The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

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Bad Girls: Kiki de Montparnasse

brancusi-rosso-man-ray-05I first learned about Alice Prin, aka Kiki de Montparnasse, while reading Laurie R. King’s novel, The Bones of Paris, a mystery set in 1920’s Paris. Kiki’s story is an intriguing one. She was born in Burgundy in 1901, raised in poverty and poorly educated. She arrived in Paris at age 12, when her mother moved there to find work. Kiki herself worked at a bakery and as a dishwasher, gradually becoming an artists’ model, through which, she said, she had found her “real milieu”. Of Montparnasse she wrote, “People are broadminded and where what would be crime elsewhere is just a pecadillo”. Kiki was no thin little waif; there was meat on her bones and  she was never shy about showing off her face or body. More accurately, it seems, Kiki was never shy about anything; she once landed in jail for slugging a cafe owner and a policeman. She modeled for and provided inspiration todozens of well known artists, and when she became Man Ray’s muse and lover, she quickly became celebrated as a symbol of bohemian Paris.

kiki5b45dWhat makes Kiki a “bad girl” is her refusal to be just another artists’ model, instead deciding for herself what her public persona would be. She performed in short, experimental movies, some of them deemed shocking, and sang risque songs in music halls. She demanded the same sexual freedoms that were granted to men, and celebrated her sexuality. In the hundreds of photos that were taken of her, she stares directly out at the viewer. One of her closest friends was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the introduction to her memoirs, which were considered so scandalous that her books were banned in the U.S. Hanging out with so many major talents inspired Kiki to develop her own creative abilities, and when her paintings were exhibited at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, they sold out on opening night.

As the era of the 1920’s drew to a close, Kiki fell into a long downward spiral, during which substance abuse and addiction would destroy her health. She died in 1953 at the age of 53. As the “Queen of Montparnasse”,  she was a trailblazer in the quest for women’s freedom to live their lives on their own terms.

 

History News: Anne of Cleves Heraldic Panels

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Above is a photo of one of a series of carved heraldic panels that have long been part of the decor at St. Leonard’s Church in Old Warden, Bedfordshire, in the Museum of London, and in private ownership. England. Until very recently, they were all believed to have originated in Bruges, Belgium.

Now David Keyes, archaeology correspondent for the U.K.’s Independent, reports that the panels most likely came from one of Henry VIII’s royal residences, Chelsea Place. Bearing the insignia of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, they were likely commissioned by her to decorate her residence following the failure and dissolution of that marriage, which lasted less then a year. Pleased that Anne did not contest his decision, Henry was lavish in his support of “his dear sister”, as he insisted that people call her. (If you ask me, Anne of Cleves was the most intelligent of the six wives, by far!)

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Articles that belonged directly to Henry’s queens are scarce, which grants substantial importance to these carvings. Very little is known about high status interior design during the 16th century, primarily because only two of Henry’s royal residences survive today. The motifs on the panels represent Anne’s royal heritage, and were probably removed from the house after her death in 1557. It appears that some of the designs were copied for use on her tomb; Anne of Cleves is the only one of the wives to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

It has long been said that Henry took a dislike to Anne immediately upon meeting her, being repulsed by her physical appearance. I’ve always thought that she was the prettiest of the six, as well as the smartest.

 

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Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

View all my reviews

Here She Is —the Real Rosie the Riveter

post updated 4/26/15

This article was originally posted in 2009, and, in light of the sad news of Mary Keefe’s death this week, at the age of 92, thought it only right to update it today. Ms. Keefe is an American icon, and will always be remembered as Rosie. Not a bad legacy to leave !

One of the famous iconic images from World War II is Norman Rockwell’s poster of Rosie the Riveter. The painting, for which now-79 year old Mary Doyle Keefe posed twice and was paid $10, came to embody the can-do attitude of American women whose work helped win the war. Full story here .

post updated 10/1/09

Nathan Hale Homestead’s Great Pyramid – George’s Folly?

When guests exit the visitor’s center at Nathan Hale Homestead, they invariably ask, “What’s that big stone thing over there?” and “Why do you have Thomas Hooker’s bones?” (Thomas Hooker being a founder of CT.) The short answers are, “A memorial pyramid” and “We don’t, it only looks that way.” Wait a minute, a pyramid in Coventry, CT?

Memorial pyramids have a lengthy history, particularly in England, where they, along with various other odd structures, are often referred to as “follies.” The Hale pyramid was constructed in 1938 by the man who restored the house and property of Nathan Hale’s family, George Dudley Seymour. A patent attorney from New Haven, Seymour devoted his life to historic preservation, and while he owned Hale Homestead, he usually summered there, a gentleman farmer reforesting the area and tending to his animals. Among the latter was a cow named Octavia, after a Hale daughter-in-law; for a brief time Seymour ran a small cheese-making business, presumably in partnership with Octavia. His favorite animal companion, however, was a retired war horse named Thomas Hooker Bones. Seymour is pictured above, proudly astride Bones in front of the Hale house. TH Bones undoubtedly enjoyed his peaceful life following his WWI military service, and when his noble, courageous spirit departed this earth in 1937, Seymour decided that Bones was too fine a character to warrant a final trip to the knacker’s. He interred THB right on the historic property, immediately behind the house, no easy task, as a horse is much larger than a dog or cat. And he set about memorializing Bones in a way that not even Nathan Hale received. A few years later, the black dog that can be seen in front of horse and rider is Sheba, and when she died, she was also buried there.

There is a precedent to the story of George’s folly on Farley Down, west of Winchester, England. Erected in 1740 by Sir Paulet St John, this much older pyramid commemorates St John’s horse, who survived a horrific fall into a 25 foot chalk pit while fox-hunting. The horse might have had second thoughts about his good fortune when St John renamed him “Beware Chalk Pit”, but that’s another story. At any rate, Beware’s exploit is commemorated in the shape of a 30 foot high pyramid that still stands today. TH Bone’s pyramid is only half that height, but in the hills of rural New England, is no less a marvel.

TH Bones’ Latin epitaph, extolling his exemplary character:

Post revised 9/29/14.