Category Archives: Art History

Nefertiti Everywhere

The past week has seen some active discussion about the bust of Nefertiti, public ownership, and provenance following  the art intervention of Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nicolai Nelles as discussed in articles from HyperAllergic  and the NY Times.

The Other Nefertiti. The scanned and 3D-printed polymer bust.
The Nefertiti bust in the Neues Museum. Creative Commons, photo by Philip Pikart.
The Nefertiti bust in the Neues Museum. Photo by Philip Pikart.










The two German artists covertly scanned the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin. This video shows how the scanner was hidden under Al-Badri’s scarf. They then handed the scans to collaborators who created a 3D file.

In the spirit of public domain ownership and restitution of colonial spoils, the file was released and replicas were made using a 3D printer and taken to Egypt.

 Cultural theft

In the February 26 Hyperallergic piece, Al-Badri is quoted as saying:

Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of important objects can be found in Western museums and private collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic struggles.

Al-Badri and Nelles want us to think about cultural theft, about where an artwork belongs and how it gets to where it is seen.

The Nefertiti bust (1340 BCE) was originally excavated in 1912

It was found in the studio of a sculptor, Thutmose, in Amarna, capital of the pharaoh Akhneten, husband to Nefertiti.

Although the rest of the Amarna collection was shown publicly in 1913-1914, the bust was not displayed until 1924, at which time the first formal description of the find was also made.

The Nefertiti sculpture moved around a lot after the Berlin museum closed in 1939 and was eventually taken west, leading to disputes between East and West Germany.

Despite multiple requests from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities for the bust to be returned to Egypt, Germany considers its ownership legal.

How many Nefertiti? One Nefertiti

There is the historical Nefertiti. Among other things, she and Akhnaten established the worship of a single deity—pretty revolutionary in pantheistic Egypt of the time—and object of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten. Nefertiti was originally thought to have died soon after her husband, but recent finds suggest she survived him and ruled Egypt herself.

The Nefertiti bust is the iconic image of this woman.

Two Nefertiti

A 2009 computed tomography scan of the bust shows a detailed limestone sculpture of a woman with a few wrinkles and small bump in her nose. The thin layer of painted stucco covering the limestone has been characterized as ‘photoshopping’ her appearance.

Three Nefertiti

There have been claims that the sculpture is a hoax, crafted in 1912.

The reasoning is based on the style—with traits similar to the Art Deco movement of the time—and the missing left eye, which would have been considered anathema for Egyptian artists.

Although the pigments have been carbon-dated to be 3000 years old, the ‘forgers’ still could have applied them a hundred years ago.

Four Nefertiti

And then there is the recent reconstruction made by Paul Docherty using multiple high-quality cloud-sourced photographs to map, and recreate, the three-dimensional surface.

The Other Other Nefertiti

So Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the bust and released a high-quality 3D file.

But DochertyFred Kahl, and Cosmo Wenman, and others, have noted the difficulty of completing such a high-resolution scan with the equipment and under the conditions as shown.

For example: the bust is inside a glass box, the scanner requires a power source (which isn’t seen), the low resolution of the scan, and it would be very noticeable if the scanner were raised over the bust given the height of the display case.

The consensus seems to be that the scanning did not lead to the file that has been released, but rather that it is some version of the museum’s 3D scan.

It might have been hacked, stolen, leaked, or something else.

When mentioned, these claims seemed to amuse the artists.  Al-Badri simply replied, “Of course a scan of the same thing looks the same.” Hyperallergic 9 March 2016 

Does it matter?

Al-Badri insists that they made a scan and they released a file. She implies that the connection between the two is a black-box. Their statement is about ownership and colonialism. It is about originals and about culture.

Even those expressing admiration for the unfolding discussion convey some perplexity at this secrecy, especially given the transparent collegiality of the community of experts exploring public domain objects.

What is an original?

Al-Badri and Nelles propose that a copy should reside in the Neues Museum and that the original should be in Egypt.

Would that matter?

The power of an original comes from knowing that there is only one. In the case of cultural artifacts, there is the thrill of knowing that it is ancient.

Because of my inordinate fondness for medieval manuscripts, it is not rare that I find myself looking at a copy at a museum. Like the Beatus in the Girona Museum.

But paper is particularly fragile and books were not made to be held open for display. Perhaps stone sculptures like Michelangelo’s David  or Nefertiti’s bust are less vulnerable.

What is more important, originality or ubiquity? 

With the knowledge of the British Museum, Wenman scanned and printed a head of Selene from the Parthenon in 2012.

From a world of multiplication of images, where Malraux’s museum without walls has expanded almost exponentially because of the internet, The Other Nefertiti and works such as those of Wenman, Kahl and Docherty, carry us into a world of multiplication of objects. A tactile expansion made possible by technological breakthroughs that seemed science-fiction to non-experts even five years ago.

Wenman proposes in his piece on The Other Nefertiti: 

The world’s back catalog of art should be set free to run wild in our visual and tactile landscape, and whether it turns up lit in pixels on our screens, rematerialized in our living rooms, or embedded in our architecture or clothing, it’s all to the good.

Of printing presses and 3D printers

As a reader, talk of originals makes me think of the restricted access to books in the historical past, where manuscripts and incunabula were relegated to monasteries and libraries. It reminds me of  how the printing press turned the written word from magic to commonplace.

The analogy may not hold water, but I do wonder:

Is the experience of an art object lessened by the existence of multiple copies or is the world richer for the increased exposure?

On letting go and choices: Calypso the concealer

But it was I who saved him […]

I fed him, loved him, sang that he should not die

Nor grow old, ever,

Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Brooding, Odysseus looks out to sea. Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus Calypso tells Hermes about saving Odysseus from shipwreck. After Odysseus has spent seven years on her island, Ogygia, Hermes has come with the message from Zeus that she must let Odysseus go.

Despite the lush beauty of the island and the option of an eternity sharing the bed of a goddess, Odysseus pines away, longing to return home, to Penelope, to rocky Ithaca.

