Monday, June 3, 2013

Farewell for the summer!

And so the school year comes to an end, along with the end to this wonderful class involving books, blogging, and the Norns Project blanket itself.

This has been an extraordinary journey for me in so many ways. I have studied the Middle Ages with a new depth and passion, discovered more about the people who built this unique period, and found innumerable ways to take the Medieval lessons I've learned in my coursework and apply them to modern life. Over the winter, I was even able to work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's wonderful Teen Docent Program, which allowed me and my fellow docents to introduce visitors to Medieval artwork on a more personal, hands-on level. I have also had the opportunity to blog on a weekly basis about my coursework, writing essays, posting pictures, and discussing various points of my study. In short, this entire class has been a fascinating and deeply rewarding experience, one that I will always treasure as a memorable part of my senior year and one which will stay with me as I advance to my college studies.

An appropriately summery illustration from a Medieval manuscript
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Beyond academic learning, I have also been able to experience the Middle Ages in a more concrete way as well. My longtime love of fiber arts led to the Norns Project blanket, the beautiful piece of knitting inspired by the Vikings. Made from period-correct wool, worked into designs used by the Medieval Norse, and filled with pertinent mythological and historical symbolism, this blanket has led me to immerse myself tactilely in the Middle Ages.

Since there is still quite a bit left to go, I'll still be working on it over the summer. Please continue to keep up with my progress by visiting my Ravelry project page for the blanket (linked on the sidebar). I will be posting any further notes and pictures over there - I'd love it if you checked in now and again!

And of course, I cannot thank all of you wonderful readers enough for your comments, participation, and most of all the time you've spent reading my posts. Your companionship and encouragement has meant the world to me. Thank you all again, and have a wonderful summer!!!

Another seasonally apropos illumination!
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Claire Graja

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

Lately, I've been reading Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. It's truly a fascinating book, particularly for someone who loves art history as much as I do.

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What I found particularly intriguing, however, was Eco's point that the Medieval concept of beauty was remarkably three-dimensional. Unlike the modern era - where beauty and goodness are seen as often mutually exclusive -  the Middle Ages fostered the belief that beauty was a natural associate of goodness and vice versa.

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Everything that somehow was beautiful was naturally expected to be good, and everything good was seen as beautiful. Even the deliberately ugly images of gargoyles and demons so common to Medieval art were considered beautiful because their hideousness brought about goodness (encouraging sinners to repent).

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It is a fascinating idea, this natural alliance between the beautiful and the good. To us moderns it is especially so, since in our society beauty and goodness are so rarely linked. If something is beautiful - a person, a work of art, even an idea - no mention is made of its fundamental goodness or value. In the same way, if something is good it is not immediately considered somehow attractive.

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This Medieval ideal of course does not deny the fact that good things are often difficult to accomplish or obtain, that the road of goodness can be hard and long, painful and even ugly. What it does claim, though, is that this difficulty is all part of the greater beauty brought about by decent human actions.

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The mind boggles at the idea of what could be accomplished if we adopted these Medieval ideals of beauty in our world. If we believed that beautiful things must also be good, and that good things have their own inherent beauty, what would happen?

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Certainly the environment would be cleaner. After all, could a building be truly beautiful in this light if it destroyed the goodness of nature? Manufacturing practices would be better, too; could a mass-produced outfit really be called beautiful if it was produced in a sweatshop where the goodness of human dignity is silenced? Even mass society would take a turn for a better, as people increasingly considered if a beautiful person was also a good one, or if a beautiful idea had true value.
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It is yet another way that greater study of the Middle Ages could truly affect our society for the better, encouraging us to more passionately pursue beauty even as we more assiduously study its relationship to goodness.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Incredible Female Mystics of the Middle Ages

Recently, I've been reading a number of selections from the works of the Medieval female mystics. I have always loved Medieval mysticism, but only recently have I begun to truly appreciate the women of this movement for the incredible figures that they are.

