Monday, July 04, 2016

Peter Rodulfo's 'As the Elephant Laughed'. A Panorama of Evolution

Amongst the varied proliferation of paintings by the artist Peter Rodulfo his As the Elephant Laughed is exemplary of stylistic characteristics encountered in his art. These include- sophisticated draughtsmanship and polished brush-work in conjunction with an industrious creativity and an exuberant imagination, all of which harmoniously unite in Laughing Elephant to produce a key-signature work, richly rewarding to view and well worthy of in-depth analysis. 

Painted in oils on canvas during the winter of 2011/12, and one of his last art-works before relocating studio and home from Norwich to the coastal resort of Great Yarmouth, the foreground of Laughing Elephant (ease of reference title) features titular elephant facing a fox. Above the horizon the brilliant luminosity of a star casts its light upon a vast ocean where a large floating sea-shell supports a youth who stands in an enigmatic pose. The entire centre field of the canvas is dominated by two large, spiral-like waves which swirl and bubble with protozoan life. Two grass-tufted cliffs with homes perched precariously perched upon them frame the canvas on its left and right. The ghostly remains of a church tower, a  dinosaur along with trees caught in a breeze can also be seen, as well as an elderly woman who sits upon a sea-view bench, reflectively looking out to sea.

First impression include a well-balanced and coordinated tonal spectrum, recollecting the vibrancy of the saturated colours of a 1960‘s magic lantern celluloid slide, with a predominance of vivid hues of blue, a colour often linked with spirituality for its association with the sky and heaven. The element of water in various forms is also often encountered in Rodulfo’s art, perhaps from the artist’s familiarity with the world’s seas and oceans as a well-seasoned traveller. Good examples of the artist’s meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the finely-worked detail of a nautilus-shell (top left) as well as in star-light reflected in water.

Detail  - Nautilus shell (top left)
The artist’s ability to create a multi-layered perspective is also evident, through a technical device which not only juxtaposes differing views, in this case a landscape and a seascape, but also in conjunction with a paradox of day-light and night-sky appearing simultaneously.

Like much in Rodulfo’s art, the overall 'mood-music’ of his Laughing Elephant is essentially up-beat, good-humoured and optimistic, yet not without a philosophical dimension, for although relatively small in size (60 x 82 centimetres) its jumbo-sized in artistic expression and interpretive dimension. Through its depiction of a variety of life-forms, marine and mammal, trees, flowers, stars and dinosaur, along with humankind, all seemingly caught in a swirling vortex of life, a receptive viewer is stimulated towards awareness of their own, as well as humanity’s  relationship to Time and Space, Nature and the Universe.

The centre-field of Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant is dominated by two large, swirling spiral waves which whisk and swirl with protozoan life. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, the spiral is an archetypal symbol representing cosmic force and symbolic of the spiritual journey. The spiral pattern is also considered to represent the evolutionary process of learning and growing, it can be found in structures as small as the double helix of DNA and as large as a galaxy. At Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, solar aligned tombs can be seen with complex spiral patterns. Dating from around 3000-2500 BC, these patterns decorate structures which are earlier in chronology than either Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

Rodulfo’s imagery is worth exploring, in particular the two pairs of contrasting mammals in his painting, namely an elephant and fox, along with the human figures of a male youth and an elderly woman.

Detail from Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed

With a friendly, all-knowing eye and grinning chops, Rodulfo’s elephant raises its proboscis trunk aloft, as if trumpeting in laughter, perhaps at human folly.

Almost all symbolism relating to elephants originates from the Indian sub-continent a place where Rodulfo spent a portion of his childhood. In Asian cultures, the elephant is a symbol of good luck, happiness and longevity; its also famed for its memory and wisdom, psychic qualities also attributable to the English physician and hermetic scientist, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) who makes mention of elephants in each and every one of his major writings.

