J. W. Montgomery on Cranach’s Seal

I heard back from the distinguished scholar John Warwick Montgomery on the symbolism of Lucas Cranach’s seal, the winged serpent device from his coat of arms that he used to sign his paintings and that we have adopted as the logo of the Cranach Institute and this blog.  (See the title heading above.)

I’ve now had an opportunity to research this.  I was particularly helped by the wonderful Cranach exhibit last month at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.   The exhibit included examples of Cranach’s coat-of-arms and the exhibit description makes the following point:  “En remerciement de ses loyaux services, Luca Cranach se voit remettre dès 1508 des armoiries, un serpent ailé tenant une bague dans sa gueule qui lui servira désormais de signature.”  [In appreciation of his loyal services, Lucas Cranach received in 1508 (from Frederick the Wise) his coat-of-arms–a winged serpent holding a ring in its mouth–which served from then on as his signature]  We are also informed that in 1537, following the death of his son Hans, Lucas Cranach modified the design of his coat-of-arms, “lowering the serpent’s wings” (Cranach et son temps [Paris: Beaux Arts/TTM, 2011], p. 65).

Viewing the serpent as a dragon, one has a strong tendency to see it as alchemical symbolism.  However, contemporary dictionaries of the subject (e.g., the standard Dictionaire hermetique [Paris, 1695]) and modern authorities (Carl Gustav Jung) present the alchemical dragon or serpent very differently:  as the ouroboros which eats its own tail, or as an uncrowned dragon symbolising the element mercury).
It is therefore far more productive to view the coat-of-arms from a straightforward heraldic standpoint.  Rietstap’s Armorial Général (2d ed., 1884) includes a listing for the Cranachs, describing the coat-of-arms as consisting of a crowned serpent with bat’s wings, holding in its mouth a golden ring with a ruby.  A variant (apparently used by later generation Cranachs) consisted of a serpent surmounting a crown of thorns.
But why the particular symbolism chosen or employed by Cranach himself?  Here, we are strongly warned as a general principle in interpreting heraldic figures to avoid simplistic equivalents or easy allegory.  Symbols are often chosen for aesthetic reasons, not with any attempts at profundity or classical/theological reference.  Emile Gevaert’s marvelous L’Héraldique: son esprit, son langage et ses applications (Paris: Editions du Bulletin des Métiers d’Art [ca. 1920]) offers some assistance.  A serpent can symbolise “prudence” and at the same time “desire” (p. 362).  (Here,  I am immediately reminded of the arms of the Aldine printing house in Renaissance Florence, consisting of an anchor and a dolphin, to carry the idea of simultaneous solidity and progress.  Note also that Cranach’s serpent is given wings, making it not just an earthly beast but at the same time a dynamic, heavenly creature.)  One thinks inevitably, as well, of the biblical reference to serpents as “wise” (Matt. 10:16).
As for the addition of a crown or diadem (uncommon on a heraldic serpent), its presence generally signifies that the arms belong to a “household of eminence”–and “a crown surmounting a figure seemingly indicates a power which the bearer does not derive from himself” (Gevaert, p. 210).  In the case of the Cranach arms, the latter point could remind the observer that Cranach received the grant from his prince–or (since any legitimate coat-of-arms results from a grant and is not the personal creation of the bearer) it might represent Cranach’s Refomation belief that he is saved and receives his talents by God’s grace, not through any personal capacity or efforts on his own part.  The golden ring in the serpent’s mouth could perhaps reinforce this interpretation, since a ring, like a circle, represents eternity theologically, and gold is the colour not just of nobility and richness but also of faith and divinity (= God).  The ruby on the ring could represent “the pearl of great price,” i.e., the gospel.
Beyond this I cannot go.  It would be important to check any surviving Cranach correspondence, particularly in the years surrounding 1508 and 1537, to see if by chance Cranach himself  interprets his coat-of-arms–as Luther does in his oft-quoted letter to Lazarus Spengler  (see my Heraldic Aspects of the German Reformation (Bonn: Verlag fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2003).
JWM

Color photos of the Depression

Go here for a treasure trove of rare color photos of Depression-era America: Rare Library of Congress colour photographs of the Great Depression | Mail Online.

