Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Late Afternoon on Norwich River by John Crome

A late master-work from the great master of the Norwich School of artists John Crome. (1768-1821).

I believe that the Castle Museum, Norwich  acquired this art-work in the 1980's. The vibrancy of colour here is truly amazing; Crome found inspiration from simple urban water scenes. There's a couple of other great works which are located at New Mills, Norwich by Crome just as stunning as this, if less detailed.

By all accounts the rivalry between the Crome family of artists and the Stannard family, notably the brothers Alfred and Joseph Stannard was intense. This was due to John Crome snubbing the youthful prodigy Joseph Stannard's requests for painting lessons from the self-taught master.

Crome himself is reputedly to have uttered on his death-bed something like, 'Hobbema, Hobbema, how I have loved you,' which true or not, reveals the influence which the Dutch 17th century masters had upon the leading players in the Norwich School.

Now here's the puzzle. If this work is dated 1818-20 and Stannard saw it, there may be an artistic pun going on here. For if you take a really close look at the foreground in Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic (elsewhere on this blog) it too depicts a small child trailing a toy boat from the stern of a boat. Is this quite specific allusion by Stannard to this painting  sour grapes or homage or tribute to a late master or self-election to the Mantle of leader of the Norwich School of Painters?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Although many Christians stubbornly refuse to believe it, there is astrological symbolism in the Bible! This is simply due to the fact that the Hebrew people absorbed some of the astrological beliefs of the ancient Babylonian civilization when held in captivity in Babylon. The Hebrew people were liberated by the conqueror of Babylonia the Persian Shah, Cyrus.

Astrological symbolism occurs in the prophet Ezekiel's vision-

As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle
. Ezekiel 1:10.

Its interesting to note that the great winged beasts of the Babylonian are a composite of beasts and human. The better-known Egyptian Sphinx is another example of a four-fold mixture of beasts and human likeness. Saint John in the 27th and only book of prophecy in the New Testament, re-iterates Ezekiel's vision thus-

And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. Revelation 4:7

One notable interpretation of this frequently found symbol throughout various civilizations, notes of its pre-Christian origins-

The Ancients in their wisdom had drawn from the riddle of the Sphinx four basic rules for conduct of human life -knowledge with the human brain; will with the lion's strength; daring (or lifting oneself) with the bold strength of the eagle's wings; silence with the powerful concentrated bulk of the bull.

Although the astrological schemata differs fractionally from the prophet Ezekiel and John's vision in its usage of the far-less well-known creature, the scorpion, to represent one quarter of the 'Fixed Cross' of Astrology, the Tetramorph quarternity is still a remarkable example of syncretism in religion, that is the over-lapping and adoption of one schemata by a differing belief-system.

Often the figure of Christ is depicted at the heart of the Tetramorph, as a Pantokrater, that is, an omnipotent Ruler over All.  The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung explains why-

He (Christ) holds an important position midway between the two extremes, man and God, which are so difficult to unite. ..He is lacking in neither humanity nor in divinity, and for this reason he was long ago characterized by totality symbols, because he was understood to be all-embracing and to unite all opposites. The quaternity of the Son of Man,indicating a more differentiated consciousness, was also ascribed to him (via Cross and tetramorph.
(CW 10:692)

As for whether early Christians knew that John's vision referenced back to Ezekiel which itself originated from Babylonian astrological symbolism; one can only presume it be nothing other than an act of knowingly supplanting one set of religious symbols over another.

It was in fact the early Church Father Saint Jerome who is credited as first nominating the symbols of Bull, Eagle, Angel and Lion to the four Gospel authors.  Jerome's selection of the so-called 'Fixed Cross' of Astrology, (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius) as emblematic 'Logo's' to the 4 Gospels is a superb example of syncretism , that is, how belief systems overlap and are adopted by newer beliefs, often entirely different from their sources.

However, in the final analysis the quaternity symbol the Tetramorph can never be fully explained or exhausted; for as a symbol, it will always transcend interpretative attempts.The original definition of a symbol, as a tally of two halves, helps our understanding here; for Man only ever holds one half of the broken coin, tally stick or object used for identification, recognition or completeness, the other, 'invisible and missing half' of the symbolon, is held by God.