Sir Thomas Browne on the Elephant

In his Religio Medici Browne exclaims-

'ruder heads stand amazed at those prodigious pieces of nature, Whales, Elephants, Dromedaries, and Camels; these I confess, are the Colossus and Majestic pieces of her hand'. [1] 

In his gargantuan encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne considers necks, informing his reader that,

'So have Horses, Camels and Dromedaries long necks, and all tall animals, except the Elephant, who in defect there of, is furnished with a Trunk, without which he could not attain the ground'. [2]

In fact Browne devotes an entire chapter upon the elephant in Pseudodoxia Epidemica discussing its anatomy and refuting the false belief  that it has no joints. It is however, only after informing his reader of ancient world historians who recorded -

‘Elephants have been instructed to walk on ropes, in public shows before the people’, and of that, ‘memorable show... wherein twelve Elephants danced unto the sound of Music, and after laid them down in ...places of festival Recumbency’,

that the learned doctor finally remembers having actually seeing an elephant himself-

‘whereof not many years past, we have had the advantage in England, by an Elephant shewn in many parts thereof, not only in the posture of standing, but kneeling and lying down’.

Browne concludes his chapter on the elephant with the speculation that because they exhibit reason, along with the necessary organs of speech, namely lips, teeth and chops, that elephants, ‘might not be taught to speak, or become imitators of speech like Birds’.[3]

Given the fact that Browne believed elephants could be taught to speak, one may hazard a guess, that if he'd heard of a laughing elephant he'd hardly have been surprised at all !

Late in his life (circa 1673) Browne composed Museum Clausum  a catalogue of imaginary, rumoured and lost books, pictures and rarities, which includes the delightful image of-

An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.  [4]

In contemporary times, the Irish novelist John Banville remarked of the elephant-

‘what amazing beasts they are, a direct link surely to a time long before our time, when behemoths even bigger than they roared and rampaged though forest and swamp. In a manner they are melancholy and yet seem covertly amused, at us, apparently...... If one set out to seek among our fellow-creatures, the land-bound ones, at least,  for our very opposite, one would surely need look no further than the elephants.  [5]

Detail from As the Elephant Laughed'
With its gorgeous russet-red fur, standing alert and looking sly facing titular elephant, the fox is invariably portrayed in world mythology and folk-lore as a cunning trickster-figure, a transgressor who breaks the rules, being at odds with humankind and living upon its wits. Yet in fact the fox shares some characteristics which are associated with humanity being- 

Independent, yet liking company, busy and inventive, yet destructive, too; bold but cowardly, alert and cunning but equally careless, the fox embodies the contradictions inherent in human nature’.[6]

Detail from  As the Elephant Laughed
Centre-stage in Rodulfo’s vision of evolution a mysterious youth stands astride a floating sea-shell. He’s engaged in a complex pose which involves one hand on back of his head and another stretched out, as if shielding his eyes from being dazzled perhaps, in supplication or ecstatic even and is utterly mercurial once identified as a puer figure. In almost all alchemical iconography the enigmatic figure of Mercurius is portrayed as either mirthful and at play, or in the role of messenger and psychopomp to the gods of antiquity. Rodulfo's mercurial sea-shell figure is also a sophisticated, original variant upon the Renaissance artist Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus.

Botticelli -The Birth of Venus (c. 1486).

In stark polarity to this enigmatic, youthful figure there can be seen an elderly woman with grey hair sitting upon a sea-view bench. She’s reflectively gazing out to sea, perhaps reminiscing memories from her past. Rodulfo here seems to acknowledge the longevity of woman, the often unacknowledged power of matriarchy and woman as the true vessel of ancestral memory. In the German polymath Johann Goethe’s drama Faust the hero descends to  the "realm of the mothers" — variously described as either the depths of the psyche or the cosmic womb.

Detail from  As the Elephant Laughed'
This pairing of figures, youth and age are identifiable  as puer et senex, their technical art term, a pairing frequently encountered in both Mannerist art and alchemical iconography representing Youth and Age. Together they symbolize the total length of a human life-span and Time.   