Calypso provides the tools for Odysseus to build a raft and food for his voyage. Like Circe, the other seductress, she gives him directions and insight into what he might expect: namely, continued danger at the hand of Poseidon, god of the sea. After all, Ogygia is an island.

Odysseus will gladly will undergo another baptism through salt, another storm at sea, another shipwreck, to return home.

Odysseus cannot escape Ogygia without Athena’s intervention

While Poseidon is visiting Ethiopia, Athena seizes the opportunity to tell Zeus that it is time for Calypso to let Odysseus go.

Could Odysseus, man of a thousand schemes and devices, not build a raft earlier? Apparently not. He had sunk into apathy, victim to a deep depression. Any potential escape is hidden from him.

Perhaps because Calypso is the concealer. Her very name announces it: from the Greek kalyptein “to cover, conceal.” After the visit from Hermes, she tells him that she has no more spells.

Ogygia is a liminal place

Like the Castle of No Return in Blancaflor, Ogygia is on the far far side of a great sea. It is not of the real world and it is not a place the gods want to visit. Only Hermes, the messenger god, will travel there, but not willingly.

It is another Lost Island. As Eva Brann explains: it is the absolute “address unknown.” Robert Graves suggests that Ogygia is under the same spell that cloaks Morgan le Faye’s Avalon and other fabled lands of eternal youth.

He goes on to say that Ogygia is death: its alders and cypresses representing resurrection; its fields of parsley, associated with Persephone, symbol of mourning and of letting go.

Caves of immortality and of death

Calypso’s cave is mentioned almost every time that she comes up in The Odyssey.

The other cave in the story is that of Polyphemus, where Odysseus and his men are held prisoner and some meet their deaths. Polyphemus, a barbarian, violates the Greek compulsion of hospitality. Odysseus must use his considerable skills to save himself and his remaining men.

Not looking very reluctant. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus reluctant? Ogygia also seems terribly crowded. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Calypso, by contrast, is the personification of hospitality: not only does she treat him like a god, she offers him her bed and eternal youth.

Looking for Ogygia

Ogygia lies to the west but its actual location is source of much controversy. It could be as close as Ionia, Gozo (the largest island of Malta), or as far as the Strait of Gibraltar (Perejil Island, another place that is neither here nor there) or even the Atlantic.

Plutarch proposed that Ogygia was a five-day sail west of Britain in the Irish Sea. It could even be America.

Looking at the images of Mediterranean candidates, one wonders whether Ogygia could be anywhere. Or nowhere.

Neither here nor there. Betwixt and between. Not of mortal men nor of the gods.

Odysseus chooses to leave, he chooses to die

Before he leaves, Calypso offers Odysseus eternal youth one more time. Life without death, in an island separated from all that is human, all that decays and ages, all conflict or strife.

Odysseus chooses mortal life, that is, to die. He chooses suffering.

Odysseus explicitly acknowledges that Penelope is but a shade beside Calypso. But Penelope is the woman he loves.

Double standards and the other woman

Following the wittingly named  Accidental Pornomancer trope, Odysseus spends time with not one, but two beautiful goddesses: Circe and Calypso. According to tales composed after the Odyssey, he fathered children with them.

Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Penelope must deploy her wiles to fend off the suitors.

Calypso angrily mentions another double standard among the Olympians.

You hate it when we choose to lie with men.

The gods seduced, or raped, many mortal women, but when the goddesses fell in love with men, they were punished. Calypso reminds Hermes that Zeus tends to kill the mortal lovers of goddesses.

But perhaps, the greatest punishment is that Odysseus doesn’t choose her. That she has ceased to please him. Like Medea’s Jason, he is done with the woman who saved him.

Suzanne Vega’s lovely song ends

I do not ask him to return

I let him go

What do you think? Is Calypso the other woman? Is Odysseus victim or seducer, hero or fool? 

Janus and attending the start of all things

In Fasti, Ovid’s poem about the Roman holidays, and consequently of Roman religion, he introduces Janus, or Ianus, the Roman god of doorways and gateways, with:

Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year

Unlike most Roman gods, Janus has no direct Greek precedent. Joseph Campbell suggests that Janus may be rooted instead in the animistic forces of the home or lars.

It doesn’t take my shelf of symbol, myth, and art history books, nor hours of searching through scholarly articles, to see the power of a deity of gateways.

But I looked through them anyway.

An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.
An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc.  During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.

And though the basics- gave the name to January, has two faces (sometimes four), beginnings and endings, Roman not Greek- were consistent, Janus turned out to be a somewhat cryptic deity.

Janus tells Ovid he was once called Chaos

This implies that he brings order from that Chaos. In Roman liturgy, he was honored before all other gods. He is the god of all that begins: day, month, or year.

By facing backwards, he holds in his hands the beginning and the ending of all things. Janus is reminder that nothing starts without something else ending, that no door opens unless another is closed.

Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Rome had many ceremonial gateways with symbolic entrances and exits. The double doors of the Janus Geminus, mentioned in Ovid’s poem, were left open during times of war and closed during times of peace.

Open in war and closed in peace?

No, it doesn’t make much sense, and it’s a point of discussion for scholars. The most credible explanation, from Rabun Taylor, is that Janus read the auspices.

A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE. It says PACE P R TERRA MARIQ PARTA IANVM CLVSIT S C and shows the Temple of Janus with ornate roof decoration, latticed window on the left and with a garland hung across the closed double doors to the right. BNC 319. BN 73. Cohen 146. RIC 438. WCN 419. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.
A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE, showing the Janus Geminus with closed double doors. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.

Divination in Rome was based on signs from the gods as to whether an action should be performed or not on a given day. Corresponding to the etymology of the word auspice (which means to look at birds), it was through the flight of birds, and lightning, that the gods spoke most frequently.

Who better to observe the flight of birds than one who can look in both directions?