Illustrations from the Book of Kells, circa 8th CE, Babylonian Lion and (top) a 13th CE Ivory Casket

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lady of Shallot

Slowly filling the Aquarium with water!

This time pure gothic fantasy inspired by Tennyson's poem, John Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shallot'. It's the kind of romantic image which as a teenager one enthusiastically frames in dark mahogany, wanting to be devoutly married to and live with every day, after seeing it in all its glory at the Tate.

All reproductions of paintings invariably are pale imitations of experiencing oil on canvas in the flesh; however, one chemical rite-de-passage, long ago, entangled in fascination at its rich detail, I distinctly heard the heavy flap of the gorgeous tapestry, the splutter of a candle guttering in the breeze and caught the zip of a swallow flitting past eye!

From its imposing size and presence in the Tate Gallery, Waterhouse's famous painting is the canvas which launched a thousand adolescent minds to delve further into the Pre-Raphaelite world of an idealized Arthurian world of myth and legend, languid heroines and Victorian social comment. One can almost hear the Gothic lamentations of a chanteuse such as Nico in the air as the heroine glides to a watery death!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Librarian

Finished reading, 'The Magic Circle of Rudolph II , Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague', by Peter Marshall recently. Rudolph II was a great patron of the arts, including the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593); who in turn was an influence upon the Czech animation film-maker Jan Svankmajer; nor forgetting the great Quay brothers and their fabulous film, The Piano-tuner of Earthquakes. Perhaps you get to look like this from reading just a few too many books!


.Just been listening to a recording of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten, which I first heard way back in 1989. It must also have been around 88/89 that  attended the roughly-sketched Glass opera, 'The making of the Representative for Planet 8', which is based upon a novella by Doris Lessing and performed at the Coliseum by the E.N.O. A work which contains some of the motifs of a far better-known composition by Glass, his Violin Concerto (1989). Can't wait to hear it performed at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival by the Russian State Orchestra with the violinist ChloĆ« Hanslip playing.

I was fortunate enough to return to the Coliseum in 2006 to hear and see the spectacle 'Satagrayha', the second in a cycle of three operas Glass composed in the 1980's.The dark colouration of the orchestral tone in Akhnaten is due to the fact that violins are totally absent from the string orchestra. There's a fair battery of percussion instruments and a synthesizer in the scoring though. Now the work sounds not so much of the flesh-pots and opulence of ancient Egypt as of the decade of plenty and excess, the 1980's. Still stirring stuff, especially in the dance sequence and the memorable 'Hymn to to Sun' sung by the counter-tenor Pharaoh. Its text which bears some resemblance to Psalm 104..The sacred text quoted is from the Pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom, and is recited early on in the opera.

Opened are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Clouds darken the sky
 The stars reign down
The Constellations stagger
The bones of the hell hounds tremble
The porters are silent
When they see this king
Dawning as a soul
Men fall
Their name is not
Seize thou this king by his arm
Take this king to the sky
That he die not on earth
Among men
He flies who flies
This king flies away from you Ye mortals
He is not of the earth
He is of the sky
He flaps his wings like a zeret bird
He goes to the sky
He goes to the sky
On the Wind.

In modern times, it was Sigmund Freud who first proposed that Hebraic monotheism may have been adopted by Moses from the 'heretical' Pharaoh Akhnaten; the Egyptian Pharaoh who replaced the crowded pantheon of gods with worship of the solar disc, Aten, the Sun, effectively established the world's first, if short-lived, monotheism. Akhnaten lived circa 1350 B.C but the dates for Moses are far less certain. Some have proposed that Moses lived under the reign of Rameses II but there's good archaeological evidence to suggest that Moses and the Exodus are of an earlier era and therefore acquainted with Aknaten's revolutionary monotheism. Freud's break-away 'disciple', Carl Jung explains the influence Egyptian theology made upon Christianity theology thus-

The Osiris cult offers an excellent example. At first only Pharaoh participated in the transformation of the god, since he alone "had an Osiris"; but later the nobles of the Empire acquired an Osiris too, and finally this development culminated in the Christian idea that everyone has an immortal soul and shares directly in the Godhead. In Christianity the development was carried still further when the outer God or Christ gradually became the inner Christ of the individual believer, remaining one and the same though dwelling in many. - C.W. Vol.9 part 1: 229

The book to read on Philip Glass' trilogy of operas is 'Opera on the Beach', Faber and Faber 1988

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bembine Tablet of Isis

The Jesuit scholar of comparative religion, Athanasius Kircher  (1602-80) was the author of the three door-step sized tomes Oedipus Egypticus (Rome 1652-56) which were a favourite read of Sir Thomas Browne.