They are of astonishing vividness.  These here folks are my people:

Let us now praise comic books

Nice article about Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, now 88, whose comic book creations such as Spider Man and now Thor, have gone from cheap pulp paper to the silver screen, making him a rich man:

Stan Lee professes no deep and analytical insight into the human soul. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” he begs off. “All I know is, the good superhero movie has got action, suspense, colorful characters, new angles — that’s what people like.”

The rangy 88-year-old — sitting poised against the leopard-print pillows on the couch in his POW! Entertainment office, several days before “Thor’s” premiere — is a natural at delivering the dramatic angle. Asked to strike a towering pose, he springs to his feet and in a blink is balancing with feline ease atop a chair.

Seventy years to the month after the nom-de-toon “Stan Lee” first appeared in a comic book, “Thor” is similarly perched atop the box office. In one sense, the origin story of Stanley Martin Lieber resembles that of the Norse superhero he co-created, only told backward. Thor is to the godhead born until, because of his impudence, he’s sentenced to a mortal existence. Lee was a mere Manhattan comics-industry mortal for decades until, because of diligence and vision, he was elevated to Marvel Comics demigod, creating — alongside fellow legends Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — the likes of Spider-Man and Iron Man, the Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

All those characters have already appeared in feature films, and the latest wave of Hollywood superheroes is gathering force as it rolls in this summer. “Thor’s” domestic opening last Friday will be followed in short order by “X-Men: First Class,” DC’s “Green Lantern” and Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Meanwhile, casting decisions for the next Superman and Batman films — as well as the Spider-Man reboot and the cinematic assembling of the Avengers — have sparked feverish online speculation and reaction.

The superhero film is still as unstoppable and resilient and globally enduring as, well, Stan Lee himself. . . .

“My theory about why people like superheroes is that when we were kids, we all loved to read fairy tales,” says Lee, beaming behind his trademark tinted glasses. “Fairy tales are all about things bigger than life: giants, witches, trolls, dinosaurs and dragons and all sorts of imaginative things. Then you get a little bit older and you stop reading fairy tales, but you don’t ever outgrow your love of them.

“Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” continues Lee, whose voice envelops the listener with a raspy, lilting warmth. “All those things you imagined — if only I could fly or be the strongest — are about wish fulfillment. . . . And because of that, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of vogue.”

via In a superhero-heavy summer at the movies, Stan Lee talks about genre’s appeal – The Washington Post.

When I was a kid, I was a comic book fan.  Comic books taught me to love reading and sent my imagination soaring.  I liked D.C. comics–Superman, Batman, also Flash and the Atom–better than Marvel, whose heroes were too angst-ridden for my taste, but Dell had some good titles too:  TarzanTurok, Son of Stone.  (Somebody should make a Turok movie!  Indians and dinosaurs!)  I liked Classics Illustrated too.  They really did lead me into great literature.   In fact, I see a direct line from my comic book phase to my literary scholarship!  Comics are an interesting combination of visual art and writing.

Does anyone else have any comic book testimonials?

This blog’s new title heading

In the midst of all of the talk about Redeemed Rambling’s critique of the appearance of this blog, the consensus that this blog has a good design really, the addition of Cranach’s seal with its many variations, the minor suggestions that people put forward, and the tweaks that Stewart implemented, commenter Tom Hering–who knows a thing or two about design–was kind enough to design some other possible headings for the title of this blog.  I really liked the one with quasi-medieval lettering and the colorful version of Cranach’s seal.   I also like how it adds a touch of color–antiquated parchment color–without taking away from the clear black on white posts.  So Stewart put it up.

So what does Cranach’s seal mean?  It’s very simple, if we go by the original intention:  It means Lucas Cranach!  The device of the winged serpent bearing a ring is part of his coat of arms, as awarded by Frederick the Wise.   Knights had their coats of arms on their shields, and Kings used them on their royal seals.   The Kings of England had three lions.  The Holy Roman Emperors had a two-headed eagle.  Shakespeare’s was a shield with a diagonal spear, which presumably could be shaken.  Middle class types, such as Shakespeare and Cranach, could be granted a heraldic seal in recognition of their services or contributions, and they were typically very proud of that sign of semi-nobility and used it everywhere they could.  So Cranach signed his paintings with his device, which existed in many different forms, from the realistic to the abstract.  This one has the most artistic elements, in my opinion.