As Taylor notes, the taking of auspices was almost continuous in time of war, making it necessary to consult the shrine of Janus, the Janus Gemini.

Janus is a liminal deity

A god of transitions, he was consulted before all others precisely because he provides passage to the other gods and to the the omens and signs that allow future action. Taylor notes:

As an arbiter of spatial transitions, Janus was more than a mere gateway. He determined human endeavors as well as space.

At once he looks to the past and to the future- in time, and inward to the home and outward to the other- in space.

His function at the gateway is not to protect, as would an apotropaic figure, like the Medusa. Rather it is to observe and to know. Janus contains within the past and the future, the inside and the outside.

Our calendar starts in January, in midwinter

As Janus tells Ovid:

Midwinter’s the first of the new sun, last of the old

Janus means that beginnings are necessarily born of endings. The year doesn’t start in spring with new growth, trees budding, and birds hatching. The year begins in winter, when it is still cold and nature is dormant.

This choice of new year is not universal.  Calendars have been drawn from the sun and from the moon. The start of the year varies from autumn through spring. How we attempt to contain and label time into a calendar speaks of the world that formed our cultures, our religions, and, ultimately, to politics and the pace of an increasingly connected world.

And so the year starts

The augurs in Rome observed the flight of birds as auspices or omens.

We’re already entering the second half of the month. New Year’s resolutions lay behind us. Recaps of 2013 are even further in the past. As for me, I didn’t complete my overview. I haven’t set new goals.

But Janus is always present, at the beginning of every day, every week, every month.

So it is always day one, moment one. It is always time to look back. We can erect an imaginary gateway anywhere, a place to look inside and outside. It is always the right time and place to be alert to the signs, to the omens.

We can start every day, everywhere.

In fact, we have no choice but to do so.

An epiphany (or two) in a Medieval cloister

Monday was January 6, celebrated in my native Spain as Reyes, the day of the three kings or magi or wise men. Children traditionally receive gifts on this date, known in the Roman Catholic calendar as Epiphany.

The cloister: in Tarragona's Santa Maria cathedral.
The cloister: in Tarragona’s Santa Maria cathedral.

Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, means manifestation or making an appearance 

In a Christian context it refers to the recognition of Jesus as son of God. (For the Western church this recognition was the acknowledgement of wise men from afar: the Adoration of the Magi. For the Eastern church it was the baptism in the Jordan River.)

An epiphany with a small “e” is a sudden realization or moment of revelation. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this meaning appeared in the late 19th century.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of the word– from the manifesting of the divine to a realization.

It seems to refer to the illogical non-linearity of the creative process. An epiphany does not result from step-by-step progress, but lands like a lightning bolt. Not quite the same as a divine manifestation, but similar in its unpredictability and “other”-ness.

Revelations or when the divine enters the day-to-day

Although not religious, I’m drawn to how stories are told through images in religious art. The representation of scenes in which the divine enters everyday life are particularly fascinating. How to show a burning bush? An angel speaking to a maiden?

In my hometown, Tarragona, the Romanesque cloister has two depictions of the Adoration of the Magi carved in high relief on capitals atop columns, dating from sometime between the late 11th and mid 12th century.

Picture 027 copy_small
The wise men on their way to Bethlehem in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Stylized images from the early Middle Ages

Medieval art doesn’t aim for realistic depiction of the natural world but to convey a message, to tell a story. It is usually formulaic. There is an economy of elements (no extra characters or scenes) and a hierarchy of size (no ambiguity as to who is more important). For example, in the two capitals here, the horses have to be there to express the travels of the three kings, but they are far too small for their riders. 

Both capitals show the same characters in two scenes. One face of each capital shows wise men (with crowns) in transit by their horses, and the other presents a single wise man with Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the background. The star shines above Mary and Child.

The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.
The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Telling a story with pictures

The first Epiphany, E1, is on the central column of the door to the cathedral and has suffered very little erosion. The second Epiphany, E2, is on a gallery column and is damaged, likely explaining the missing wise man. The author of E2 is probably responsible for many of the capitals with stories in the cloister.

Mary as Throne of Wisdom

In a common representation of the early Middle Ages, Jesus sits in the lap of a crowned Mary as if she were his throne. This form aims to present Christianity as the universal religion to which all nations will pay obeisance.

In E2, Mary holds a scepter ending in a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily),  conveying regal authority and referring to her purity.

In E1, Jesus raises his right hand in blessing. Mary, the Child, Joseph, and the two wise men that are still on the road face forward. Only one character looks at an element in the composition: the wise man who half-kneels, offers his gift, and looks towards the Child.

A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.
A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.

The two wise men in E1 are jiving

In E1, the two wise men lean to their left, as if dancing. This slant is reinforced by the beardless king pointing to the star, in a line parallel to the back of the kneeling wise man whose body is in the next frame. The horses’ heads fall in a countering diagonal.

The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.
The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.

In E2, the Child reaches for the gift- and you feel his weight shift

In E2, the Virgin gazes down at the Child, who leans to take the gift from the kneeling king, who, as in E1, looks upward. From behind Mary’s left shoulder Joseph also watches the Child. (Like many a picture of new parents.)

The two views of Epiphany use formula to convey majesty, but also show humor and affection

For me, more than eight centuries after they were created, the humor of the dancing kings or the humanity of the leaning Child win out over the majesty and intended message. In fact, the Tarragona cloister sculptures have puzzled scholars as the artist(s) unexpectedly omitted or added figures or gestures to standard scenes.

I was not that sculptor’s primary audience, but his work continues to speak, reminding me that creating is often about knowing the script– and then riffing on it. Hmm, that probably defines being human.

Happy new year!

Who’s telling the story? The Homeric question (s)

Not THIS one.
Not THIS one.

We all learned in school that Homer is author of The Odyssey and The Iliad, the two oldest extant works of Western literature. However, since the two poems were born in an oral tradition, it’s not at all clear what that actually means. Ergo, the Homeric question.

Who’s the storyteller?