Browne alludes to Kircher's vast work which reproduces a copper-plate illustration of the Bembine Table, twice in his 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus

Though he that considereth........ the crosse erected upon a pitcher diffusing streams of water into two basins, with sprinkling branches in them, and all described upon a two-footed Altar, as in the Hieroglyphicks of the brazen Table of Bembus will hardly decline all thought of Christian signality in them.

We shall not affirm that from such grounds, the Egyptian Embalmers imitated this texture yet in their linnen folds the same is observable among their neatest Mummies, in the figures of Isis and Osyris, and the Tutelary spirits in the Bembine Table.

Unfortunately for Kircher's and Browne's Egyptology, the Bembine Tablet has long since been identified as a syncretic Roman work dating from circa 250 CE and its not, as both antiquarians believed, a work originating from ancient Egypt. The best examples of art-work in Kircher's books can be found at this blog-page.

Hazel-nut Vision

I came across a book somewhere (I'll find it soon promise) which proposed that Shakespeare knew of Julian's famous hazel-nut vision because Prince Hamlet alludes to it. There's also the suggestion that Julian was a member of the Beguine order, a continental religious community which had only one Community based in England at Norwich. Finally found the Shakespeare quote of Prince Hamlet and nutshell image!

'O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space - were it not I have bad dreams'. (Act 3: Scene 2).

There's also a Sir Thomas Browne 'nutshell' image, an imagery in essence of essence worth quoting here-

And since instructions are many, hold close unto those whereon the rest depend. So may we have all in a a few, and the Law and Prophets in a Rule, the Sacred Writ in Stenography, and the Scripture in a Nut-shell. (Christian Morals 3:4)
Here's Julian of Norwich's famous 'nutshell' vision-

At the same time, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love. I saw that for us he is everything that we find good and comforting......In this vision he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, 'What can this be?' And the answer came to me, 'It is all that is made.' I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was,'It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God'.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ice Dance

With the World Ice-skating championships on at Turin, Italy, Mar 22-28, I can't resist posting this photo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White (USA)  who frustratingly win Silver medal yet again. I've been following this sport for 25 years now and, like many am puzzled and amazed by the marks sometimes awarded by the judges.

Fast forward to February 17th 2014 Winter Olympics Ice Free Dance, Sochi, Russia.

Thorpe Water Frolic

The masterwork of Joseph Stannard (1797-1830). The Norwich School of painters lost one its greatest artists with his early death.

The Thorpe Water Frolic was an idea of the wealthy merchant Thomas Harvey from his witnessing water-festivities at Venice while on the Grand tour of Europe. Begun in 1824 the Thorpe Water-Frolic attracted crowds of over 30,000 when the population of Norwich was at that time little more than 10,000. A welcome day of rest for the many weavers of Norwich who often worked in cramped conditions, the Water-frolic was enjoyed as a rare day of recreation in the fresh air.

The division of the social classes was maintained throughout the event with gentry and aristocracy upon the left-bank, and workers to the right-bank of the canvas. Harvey who commissioned the painter Joseph Stannard to record the events of the Water-Frolic can be seen standing centre-left as if wading. Stannard has placed himself in the painting wearing red, shading his eyes and looking towards Harvey.

There appears to be several weather conditions depicted in the bright and busy sky-scape. A storm may be just clearing and better weather arriving. In any event its been suggested that Stannard was influenced by the writings of Berchem and his observations upon light and clouds. Stannard had also traveled to Holland in 1821 and and may well have seen the master-works by Dutch painters such as Ruisdael and Hobbema.

