France was an imperfect jewel.  For all its finery, it nursed a single flaw:  its king, Charles VI, known as The Mad.  Doctors nowadays believe that he suffered from a bipolar disorder.  But what then?  Were demons cavorting behind his inofffensive face?  Was his blood different from others' – did it flow thick and turgid like a sickly river?  Was it the devil's trick to corrupt flesh that was so white and meek?

During this time, Charles' reasoning struggled like a trapped animal.  He believed that he was made of glass.  He did not recognize his children or his wife.  He was lost in a brilliant, clouded land; and yet it was his duty to rule a country.

It was in this year that his doctors recommended a program of amusements for him.  So when one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting married, a masquerade ball was given in her honor.  Ladies and gentlemen clad themselves in costumes of myth and falsehood, and the court became a sea of fishes that shimmered with absurdity.

A particular group of men were dressed as 'wild men' – a cross between man and woodland beast.  They wore "costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch…so they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot".  For safety's sake the lit torches were kept a distance away, but a stray, determined spark landed on one of the disguised satyrs.  Fire burst from their dishonest skins and panic – the chameleon of man's fear – adopted the colors of scarlet and black.  This grim incident became known as the Bal des Ardents ('Ball of the Burning Men').


One of these unfortunates had been following the Duchess of Berry in particular.  Now, she threw the train of her gown over him, smothering the vindictive fire.  And when she pulled back the melted tinsel and scorched jewels, she saw the blank, mad eyes of her king.  He stared at her pale, plucked face – looking like a star that had descended from the revolving galaxies and was now hovering over him.  He wondered who she was and what magic she possessed, that could douse the flames of Hell that had threatened him.  He wondered why she saved him from a life of darkness and judgement.

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The Rebellious Daughter

How sullen she looks:  a quiet face posing an adolescent threat.  Perhaps she resents staying indoors – maybe the weather had relented and that long-ago day was sunny and beckoning.  She could feel the sunlight vibrate through the dark walls.  Her limbs itched to run through the fields – long since evaporated into the ground – to live heart-to-heart with the outside world.  Her restive eyes glint to the side, focused in silent indignation.

But the painter was wise enough to let the child fume and pout, rather than leaving his paints – smelling of oils, ground spices and eggshell – to straighten his charge's face into an obedient stare.

She must be 15 or 16 years old – this nameless girl.  The reason for this portrait could be parental pride:  not in a beloved daughter, but in the fact that the family had the means to dress their children well – even the daughters.  Or it could be a bill of sale – a portrait for a prospective bridegroom.  Perhaps this witty girl sensed these reasons and balked at what her parents thought of her and what they were planning for her.

Her forehead has been plucked, as well as her eyebrows.  Her hair is pulled back and lies hidden, like a coiled animal, inside the black velvet hennin.  Her complexion is a frost that has chrystallized on a flower's surface - preserving it forever, while at the same time killing the bloom.  She has been submitted to cosmetic trickeries; but she carries her feminine wiles resentfully.  

It was easy to tell this girl's future.  It was in the narrow shoulders overcome by the brocade grip of medieval velvet.  It was evident in the rich fur collar that parted to expose a child's spotless, androgynous chest.  It could be seen in the withdrawn face, lost in an adult's vision. 

And yet…I can't avoid the coy, slanted eyes that obstinitely refused to look at thte painter; and the firm – almost stubborn mouth.  From a distance of six centuries I hear her clear whisper in my ear, saying, 'I think not.'

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An Illuminating Experience

Before I had even stepped into the room, I heard the noises of its inhabitants.  I heard pages of parchment, stretched from the skins of lambs, being turned.  I heard the creaking of wheels, the straining of wooden ships.  I heard oceans – the waves crackling with electricity.  I heard dragons choking on their blood, and horses bruising the ground with their violent hooves.  What I heard was a menagerie of medieval fact, fable, religion and myth.


What I saw in the room were the dissected pages from The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry.  Taken apart so that generations of profane grime could be carefully scraped away, they had been on display at the Getty Center for several months.  I nearly fainted from delight when I had heard that the 'Beautiful Hours' were coming to the decidedly unclassical West Coast. 

This is an illuminated manuscript – its margins filled with a black lace of vines that sprouted golden leaves and scarlet angels.  Every page was illustrated with scenes smaller than the palm of your hand.  Within the grasp of your fingers were stories of birth and death, scandal and betrayal, boastful riches and quiet poverty.

In the center of each page – like a pool, depthless and dark – were remarkable adventures.  They were populated with saints whose halos shone with a bloody light or kings with robes decorated with emblems and symbols:  branded with their own birthright.  Each vision was so delicate, it could have come from a palette of air.  

Oil painting had been in use for less than a hundred years, but already Paul, Johan and Herman Limbourg had used the mixture to create a masterpiece.  Colored with earthy things – gemstones, turmeric, saffron, ivory, cinnabar and rust – the layers of tinted oil produced landscapes that glistened with life.  From this geology of detail – hoofprints in the dust, silver castles lifted from the powdery dusk – a universe, pure and complete, was born.

When I finally stepped out of that room, I stared at my hands – and imagined the worlds and endless generations that could be held there.

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A Story Beneath My Feet

I recall my visits to England with affection.  My memories are full of architecture – cold bulks that spoke great narratives of vanished generations.  There were museums with jewelry and hummingbird feathers, ivory crossbows, buried ships and silver gowns.  There were books that captured inaccessible decades between linen and paper.  I stayed in old hotels with uneven floors that served afternoon tea and evening absinthe.  I recall ducks, pigeons, swans and white peacocks stalking lawns like irritable clouds.

I remember the castles:  cracked and shattered, their silhouettes created bleak mountain ranges and inspired mad imaginings.  They were broken limbs; remnants of bodies centuries old that still longed to speak, to tell their life stories.

One castle had a story for me, and I almost walked over it.  The castle's name escapes me, but I know that I wandered through its chambers and stood before its tall, yawning fireplace.  I looked down at the stone tiles.  They were smooth and blank, polished by long-moldered slippers embroidered with flowers and birds, spike-toed poulaines and shoes with tips that curled like a scorpion's tail and then were tied to the knee with gold chains.

All except for one tile.  Faintly, like a private message, I saw a gentle design forcing itself through the expressionless granite.  I wonder who else noticed that diffuse etching as I heard it whisper of the muzzled fires that whipped away the cold of an English winter. 

In its prime, when the walls were whitewashed and studded with antlers and quatrefoils, was that single tile one of a vast design of medieval marquetry?  Was it buried under armfuls of dried rushes, scented with a tincture of herb and flower? 

Or was it the air that was sweetened – by dulcimers, lutes and recorders?  Did it feel the softness of woolen hems as the ladies' dresses warmed the carvings of the cold, granite floor?

When I saw that stony wink fluttering up at me; filtering through the decades, full of confidences and histories, I knew that I had found the secret to that castle's life.  I had found its key, right where it was meant to be found, beneath my feet.

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