Homer has intrigued scholars since antiquity. In the 1st century CE, Plutarch gave ten possible cities as his birthplace: Salamis, Cyme, Ios, Colophon, Thessaly, Smyrna, Thebes, Chios, Argos, and Athens.

The very name “Homer” has been plumbed in the hope of clues. Some note similarities to the word for captive or hostage, suggesting that prisoners, or their children, who could not be trusted on the battlefield would be assigned the task of memorizing the songs of heroes.

This one. 2nd century BCE Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic marble bust of Homer, from Baiae, Italy in the British Museum. From Wikimedia Commons.
This one. 2nd century BCE Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic marble bust of Homer, from Baiae, Italy in the British Museum. From Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm, do you really want your prisoners of war telling your history? Of course it might explain why the Greeks don’t appear very heroic in The Iliad

Others interpret Homer’s name to derive from a word which could mean saga, or collection of tales. Some note that it means sightless.

By the way, besides the possible etymological link, the main evidence for Homer being blind comes from the blind singer Demodocus in the Odyssey, at the court of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric epic poems were sung

The epithets used in description, like Odysseus the cunning or the wine-dark sea, and the ubiquitous scenes that follow a fixed form, such as banquet scenes, are commonly used in the oral tradition.

Epithets play many roles: to aid in memory, to characterize and add vividness, and very importantly, to enable the oral poet to adhere to the line length required by meter.

So, there’s widespread agreement that the poems are rooted in the oral tradition.

But was their composition textless?

Some scholars, as represented by Martin West, say that a single author pulled together different oral pieces and reworked them in writing. They believe the poems are too complex and too consistent (for the most part) for wholly oral composition. Since a scribe would be unable to keep up with the singer at his usual speed, even transcribing the songs would be challenging.

Reconstructed Mycenaean helmet made from the ivory of boar tusks in the Museum of Athens. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Others, such as John Miles Foley, believe not only that the poems were composed orally, but that they cannot be understood in any other way. This conclusion is based on copious research in the oral tradition, especially in the Balkans, where singers of long epic poems could still be found in the early 20th century.

It is also possible that an oral poet learned to write and put it down.

It has long been suggested that The Odyssey was written by a woman. Recently, Andrew Dalby used arguments about women’s roles in language and story-telling to propose that The Iliad  was as well.

Statistical analyses of words or letters seem to support single authorship for the poems.

A Phoenician bowl with a hunting scene from 8th century BCE, similar to the description of Achilles’s shield in the Iliad. In Walters Art Museum. Source Wikimedia Commons.
A Phoenician bowl with a hunting scene from 8th century BCE, similar to the description of Achilles’s shield in the Iliad. In Walters Art Museum. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Mysteries remain

The experts tend to agree that four hundred years transpired between the fall of Troy around 1250 BCE and the first possible transcription of the Iliad. That period has been called the “Dark Ages.”

No single climatic or historical event can explain the collapse of the Mycenaean culture nor that of other complex societies. In fact, the decline may simply reflect a lack of archeological remains.

Homer described with great detail objects from both Mycenaean times, such as the boar tusk helmet, and from the 8th century.

Careful studies to date different parts of the poems only confuse matters more as the references from different periods are blended. The combination supports the idea of the story constantly being recreated. Though at some point, probably when it was written down, it took a form similar to what we know now.

Ćor Huso Husović

Foley tells us of a famed singer, called a guslar, mentioned by the Bosnian poem singers to the field anthropologists and linguists: Ćor Huso Husović. This master-singer was the source of all the best songs and singer of the largest repertoire. Very stout and tall, he traveled from town to town on horseback and was still spry at the age of 120.

Although different researchers independently heard of the fabled guslar, and though they tried to track him down, they never found him. As accounts were compiled, it became evident that it amounted to a tall tale: each singer was aligning themselves with the ultimate fictitious master, a legend.

Interestingly, Ćor means one-eyed.

We still don’t know if there was a Homer 

For a non-expert reader, the Homeric question seems like a snake chasing its own tail, since our best, if not only, clues about Homer come from the stories themselves.




The fall of the Land of Cockaigne: a tale of two blues

Four horses were standing in the yard threshing corn with all their might, and two goats were heating the stove, and a red cow shot the bread into the oven.

This surreal excerpt comes from the very short Tale of the Land of Cockaigne  from the Grimm Brothers. There is no plot, simply a recitation of preposterous scenarios.

It s obviously a tall tale, one where the storyteller is self aware, breaking out of the story to ask:

            Have I not told enough lies?

The Land of Cockaigne, a Medieval theme

The Land of Cockaigne, of Plenty, is an Upside Down World.  The established order is subverted: animals do the jobs of peasants, the clergy are punished, the poor are idle and fat. Like El Dorado, it is a land of riches untold, with an added element of humor and the grotesque.  Unlike El Dorado, it remains firmly ensconced in myth and metaphor.

Pieter Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne (1563). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Brueguel the Elder’s 1563 unflattering but humorous portrayal of the Land of Cockaigne is combined with Flemish proverbs. He also makes a humorous and satirical  commentary on the failed revolt against the Spanish in 1560.

The idea of the Land of Cockaigne is found throughout Europe: the Italian Cuccagna, Spanish Cucaña, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland.

A proposed origin of the name is from the Pays de Cocagne

The southwestern region of France around Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassone is still known as Pays de Cocagne. It was home to the production of the most valuable blue in the late Middle Ages: pastel. The cocagnes (in French) were the round balls of paste formed after grinding the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

The traditional process to obtain blue from Isatis tinctoria included two fermentation processes and took over a year. The first fermentation process was accelerated by adding urine. (Natural dyeing processes release ammonia, an early example of noxious industrial emissions. Queen Elizabeth I forbade woad dyeing within five miles of her residences.)