Hildegard of Bingen
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They were true pioneers for the female race, repeatedly disproving popular male notions of female inferiority. So often, Medieval male scholars viewed women  as purely carnal beings, lesser creatures with little intellectual, spiritual, or personal worth. Despite the true strength of mind and character the more conventional women of the era displayed - even the quiet homemakers and small businesswomen of the Middle Ages led lives that required immense courage - they were rarely taken seriously by contemporary men.

Catharine of Siena
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But these female mystics met - in many cases surpassed - these academic men on their own terms, becoming scholars and thinkers of the first caliber. Besides being a prolific writer, Catharine of Siena worked to end the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy and bring about peace among the Italian city-states. Another influential writer, Julian of Norwich, was among the first females (if not the first) to pen a book in English. Hildegard of Bingen was perhaps the most extraordinary of all, not only fulfilling the role of theological mystic and author but also becoming an accomplished botanist, medical writer, musical composer, poet, and conceptual artist.

Julian of Norwich
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The elegance of their writing alone is remarkable, particularly in an age of relatively few books and even fewer literate woman (Julian of Norwich even admitted to being barely schooled). Yet not only do these women boast extraordinary literary talent, but also exhibit true sophistication of thought in their writing. Fiercely, fiercely intellectual, these women seized the fundamental academic issues of their time - those of theology - and infused them with a powerful majesty, cleverness, and poetry that is unmatched. Consider this eloquent quote from Hildegard of Bingen, a transcription of God's words in one of her mystical visions:

"I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that glows in  the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars."

The Tree of Life
One of Hildegard of Bingen's extraordinary artistic designs
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Most remarkable however, is the fact that despite pursuing a man's ideal of success in a male-centered world, these women never lost touch with their unique female identity. Julian of Norwich summed up this sense of the woman's dignity perfectly, by stating that God's relationship to humans is most like a woman's relationship to her child. Indeed, the word "mother" is found over sixty times in her book Revelations of Divine Love. In one instance, she remarks,

This fair lovely word Mother, it is so sweet and so close in Nature of itself that it may not verily be said of none but of Him; and to her that is very Mother of Him and of all. To the property of Motherhood belongeth natural love, wisdom, and knowing; and it is good: for though it be so that our bodily forthbringing be but little, low, and simple in regard of our spiritual forthbringing, yet it is He that doeth it in the creatures by whom that it is done. The Kindly, loving Mother that witteth and knoweth the need of her child, she keepeth it full tenderly, as the nature and condition of Motherhood will...This working, with all that be fair and good, our Lord doeth it in them by whom it is done: thus He is our Mother in Nature by the working of Grace in the lower part for love of the higher part...And this was shewed in all and especially in the high plenteous words where He saith: It is I that thou lovest.
In a sharp departure from the often misogynistic views held by Medieval men, Julian boldly views God through the female archetype of mother. As a result, she places a tremendous value on maternity and thus femininity. It is but one example of how she and these other extraordinary women consistently championed the intelligence and academic value of women in a time and place where it was so often doubted and stifled.

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Friday, May 3, 2013

On the Unsung Poetic Giants of the Middle Ages (i.e. the Vikings)

So often the Vikings are viewed as ruthless and mindless raiders. And in all fairness, their prowess at pillaging is undisputed both in their own accounts and in the writings of their contemporaries. But this conception of the Vikings as demented, savage berserkers without any sense of morality or culture is simply inaccurate. In actuality, they were a society of admittedly tough-as-nails agrarian warriors who had an uncommonly gorgeous flair for pathos, ethics, and poetry.

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In their hands, poetry becomes so much more than an erudite exercise of words or a messy explosion of sentiment. These are no dreamy-eyed Byrons and Shelleys. The poets of the Viking era belonged to an austerely magnificent tradition that is a far cry from what we consider to be stereotypical poetry. If anything, they're more like the progressive poems of the modernist era with their shared emphasis on constrained, powerful messages and stripped-down, haunting beauty.