Water frolics held a special interest for Stannard beyond the aesthetics and social. He was a skilled oarsman and owned a prize-winning boat, the Cytherea, a four-oared skiff...It was certainly on view at the frolic of 1824, steered by an urchin and rowed by four youths in a uniform of blue-netted waistcoats, scarlet belts, white trousers and yellow straw hats with a laurel leaf and Cytherea in gold...If the Thorpe water frolics were really great pageants , as the Norwich Mercury suggested, and if the multitudes who attended were all actors, then Stannard played his part thoroughly. The Cytherea in 1825 appeared richly transformed:

'its colour is purple; the inside is adorned with an elegant gilt scroll, which completely encircles it; on the back-board where the coxswain sits, is a beautiful and spirited sea piece, representing a stiff breeze at sea, with vessels sailing in various directions, painted in oils are nearly covered with gilt dolphins.....

(from article by Trevor Fawcett-Roper in Norfolk Archaeology 1976)

Swan Lake

Probably the greatest ballerina I've ever had the pleasure of seeing dance is Irina Kolesnikova who danced Odette/Odile in Tchaikovsky's perennial classic, Swan Lake at the Theatre Royale, Norwich in January 2003. I also saw her twice in January 2007 and luckily, have a  DVD of her performance to remember her.

Postscript December 8th 2010 : - There is doubt as to whether Irena will be the principal dancer when Saint Petersburg ballet company visits Norwich in January 2011


With the Vernal Equinox just past love is in the air and spawn is in the water. Ever curious of the natural world Sir Thomas Browne took a zoological interest in the amphibious creature. Of as great an interest is the idiosyncrasy of his spelling!
Froggs taken in the first season of coition containe in their bellies spawne of the same figure and connexure as it appeareth in the water, as may bee discovered in the bellies of the female, which are the greater sex; observable it is how large a proportion the seminary vessels & parts of generation doe make unto other parts, and seemes to occupie the cavity of the lower belly, wherein the testicles are also very conspicuous & turgid in the male.
2 froggs coupled wee put in a cistern of water at the first promising dayes of the spring: wherein they continued just about twentie days, nor did they seperate although in divers dayes the water froze them over, at length the female dyed, the male notwithstanding an hard complexure at least 3 dayes after. In the cisterne more spawne was found then both their bodies wayghed, beside some part remaining in the body of the female, whereof some hanging out discovered manifestly that passage which at other times is very obscure, some remaining in the body more black stiff & clamie.
2 lived coupled the yeare succeeding, 3 weekes, & though frozen mayntained copulation. Remarkable it is with strong complication the male fastneth unto the female belowe the forleggs, & unto what largeness & under a downy black colour like catstayles of the water the thumbs of male froggs doe swell, which wee have not observed in the complexure of the male toade out of the water.
Of this spawne singular uses may bee made in physick, & though for the preservation thereof it may bee only distilled, yet may it bee kept fresh all the yeare under oyle, making choyce of fresh spawne, which will either hold its proper figure or else the black specks subsiding and separating will leave the white & aqueous part entire; the whole masse of spawne may also bee imbibed by bole or frankincense or minium or cerusse incorporated by agitation or subaction.
from British Museum Sloane 1875

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fasciculus Chemicus

Frontispiece to Elias Ashmole's publication of  Arthur Dee's alchemical anthology Fasciculus Chemicus (1651). 

Arthur Dee was none-too-pleased when the inquisitive antiquarian Elias Ashmole published his alchemical writings under a pseudonym only a day after Charles I execution, 31st January 1649. Piqued, Dee wrote to Ashmole-

I am sorry you or any man should take pains to translate any book of that art into English. for the art is vilified so much by scholars that do daily deride it, in regard they are ignorant of the principles. How then can it be in any way advanced by the vulgar? but to satisfy your question, you may be resolved that he who wrote Euclid's Preface was my father. the 'Fasciculus' I confess, was my labour and work'.

Arthur Dee (1579-1651) was the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus, John Dee. When aged 8 he accompanied his father on his peregrinations through Europe. At Prague they were guests of Rudolph I, the great alchemy-loving, Holy Roman Emperor whose court attracted many talents. After enduring fourteen years as Court physician to the first Romanov Czar at Moscow, Arthur Dee  became court physician to Charles I. Sometime after his 14 years in Moscow. Arthur  Dee retired to Norwich, where he befriended Thomas  Browne.

The decade of the 1650's saw the greatest publication of esoteric literature England has ever witnessed. This was due not only to a liberalisation of printing-press licenses during the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-1659) but also to the social and psychological uncertainties which the newly-established Republic engendered. Arthur Dee however was not to witness this surge of interest in esoterica for he died in September 1651. Upon his death he bequeathed several manuscripts and books of an alchemical nature to Browne. A manuscript edition of Dee's anthology is listed as once in Browne's library.