Panoramic view of the hôtel d’Assézat. Construction started in this Renaissance palace in 1555. It now houses an art museum, the Fondation Bemberg. Source by Pom2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The period between mid-fifteenth and mid sixteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Pastel, and led to the construction of Renaissance mansions in Toulouse, such as the hôtel d’Assézat and Beyron.

In search of blue: a costly color

Chaucer mentions three core plants for dyers: woad (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow). Woad, in the cabbage family, grows throughout Europe. Dyed fabric has been found in burials since the Iron Age (1st century CE).

Julius Cesar’s claim in The Conquest of Gaul that the inhabitants of Britain painted their faces blue has been interpreted to explain the name of the Picts. However, it seems unlikely that he is describing the Picts nor that woad was used as body paint.

Dyes for cloth made fortunes in SW France

The region’s climate and soil were ideal for woad cultivation and it was widespread already by the XIIth century. Initially centered in Albi in the 14th C, the shift to Toulouse enabled meteoric expansion.

The banking structure was better able to manage the risk associated with the time lag between planting and dye production.  The Garonne also provided a good means for export north and east.

Like so many booms, the pastel economy fell sharply. Many reasons have been proposed to explain the decline in the 1560s. These include a lack of investment back into the industry and dubious practices (adding chalk to the paste). Two years of heavy rainfall with abundant but low-quality harvests wreaked havoc on the pricing. The already precarious trading routes were severely disrupted by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the easy access to indigo almost made pastel obsolete.

A color found in snails and leaves

The dye chemical produced from the lengthy and smelly procedure to produce pastel is indigo. It is also found, and in greater concentration, in the tropical indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria, from the pea family and native to Asia and India.

Indigo or indigo derivatives are also produced by several snails. In fact the chemical behind the famous Tyrian purple (great animation here) is di-bromine indigo.

Indigo in the left hand, woad in the right. From the blog Root Simple.

The ancients that knew both woad and indigo considered them completely different. Woad led to a different color, probably because the pastel technique didn’t lead to pure pigment. The components of red and yellow add a richness, a shadow to the brighter indigo blue.

Indigo, the devil’s dye

Although indigo had long been known in Europe, it arrived via overland spice caravans in such low quantities it could not compete. However after Vasco de Gama opened the maritime trade route, the Portuguese were importing it in large quantities by 1516.

This led to great consternation in France, Germany and England where the woad industry was a cornerstone of the economy. Its use was punishable by death in France and Germany into the XVII century.  Britain initially also forbade the use of indigo, but by 1634 indigo was one of the mainstays of trade of the East India Company.

Although indigo was cultivated in Spanish and French colonies and in South Carolina in the XVIIIth century, Indian production eclipsed all other sources.

Blue military uniforms

Napoleon tried to revitalize the French pastel industry, establishing an academy and using it for his uniforms in the early XIXth century. However, at the fall of the empire in 1823, indigo took over.

The color blue continued to play a significant role in French military uniforms during WWI with a shift from the bright indigo blue to a lighter shade after high death tolls.

The development of synthetic indigo in 1893 led to the end of large-scale indigo production, but not before the oppressive conditions of indigo plantation workers played a role the independence movement in India.

Today woad is used for its pigment and for medicinal purposes

Natural biodegradable pigments have gained in allure beyond craft dyers. Bleu de Lectoure is researching cultivation and extraction techniques, as well as applications for a sustainable activity. The medicinal properties of woad, long used in traditional Chinese medicine, are also under investigation.

Blue is always with us

It is obviously questionable to aspire to a Land of Cocaigne as there is no free lunch (an expression not shown explicitly in Bruegel’s work). But this story of blue shows that color transcends any sense of frivolous decoration.

It has the power to build empires and to bring them down.

Beauty or the beast: multiple faces of Medusa

Mosaic from a Roman villa in Spain of ~250CE, now in the Tarragona Archeological Museum. Source: Ophelia2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Gorgon, Medusa, was known for her petrifying gaze. That mortal power continued after Perseus beheaded her so Athena used Medusa’s head on her shield.

Of course, there are multiple versions of this story, which continues to evolve today

In some versions Medusa had two immortal sisters, though for some (undisclosed) reason she was not. Daughters of primordial sea gods, they had long claws, fangs or tusks, and hissing serpents for hair. Their bulging eyes could turn a person to stone.

For some scholars the Gorgons represent the ancient matriarchal religions which were overthrown by the Olympians

In other versions, Medusa was a mortal girl who consorted with Poseidon, in some stories willingly. Athena retaliated by turning her into a monster.

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Enter Perseus

Her fatal run-in with Perseus occurred when a king who was courting his mother asked him to bring the Gorgon’s head as a banquet gift.

Though Perseus was a son of Zeus, he wasn’t known for any skill at that time, so Hermes and Athena took pity. Hermes gave him a curved sword and Athena a shiny reflecting shield.

They sent him to the Graea who knew the location of the Hesperides, nymphs from the western lands, who in turn knew where to find Medusa.

Lots of eyes in this story…

The Graea were three old women, sisters and daughters of the same primordial sea gods. They had one eye and one tooth between them- which they shared, like sisters do. When Perseus held the eye ransom, they told him what he wanted.

Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of her son Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hesperides really set him up

They not only gave him directions to the faraway land of the Gorgons, they provided winged sandals for faster travel, a satchel to carry Medusa’s head, and a nifty cap of invisibility.

According to some stories, Medusa was asleep when Perseus arrived, which pretty much rendered her harmless. In any case, he didn’t look at her directly but used the shield to see and cut off her head.

Her sisters woke up and went after him, but Perseus donned his cap so they couldn’t see him. The sandals ensured a speedy exit.

According to some accounts, he rescued his future wife Andromeda on his way home, but others say it happened later.  But when he arrived to the court of the king, he pulled the Gorgon’s head out of his satchel and turned the pesky king and his guests to stone.

Then he gave Medusa’s head to Athena. She added it to her shield. Some say it was actually Zeus’s shield, but she used it more than he did.

Apotropaic images and symbols ward off evil

By using Medusa’s face to defend herself, Athena appropriated her power.