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Poetry was the Vikings' battle cry, their victory song, their farewell dirge. The very fabric of the Medieval Norse lifestyle was woven of kennings and rhythmic verse and song. In our time poetry is too often seen as an extravagance, a useless mass of words describing some vague abstraction. But for the Vikings, it was the way that a noble and powerful person expressed him or herself. It is telling indeed that the chief god of the Norse pantheon and of berserker battle ecstasies - Odin, the All-Father - was also the god of poetry. Poems were as much a component of a good warrior as his sword, embodying the same sense of exquisite beauty welded to hard-edged power. The words of the poets were carved in rock, sung in feasting halls, placed into the mouths of their culture's greatest fictional heroes and heroines.

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In parting, here are a few lines from the Volsunga Saga, which I think incorporates some of the most stunning Viking poetry one could hope to read. I've retouched it in a few places, replacing unfamiliar character references with their more generic archetypes, but other than that it is exactly as it was transcribed in the saga. I hope you love this extraordinary sampling of Viking poetry as much as I do!

On bear’s paw
And on the poet’s tongue,
On wolf’s claws
And on eagle’s beak,
On bloody wings
And on bridge’s ends,
On the soothing palm
And on the healing step.

On glass and on gold
And on good silver,
In ale and in wine
And on the witch’s seat,
In human flesh
And the point of the spear,
And the hag’s breast.
On Fate’s nail,
And on the neb of the owl.

…Now you shall choose,
As you are offered a choice,
O maple shaft of sharp weapons.
Speech or silence,
You must muse for yourself.
All words are already decided.

-adapted from The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. Jesse L. Byock.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Knitting + Medieval Irish Art + Yarn

Well, I am sorry for the hiatus! I came down with a horrible spring bug, and have just been feeling too sick to even write a post. I'm back now, however, and very excited to join Ginny at Small Things and my fellow fiber artists to show off the latest work on the Norns Project!

I love the way these grey panels look...

They're so wonderfully striking against the light browns I've been using until now!

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In a few days I'll be back to share more about my Medieval reading, but in the meantime I wanted to share this incredibly exciting piece of news with you.

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Just last recently, Trinity College in Dublin made it possible to view every page of the Book of Kells via computer! Although of course it could never surpass seeing this seminal work of Early Medieval Irish Art in person, this is an exciting way to familiarize oneself with all of the stunning pages.

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And of course, for the knitters/crocheters/weavers among you it provides the perfect opportunity to indulge in this gorgeous yarn named for Kells!

Enjoy your week, everyone!!!

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An Almost St. Patrick's Day Yarn Along...

As usual, we're joining Ginny at Small Things and my fellow knitters for the Yarn Along!

In the realm of knitting, the Norns Project is all ready with its first panel of the fourth ring!

I love the way the shade of grey casts the browns into fiercer relief...

...and can't wait to try some more of the beautiful shades I have awaiting inclusion.

Next week I might even be able to present you all with another completed panel! I'm just delighted with how quickly this blanket is coming together all of a sudden...

For my coursework reading, I took a brief hiatus from Marriage & the Family. Instead, I chose to treat myself to studying an Early Medieval Irish legend - The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu - in honor of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day. As someone who's roughly a fifth Irish, this is a favorite feast day of mine, and one that I thought should be celebrated even in my schoolwork.
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Cultural relevancy aside, I also happen to adore Medieval Irish literature for its own sake. Like Medieval Norse writing, it has a remarkably humanistic element and is written in startlingly approachable prose. I know I've said this ad nauseum, but Early Medieval literature is so fresh and enjoyable to the modern palate. A far cry from the polished Classical masterpieces preceding it and the chivalric works of the later Middle Ages, these early writings throb with an unrivaled raw and fiercely humanistic passion. At the same time, however, they are majestic, deeply psychological, and filled with limitless fodder for serious academic exploration.