An allusion to the name Ashmole can be seen in the tree and mole in the bottom left corner of the frontispiece which depicts Sol et Luna along with their cheeky off-spring, the trickster figure and emblem of alchemy, Mercurius. The respective left and right side columns  are left - an inventory of the arts and sciences ruled by the goddess Minerva ruler of learning, and right - the instruments of  Mars, god and ruler of strife, conflict and war.

In many ways the publication of Fasciculus Chemicus tested the waters for Elias Ashmole and prepared for the reception, readership and a profitable book-sale of his collection of British alchemical authors, ranging from medieval to contemporary, in the compendium  Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652).

A facsimile edition of Dee's book can be found here

Throughout the 1650's decade many notable first publications on Paracelsus, the Cabala, Hermetic philosophy, alchemy, the Rosicrucians and Hermes Trismegistus were printed. Its worth noting that seven years after Arthur Dee's Fasciculus Chemicus  appeared, his one-time Norwich associate,  Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1658 the very peak year of books printed of an esoteric subject-matter, his alchemical diptych, the discourses, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. 

Finally, it's a curious coincidence worth noting that according to Wikipedia John Dee (b.1527) and his son Arthur, shared the same birthday, July 13th. Thus John Dee was 52 years old when his first-born child Arthur was born !

Adam Maclean's scholarly web-site devoted to the study of alchemy lists the following manuscripts of interest -

573. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1790.
160 folios. Paper. 17th Century.

I. f 1-19v  Spiritual actions of John Dee in Prague 1586.
II. f 22-33  Original papers relating to Dr. Dee's Actions with spirits.
III. f 34-65  Ashmole's observations and collections concerning Dee's magical or spiritual transactions, and collections concerning Dr. Dee, his son Arthur Dee and his associate Sir Edward Kelly. IV. f 68-77  Some of Ashmole's correspondence relating to Dr Dee and his family.

Sea the Stars

Hard on the hooves of Cheltenham Festival, the new Flat season looms. I don't think I will in my life-time ever see another horse like the amazing Sea the Stars who made the unparalleled equestrian achievement of winning in 2009 the following races - the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Derby at Epsom, the Coral Eclipse, at Sandown Park, the Juddmonte at York,  the Irish Champion stakes at the Curragh, Ireland and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, France.

Monday, March 22, 2010


A long-time  resident Shubunkin  of the Aquarium; sadly recently gone.

The city of Norwich has historically the distinction of association with two Christian mystics. Both Dame Julian and Sir Thomas Browne's writings includes imagery of the submarine, that is, life at the bottom of the sea, perhaps because of the close proximity of the North Sea.

Julian’s spiritual meditations in her Revelations of Divine Love lead her to the seabed-

On another occasion I was led in imagination down on to the sea-bed, and there I saw green hills and valleys looking as though they were moss-covered, with sea-weed and sand.

Browne’s underwater image occurs in his inventory of lost and imaginary books, pictures and objects Museum Clausum (c.1675) which includes-

9. A Sub Marine Herbal, describing the several Vegetables found on the Rocks, Hills, Valleys, Meadows at the bottom of the Sea, with many sorts of Algae, Fucus, Quercus, Polyonum, Gramens and others not yet described.

Such matching pieces of imagery could excite a student of comparative religious literature. However, this coincidence of imagery may simply be the result of both Julian and Sir Thomas having a complete knowledge of the Bible.

Julian’s seabed image, which is only in the Long Text, is probably inspired from Scripture; submarine imagery occurs in the Book of Jonah when Jonah is on the seabed, wrapped in seaweed, and in the Psalm which he cites while there; even at the bottom of the seabed God is with Jonah.


The first resident of the Aquarium!

Carl Jung writes-

In astrology, Cancer is a feminine and watery sign, and the summer solstice takes place in it. In Propertius it makes a sinister appearance.

'Fear thou the ill-omened back of the eight-footed crab'. De Gubernatis says: " the crab... causes now the death of the solar hero and now that of the monster". As De Gubernatis thinks, the crab stands now for the sun and now for the moon, according to whether it goes backwards or forwards.

- CW. Vol. 9 : 1 : 605