Images of frightening animals or creatures have long been used  to protect from evil, especially at doorways and windows. The eye is often used as an apotropaic image.

And there are so many references to vision in this story: the look that petrifies, the shared eye, the use of a mirror to see safely, escaping by becoming invisible.

What better defense than Medusa’s eyes?

Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.
Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.

Beauty or the beast?

Medusa often appears in the guise of a monster, while in other cases, like in Cellini’s Perseus, her features are human.

One interpretation is that this corresponds to an evolution through  time, from monster to maiden.

However, as noted by Kathryn Topper, some vases from the 6th century BCE show Medusa as a sleeping maiden. She suggests that these depictions of Medusa are telling a slightly different story in which Perseus is no hero.

And sometimes the shield has a Medusa that isn’t a Medusa

An incomplete relief of Minerva (the Roman version of Athena) from 300CE is found on the Roman walls of my hometown. Minerva stands in profile, her large shield before her. The shield holds no Medusa, but a wolf’s head.

The wolf was a sacred animal for the Iberians that lived on the Mediterranean coast of Spain when the Romans arrived. It represented strength and valor.

The Romans knew all about appropriating the power of those that came before

More recently, fashion designer Gianni Versace chose an image of Medusa as the logo for his company.  

And thus throughout history, symbols are repurposed. Their meaning evolves, but more slowly than their power wanes.

Where and what is El Dorado

In his poem El Dorado, Edgar Allen Poe gives its location as

Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow

Which doesn’t help very much

But the directions followed by explorers in their search for the legendary El Dorado, a supposed city of gold and riches beyond belief, weren’t much more specific.

The Cadillac El Dorado was at or near the top of the line for Cadillac after it was introduced in 1952 until it was discontinued in 2002. Photo by Bill Mitchell, 1971 model via Wikimedia Commons
The El Dorado was at or near the top of Cadillac’s line between 1952 and 2002. This is a 1971 convertible. Photo by Bill Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons

El Dorado is an excellent example of an evolving myth, growing and metamorphosing over time. Its allure is fueled by gold and our fascination with it. With gold of course, we find greed.

The search for El Dorado is a tragic one

It led to the devastation of entire civilizations at the hands of the Europeans, sometimes purposefully and sometimes through the inadvertent spread of disease. Evidence is growing that, prior to the arrival of the explorers, missionaries, and colonists, both the spare highlands and the thick jungles were in fact densely populated, with urban centers and complex engineering.

The cost wasn’t negligible for the seekers either. For over three hundred years, scores of expeditions organized by Spaniards, English, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch often ended in death.

We learned things also: while searching for El Dorado, Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire length of the Amazon river in 1541.

A twisting spreading myth

The origin of the El Dorado myth is commonly attributed to stories of the Muisca in eastern Colombia. At the death of their ruler, the next in succession would enter Lake Guatavita dusted in gold. Jewels and gold objects were then thrown into the water.

The Muisca raft from the Museo del Oro, Banco de la República in Bogotá, Colombia.

This exquisite Muisca raft, found in 1969 within a clay vase in a small cave south of Bogota is dated between 600 to 1600CE. For amazing close-ups go to the Laboratorio Imagine (Universidad de los Andes).  A beautiful 3-minute video the from Smithsonian shows the lost wax method used to make it.

There was also the story of Manoa, a city of gold on the banks of a huge lake (of the same name) with beaches of gold-bearing sand, described by a delirious Juan Martínez on his deathbed in 1531. The lake was apparently source to a river flowing into the Orinoco from the south .

And there were the rumors of a wealthy city to the east of the Andes, to which the Inca rulers had fled from the Spaniards.

Gold objects found among Aztecs and Inca fueled the El Dorado myth 

The Spaniards sent so much gold and silver back to Spain that it destabilized the European economy, and served to fund the global empire of Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.

The tradition of working with gold in the Americas goes back to at least 1500 BCE, when strips of gold foil were placed in a burial in Andahuaylas in Peru.

Gold was important to pre-Columbian civilizations, but interestingly not as currency. The few functional objects that have been found are heavily decorated and in a burial context. The value of gold was as symbol of the divine. It conferred rank to leaders and priests. Gold objects speak of ritual, of the supernatural and of transformation.

Tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper with a low melting point, was widely used. Applying an acid to the surface of a completed piece dissolves the copper, leaving pure gold over a harder alloy base.

Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum

Many pre-Columbian objects are currently featured in an exhibit at the British Museum in collaboration with the Museo del Oro on view until March 2014. Some works can be seen online.

On a quest? Take a map 

Map of Nicolas Sanson, considered father of French cartography (1600-1667) showing Lake Parime consistent with Sir Walter Raleigh’s accounts. Source: Biblioteca Digital Mundial.

Maps are helpful for any search. Maps are also key for control, for access to resources, for power.

But areas of rampant vegetation and dangerous animals, seemingly endless rainy periods, rivers that seasonally flood their banks only to fall back to another course, and extreme changes in elevation don’t lend themselves to map-making.

Sir Walter Raleigh had access to Martínez’s story and was sure he could find the mythical city beyond the Orinoco. He had to turn back because of the onset of the rainy season in his first expedition. On return to England he wrote The Discovery of Guyana, which became the likely basis of the 17th and 18th century maps showing Lake Parime (in Arawak language) or Manoa (in Caribe).

However, there is no vast lake in the region, much less one harboring a city of gold. Alexander von Humboldt proposed in the late 18th century that Raleigh’s sources may have referred to Lake Amuku, which floods in the wet season.

Sometimes a mythical quest is just that

But just as most mythical destinations or objects have multiple meanings among those who seek, quests are usually about more than one thing. Raleigh was probably as interested in undermining Spanish authority in South America and beating the Spaniards to El Dorado as he was in finding it.

It didn’t work out so well for Raleigh. After returning from his second (unsuccessful) expedition to Guyana in 1616, where his son was killed, he was executed by James I.