So the seal simply means Lucas Cranach and was the equivalent of his signature.  What is its derivation?  That is another question, which was discussed in last Friday’s post.  Was it a multi-language pun on his name, as one expert suggests?  Was it based on a symbol for artists, combined with one for speed, as another expert suggests, building on Cranach’s reputation as a really fast worker?  Was it an alchemical symbol?  A symbol for redemption?  I don’t know.  I’m waiting to hear from John Warwick Montgomery, who has agreed to weigh in on the matter and who has  published scholarship on how during the Reformation alchemical symbols for chemical transformations were used to symbolize spiritual transformations.

Anyway, thanks to Tom for the design.   How do you like it?

This is the church, where is the steeple?

Steeples and bell towers have gone out of fashion for church buildings, reports USA Today. What hurts is the reason:

Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change. . . .

Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.

Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year. . . .

After three decades of repairing steeples, [steeplejack Michael] Hardin still considers it “a bit of joy to restore something so old and so beautiful and help it retain its integrity.”

The average age of the churches he works on is a half-century. The older steeples, “built with top-notch lumber and a lot of heart,” are holding up structurally, and more often need only cosmetic fixes.

In more recent decades, Hardin says, “church builders went a little haywire. People used shortcuts and cheaper lumber or they moved to the fiberglass steeples that claim to be maintenance-free. And if there’s a problem they stand back and try to get band-aid repairs or they just remove it and cap it off.” . . .

Providence Baptist Church in McLean, Va., a congregation of 450 in the Washington suburbs, managed to get a whole new aluminum steeple and $25,000 annually for its maintenance budget by hopping on the leased-tower trend last year.

Senior Pastor Tim Floyd says the original steeple, moved from the congregation’s first location, was “in good shape, but it was too small for the larger, newer church. And we needed to bring in more money for our maintenance budget. So what could we do? We saw that cellphone companies are using innovative methods, like artificial trees with antennas, to disguise their equipment and bring in cell coverage without unsightly towers.”

Church leaders located a company ready to deal, negotiated the design and “now we have a steeple, hiding two cell antennas, that gives us a really big profile on the horizon. It’s elegant and majestic and a win-win for us,” Floyd says.

It’s also a visual contrast to a massive, modern megachurch across the street that boasts no steeple.

No surprise, says architect Gary Landhauser, a partner with Novak Design Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who worked on nearly 30 churches in past 15 years.

“We have done a lot of church designs, but we haven’t done a steeple design in 15 years,” Landhauser says.

Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”

via Church steeples, aging out of fashion, meet their maker – USATODAY.com.

Architecture, like other art forms, expresses meaning.  Do you know why older churches built steeples?  Why they had bells?  What does it mean that today’s churches tend to use cheap materials?  Why are they being made to look “more like a mall”?  What does it mean when the sanctuary has a stage with studio lights, big speakers, and a drum set?  What do these design features  tell us about contemporary Christianity?

HT: Mollie Hemingway

Analyzing the Situation Room photo

We don’t get to see a photograph of Osama bin Laden’s body, but we did get to see a  photograph of the President and his team watching the mission go down.  It’s quite dramatic to see the expressions on everyone’s faces during this intense moment–the President’s intense stare, the Secretary of State’s hand covering her face (apparently in emotion, though she says now she might have just been coughing due to her allergies).

The Situation Room during the bin Laden operation

The Washington Post features various experts commenting on the picture.  I was especially taken by this one by art critic Philip Kennicott:

At least two basic metaphors of power are at play: being in the room and at the table. Both metaphors expressly exclude us, the viewers of the photo, who are not there, not in the loop. The photograph fascinates because it represents the most basic aspects of political power: knowledge, access, influence and proximity.

The photograph thus puts the viewer in a subordinate position. But the chain of meanings continues at least one more step. The anxiety on the faces shows the degree to which some of the most powerful people in the world can’t control events. They (and their administration) are subordinate to chance and fate, to unknown unknowns and known unknowns.

So the sequence is this: We have less power than they do, and they have less power than reality. The photographer creates a kind of “V” of sightlines to emphasize this drama: We look in from one angle as they look out at another, almost a perfect mirror image.

We enjoy narratives of great power because we have so little power in our own lives over things such as errant buses, disease, death and the vicissitudes of love. The photo reveals that sometimes even people who seem to have invested in them the talent and power to be masters of their fate are frightened, worried, tense and uncertain. And so by excluding us from the world of one kind of power, the photo reminds of a more fundamental powerlessness. It keeps us out of one room but puts us all in another, from which there is no exit.

via Breaking down the Situation Room – The Washington Post.


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