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This particular story follows an eternally popular plot - the love triangle - in a pattern very like Tristan & Isolde. At its heart is Deirdre of the Sorrows, a stunningly beautiful young woman who, before her birth, was prophesied to bring about her titular 'sorrows'. Although raised to be King Conor McNessa's bride for the sake of her beauty, she rebelliously falls in love with a young warrior called Naoise. Together with his loyal brothers, the lovers escape the king and evade him for some time. Ultimately, however, the three men succumb to McNessa's wrath and die, leaving a grief-stricken Deirdre in the clutches of the king. After being shunned by his unwilling bride for a year, McNessa vengefully attempts to force on her the warrior who slew Naoise. Desperate to escape this horrific and demeaning fate, Deirdre throws herself from a chariot and so dies.
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Besides being a simultaneously thrilling, enjoyable, and heartbreaking tale, The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu is a testimony to the literary glory of Early Medieval insular culture - particularly in the realm of Ireland. It is an incredible feat indeed for any story - especially one conceived in the so-called "Dark Ages" - to possess such humanity, vitality, power, and beauty. It is more remarkable still that this story has survived the centuries in all its drama, still beloved and revered as a seminal piece of the Irish cultural identity.
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Yet at its core, The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu is a classic tale of those who lived passionately and died violently, loved fiercely and grieved deeply, gambled with fate and lost gloriously. And incredibly, even though its literal events are foreign to us in our streamlined and often bland modern existence, we connect to The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu on multifarious yet equally deep levels. Perhaps that is the greatest genius of the Early Medieval Irish legend - its ability to remain brutally and exquisitely human even when dealing with the most extraordinary circumstances.

To close, I'll leave you with these haunting words of Deirdre as she mourns the death of her beloved Naoise. I have often thought that these broken-hearted verses could well be counted among the most romantic in Early Medieval literature. While no Victorian love poetry or even Shakespearean sonnet, they do possess a unique and undeniable pathos, beauty, and humanity that the aforementioned can scarcely rival:

I loved the modest, mighty warrior,
Loved his fitting, firm desire,
Loved him at daybreak as he dressed
By the margin of the forest.

Those blue eyes that melted women,
And menaced enemies, I loved;
Then, with our forest journey done,
His chanting through the dark woods...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Early Medieval Art Revisited

Just recently I was exploring my academic files and uncovered a selection of small papers on Medieval Art, which I wrote for an AP Art History class last year. I loved that class - it was easily one of the most fascinating I'd ever taken - and it happily included a wonderful few weeks filled with studying Medieval Art. This paper on Early Medieval Art stands out as one of my favorites, so I thought I'd share it with you today. Although the original was in traditional essay form, for the blog version I've added some visual aids of the pieces I'm discussing! Here it is:

     Though traditionally considered rough and uncouth, the Early Middle Ages are in actuality a veritable repository of the finest art. The earliest stylistic periods of this explosive millennia – the art of Migratory Europe and Hiberno-Saxon England – are particularly rich in deeply emotional and unique art. Although a far cry from the traditional beauty of Greece or Rome, these creations possess a unique imagination and passion unrivaled anywhere. By studying one work respectively from the Early Middle Ages' dawning artistic eras – the Migration and the Hiberno-Saxon periods – it can be discovered just how unique and inspiring these works and cultures are.
     After Rome fell, the Western world was plunged into a dark void, where barbarian tribes fought incessantly for control of the orphaned Empire. Infrastructure vanished, and thousands of years of culture seemed to be teetering on the brink of extinction. These tumultuous warlords, however, possessed deep aesthetic riches that were the saving of Western art. This astonishing artistic prowess can best be seen in the Animal Figurehead taken from the mortuary ship at Oseburg, Norway. Created by the Viking culture to adorn the prow of a noble queen’s burial ship, it displays a sophisticated aesthetic amazing for such a warlike race. Here, ferocity is blended with grace in a truly poetic piece. The bulging eyes and frightening snarl of the creature (possibly a dragon or sea monster) is tempered by the mesmerizing interlace of its head and neck. This truly stirring marriage of stark barbarism and sinuous elegance dramatically testifies not only to the artistic prowess of the Vikings and their fellow Migratory tribes, but also to their unique cultural ethos.
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     Slowly, the world began to stabilize itself and the Migratory tribes started to settle down into fairly stable kingdoms. Christianity sprang up in the newfound peace, turning the zealous nature of the warlords to more productive ends than war. Monasteries were founded, and became treasuries of knowledge, music, and art. While classical style was rediscovered and recorded politely, the monks sought to reinvent art using the traditions of Christian Rome and the barbarian North. The result was truly staggering, especially in the British Isles, where Celtic and Germanic culture fused famously. This is the Hiberno-Saxon style and may be witnessed in the magnificent Chi-Rho-Iota design from the Book of Kells. Here, Christ’s Greek initials have been transformed from utilitarian classical letters into gorgeous medieval artwork. Around the three significant letters run ribbons of fascinating designs, intertwining with one another with dizzying grace. The head of a human man rears from one letter, a flock of angels emerges from curls of interlace, every now and then a snarling animal head will appear out of its multicolored nest. The result is truly amazing, and one can only marvel at the sheer imagination and talent it took to create such a work of complex beauty. This monumental page from the Book of Kells reveals much, not only about the aesthetic mastery of the Hiberno-Saxon artists, but also about their culture’s evolving values.
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     These two pieces and cultures – the Migration-period’s Animal Figurehead and the Hiberno-Saxon era’s Chi-Rho-Iota page from the Book of Kells – are true artistic triumphs of their respective eras. Beyond that, however, they also tell the story of their cultures’ unique value systems. The Animal Figurehead was created by the warlike yet intensely poetic Vikings, true representatives of the Migration era. This piece’s landmark combination of a fierce monster with a lilting interlace design truly alludes to the Migration ethos. Though driven by barbarian bloodlust, these artistic warlords also valued the barely recalled fine arts extolled in the previous Roman civilization. In the Hiberno-Saxon period, the dark barbarism of Migration art slowly disappeared. Instead, the pure zeal of Christianity came to add fluid calmness to the tumultuous beauty of the barbarians. In the Book of Kells, ancient Northern images flow beautifully around the classical Christian symbol of the Chi-Rho-Iota. It is a truly intimate declaration that while this new breed of Western men and women were embracing the early Christian era’s majestic religion, they were not going to forsake the wild beauty of their own heritage. 
     From this analysis, it can be concluded that these two pieces are both artistic triumphs in their own right and deeper depictions of their cultures’ unique values. The warlike grace of the Animal Figurehead is not only striking and sinuous, but also a perfect blending of the Migration-era love of warlike conquest and peaceful creativity. In the Chi-Rho-Iota page from the Book of Kells, the Hiberno-Saxon ideology similarly portrays both awe-inspiring aesthetic imagination and a deep regard for classical-era traditions and their own ethnic values. It is then clear that the Early Middle Ages’ first two periods are incredibly remarkable periods artistically and culturally.

I do feel nostalgic for my AP Art History classes...fortunately I'm spending the winter working within one of the finest Medieval galleries in the country, so I'm staying mentally fit for the challenge!

If you're looking to learn more about Early Medieval Art, I could not recommend the Early Medieval Art entries in Gardner's Art Through the Ages too highly. Beautiful textbooks are perhaps one of the loveliest things on earth in my opinion, and this one is of the best quality. I have two copies - an inexpensive older edition I found at a library sale, and my newer edition purchased for the AP exam last year. Both sit in places of honor, where they can be easily referenced or just perused. Whether you borrow yours from the library, purchase it second-hand, or order it from Amazon, I hope Gardner's gives you as much joy as it brings to me!