What’s your El Dorado?

Whether you see it as the search for a desirable unattainable something or as a shameful chapter in western history, El Dorado is recognizable to most.

Do you have an El Dorado? What will you do to find it?


A new galaxy and an old painting tell us about the creation of the universe

On October 24, a team of scientists announced the discovery of a faraway galaxy, called Z8-GND-5296 (Zate for friends). A very faraway galaxy, 30 billion light years away. It’s also quite old, 13.1 billion years old.

Hubble image of Z8-GND-5296. Image credit: V. Tilvi / S.L. Finkelstein / C. Papovich / A. Koekemoer / CANDELS / STScI / NASA. via
Hubble image of Z8-GND-5296. Image credit: V. Tilvi, S.L. Finkelstein, C. Papovich, A. Koekemoer, CANDELS, STScI, NASA; via Science News.

For a little context: the universe is thought to be 13.82 billion years old and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 13.6 billion years old.

We’ve always wanted to know where we are

Our earliest maps were of the stars: Paleolithic depictions of constellations have been found in caves in France and Spain.  Our ancient forebears had only the naked eye to find our place in the sky.

Today’s scientists are increasingly able to see further as the instruments that look into space improve. The “observable universe” extends about 46 billion light years away from Earth. Here’s an amazing 3-D map of our known universe.

The distance to Zate, 30 billion light years, is the furthest recorded so far for a galaxy.

How can Zate be 30 billion light years away if the universe is 13.8 billion years old and nothing travels faster than light?

The short answer is that the universe is expanding. Objects, especially distant ones, appear to be moving away from us. They aren’t. The space between us is increasing.

Having trouble wrapping your head around it? Yeah, me too.

Timeline of the universe, from Big Bang to today. The vertical extent of the funnel is size- which is expanding, and the horizontal is time. Source NASA WMAP site.
Timeline of the universe, from Big Bang to today. The vertical extent of the funnel is size- which is expanding, and the horizontal is time. Source NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Project.

Imagine that Galaxy Zate is on a moving walkway in the airport heading to the gate, while we’re on a walkway to the baggage claim. Zate sent us a paper airplane with a message, but since the distance between us keeps expanding, it took thirteen billion years to arrive.

The walkway is two-dimensional, while space is three-dimensional, and there’s no “center” out of which the universe expands, so the analogy is far from perfect, but it might help.

Did you say that was the short answer?

I did. It turns out that the limitation on objects moving faster than light refers to special relativity, that is to motion through space. There is no such limitation on the expansion of space itself. In case you didn’t click before, for a wonderful, and concise, explanation of the Big Bang and the expanding universe go here.

What can we learn from Zate? 

The new galaxy appears particularly enriched in metals, which result from the formation of stars. Zate is thought to have produced 330 stars with a size equivalent to our sun every year. That’s a hundred times larger than the current rate for the Milky Way.

Zate and galaxies like it are very important to understand the early universe, when it was a mere 700 million years old, when stars and galaxies were being created.

How can you show creation?

Current scientific thought of the evolution of the universe looks something like the NASA schematic shown above.

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise. Source Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons.

Five hundred years ago in Europe, the understanding of creation was largely based on the Bible, but observations also mattered.

A particularly delightful representation of creation is the 1445 panel showing The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo (1400-1482) in the Robert Lehman Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Maker, surrounded by blue cherubim, is in the upper left, pointing to a cosmological representation of the universe as a series of concentric spheres. This is known as a thema mundi, a star chart of the world, where the outer ring holds the signs of the zodiac, that is, the constellations at the moment of earth’s creation.

Earth in the center

As asserted by Ptolemy and adapted to accommodate prevailing Christian thought of the time, the earth is central, fixed and unmoving.  Copernicus didn’t publish mathematical foundations for heliocentrism until 1542, though the work had been written ten years earlier.

The innermost sphere, earth, is brown, and the next three spheres represent the remaining three elements (water, air, and fire in red). These are surrounded by the seven “planets:” the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun (white, with remains of a gilded star), Mars (pink), Jupiter (light blue), and Saturn (darker blue). The “fixed stars” that were thought not to move, including the zodiacal constellations, surround Saturn. Finally, God with the angels is in the celestial orb, outside the concentric circles.

Both Medieval and Renaissance

Laurinda Dixon explains in a wonderful article that the artist broke with medieval tradition by showing the earth as a world map.  Though superficially similar to the symbolic mappamundi of the Middle Ages, closely bound by Christian iconography, Giovanni di Paolo was clearly aware of the latest maps of his time. For example, the map’s top is the south instead of the medieval east and it’s not centered on Jerusalem.

However, Giovanni di Paolo’s map is still symbolic. Eden is located atop the Mountain of the Moon, near the headwaters of the Nile. As in medieval mappamundi, the four rivers of paradise flow from Eden, and can also be seen below Paradise in the Expulsion scene.

Our home. “The Blue Marble,” iconic photograph of Earth seen from the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972.

Where we are remains the same

This Earth. This beautiful planet.  But how we define it varies.

Galaxy Zate can tell us about the first hundreds of millions of years of the universe’s existence. It can help confirm or disprove our understanding of things that are hard to imagine. Giovanni di Paolo’s Creation reflects the knowledge from a time straddling the arbitrary periods of Middle Ages and Renaissance.

We’ve always wondered where we come from and we always will. We’ll never have all the answers, but we’ll keep exploring and asking better questions, and then we’ll tell stories about what we learn.

And in this way, we’ll learn even more.

Arachne’s story, and the stories woven within

To spin a tale… To weave a narrative… These common metaphors spring from the essence of language. The word text comes from texere, the Latin word for weaving. Spinning and weaving go hand in hand with metaphor and storytelling.

Spiders, who weave webs to capture their prey — much as an artist or story-teller aims to capture the attention of the viewer or reader, are the daughters of Arachne, who challenged Athena, the goddess of weaving and wisdom, to a contest of skill.

In his MetamorphosisOvid (43BCE-~17CE) tells us that Arachne, daughter of a humble shepherd and wool dyer, weaved so wondrously that the nymphs themselves came out to watch her work, creating tapestries that seemed alive.

Ah, hubris…

At first glance, the story of Arachne is a cautionary tale of hubris: yet another mortal daring to scorn a god’s superiority and being punished for her arrogance.  Even when Athena appears as an old woman to warn her, a scoffing Arachne re-issues her challenge.

And so the two weavers set to work. Athena weaves the story of her own power, how she prevailed in the naming of Athens, the twelve gods in their glory, and, in the four corners: the dire fates of humans who presumed to confront the gods.

Speaking truth to power

Arachne starts weaving Europa’s rape by Zeus in the form of a bull who carried her across the sea to Crete, a picture so vibrant you can hear the waves and feel the heat from the bull’s flank. She continues with other rapes using deception and force by Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and Chronos.

Athena’s fury in Arachne by Peter Paul Rubens, 1626. Source. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Athena is furious- at both Arachne’s skill and her insolence. She tears at Arachne’s tapestry and loom, raises her hand holding the shuttle, and strikes the weaver three times in the forehead.

For some reason, Arachne now backs down

Perhaps because it’s one thing to best a god and another to be at the receiving end of their wrath. Perhaps because the blows confuse her, or are somehow magical.

Perhaps because she’s proven her point.

Arachne slips a noose around her neck to hang herself.

But Athena lifts her up…

and sprinkling her with poison, curses her and her daughters to live, always hanging, always spinning.

Arachne’s arms and legs shrink. Her hair spreads to cover her body with stubble. Her thumbs stick to her sides and her fingers grow and grow and grow until she becomes a spider.

Enter the spider

Notwithstanding Ovid’s origin story, arachnids evolved at least 400 million years ago. As did Arachne, her daughters spin. They’re not the only ones. Other arthropods (the phylum that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans) build cocoons with their silk- a poetic word for protein fibers.

But like Arachne, who is thought to have invented fishing nets and traps for hunting, spiders use their silk to protect their eggs and as draglines, and also for their webs.

Spider webs do many things

They’re used for courtship, to regulate temperature, and as defense, but mostly, they capture prey. The web has to intercept, stop, and retain the flying insects which make up the bulk of a spider’s diet.

Photo by Luc Viatour /, via Wikimedia Commons.

To meet these needs, spiders produce up to seven different types of silk with diverse properties. For example, draglines and the outer portions of the web are built with silk that matches the tensile strength of steel. The silk used in the web’s center can reversibly stretch as far as rubber.

Spider silk isn’t just hard to break– requiring 7 to 10 times the strength used to fracture Kevlar- its healing and anticoagulant properties have been recognized since antiquity when it was used to bandage wounds .

The interest in medical and military applications comes as no surprise. However spiders are small and produce proportionately small amounts of silk. (Check out this video from the American Museum of Natural History about an amazing golden cloth woven from the silk of a million spiders.)

Instead of leaving their structures behind, they eat their webs to reuse the material. Attempts to “farm” spiders are challenged by their individualism and their tendency to cannibalism when there’s not enough food. Like Arachne, spiders aren’t meek and subservient.

For now, like in the past 400 million years, Arachne’s daughters sit and spin, endlessly building and re-building their webs.

So what does Arachne tell us?

Like spiders re-creating their webs each day, there’s always more to the story of Arachne.  Over the years and the many re-tellings and re-visionings, Arachne’s tale has inspired discussion of arrogance versus ambition, art versus craft, myth versus reality, the teacher-student relationship, and the place of common people and of women.

Las Hilanderas, circa 1667. For a large version. El Prado Museum. Source “The Yorck Project,” via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Spinners (Las Hilanderas), one of the last paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), he takes the role of Arachne, while also using her story to examine these topics.

What is happening and who are all those people?

Good question! Interpretations abound, thanks to the many figures and objects, and the action in a split composition. Initially, the prosaic and unpretentious figures of women spinning in the shadowed foreground suggested a direct representation of the tapestry studio of Santa Isabel.

But then, what about the background? In a brightly lit alcove a few steps above the foreground, a woman presents  a tapestry depicting the rape of Europa while facing an armored figure with raised arm.

In the 40s, Diego Angulo Íñiguez proposed that the painting was the story of Arachne and Athena: the two spinning in the foreground, the punishment in the background. Others have argued that Penelope is in the foreground , or that it represents the tale of Lucretia.

Within the story, more stories

In a feat of meta-fiction that would make Arachne proud, Velázquez seeds the painting with references to art from the past, from the visible whir of the spinning wheel in the foreground (a direct response to the challenge of artists to depict movement as noted by Jan Baptist Bedaux) to the reflection of Michelangelo’s ignudi  in the woman holding the curtain and the spinner in the white blouse.

Arachne’s tapestry in the background is a copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa, part of the Spanish royal family’s collection at the time. Here again, Velázquez acknowledges the masters that came before by making a copy, as Rubens had done years before.

Velázquez goes one step further by placing his copy within a story about paying obeisance to teachers -or not, and about the role of art. He also obscures it with figures, but not so much we can’t recognize the tumbling headlong putti.

And in the foreground, larger than life: the everyday work of spinning women. Ortega y Gassett  said of Velázquez that he managed to

convertir lo cotidiano en permanente sorpresa

That is: He turned the everyday into permanent surprise. In doing so, he showed us that surprise – and beauty and art– is also to be found in the day-to-day.

From Velázquez’s Arachne to today

Arachne will always signify the human desire to excel and the courage to speak out. She also tells us, like her daughters the spiders, of the endless everyday work of making, consuming and re-creating. Invention and re-invention.

According to Ortega, Velázquez discovered that

 … la realidad se diferencia del mito en que no está nunca acabada.

Reality is distinguished from myth in that reality is never finished. 

Perhaps myths are never finished either.