With its depiction of a wide variety of life-forms, manipulation of perspective in order to create depth of field, evocation of movement, featuring a complex pose, as well as inclination towards symbolism, Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant may loosely be defined as Neo-Mannerist, for each and every one of the forenamed techniques, themes and artistic concerns associated with the art-movement of Mannerism, can also be seen in his art. Other paintings which may also be defined as Neo-Mannerist in style and content by Rudulfo include his - The Klagenfurt Altar, Across the Bay and The Visitor

Characteristics of the art movement of Mannerism include variety and multiplicity, unusual perspective, staged and complex poses and utilization of mythological and esoteric concepts. Mannerist art is now recognised as being highly influential upon the twentieth century art movement of Surrealism. Indeed, the early Mannerist artist Arcimboldo (1527-1593) who used fruit and flowers to create bizarre portrait paintings, was described as the “father of Surrealism” by Salvador Dali. Rodulfo also creates his own quite unique ‘double-imagery’ as well as being familiar with Mannerist art in general. In his painting Hide and Seek an elephant is featured as part of a complex 'double-image'.

Peter Rodulfo's Hide and Seek  Oils on canvas 40 x 52 cms. (2015)
A fruitful comparison in technique, imagery and overall imagination to Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant  can be found in the Dutch Northern Mannerist artist Joachin Wtewal’s Perseus and Andromeda (1611). Painted near exact 400 years earlier than Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, Wtewal’s masterpiece is inspired by the ancient Greek myth of the hero Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a dragon; it also exhibits variety, a strongly developed technique, a sense of movement and vastness, unusual perspective, along with featuring a complex, almost contorted pose. 

Joachin Wtewal's Perseus and Andromeda 
A closer analogy to the thematic concerns and style to Rodulfo’s art in general can be found in the paintings of the twentieth century German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) and the British artist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Briefly lovers at the onset of World War II, Ernst and Carrington utilized highly-developed techniques and artistic devices similar to those associated with Mannerist art.  Both artists also occasionally allude to esoteric and alchemical concepts in their respective paintings; and although Rodulfo himself eschews any credence whatsoever to esoteric arcarna, nevertheless casual allusions to esoteric concepts can be discerned in his art, both conscious and unconscious.  

If however any esoteric themes or imagery can be detected in Rodulfo’s art, in all probability its simply because archetypal imagery is often embedded at an unconscious level in the psyche, and therefore the artist’s own encounter with such imagery may paradoxically and simultaneously be both conscious from familiarity and also unconscious in realization.

Crucially, although Rodulfo has on occasions found Classical mythology inspiring, more often his imagery is harvested from his own, home-grown plantation of symbols, producing a rich, allusive language, capable of expressing profound psychological statements. Its an imagery language which in the case of Laughing Elephant, engages in transcendental synthesis, that is, the total sum of its parts hints of a greater vision, one of evolution and humanity’s place within it. Its also a stark reminder in essence, with its depiction of dinosaur and abundant protozoan life, that humanity is only one of nature’s innumerable life-forms alive on Earth, in the past, present and future.

Just as Mannerist art was a product of Renaissance humanism and therefore inclined towards emphasis upon the relationship between humanity and nature - so too Neo-Mannerist art such as Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, expresses the same message. 

Although enjoyable purely as a colourful and fun decorative art-work, the central ‘message’ of Rodulfo’s panorama of life seems to be - all life is involved and inter-connected in evolution, from flower and tree to star and human,  individually and collectively; and as such its ‘message’ is of importance to those alive in the world today.

Part 2
As the Elephant Laughed      Click to enlarge

An increasing interest, acceptance and understanding of alchemical concepts and symbols now permits esoteric concepts to be applied, not unlike the famous melting watches of Salvador Dali, in a, ‘soft and flexible’ way, that is, without any fixed or dictator-like attitude, to works of art, including Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant. One fruitful avenue of enquiry worthwhile strolling down in discourse upon Laughing Elephant can be found in the lyrics of the multi-media artist David Bowie (1946 - 2016). 

In addition to being a highly original song-writer and versatile performer gifted enough to work in diverse musical genres for decades, David Bowie was also a voracious reader. Throughout his long, front-running career in music, Bowie found recreation in reading spiritual and esoteric literature including the subjects of Christian Gnosticism, Alistair Crowley, the Kabbalah and the writings of the psychologist Carl Jung, subjects which he sometimes alluded to in his strikingly original lyrics. [7]

Like David Bowie, Peter Rodulfo’s also an artist who thrives upon rapid stylistic changes, as well as being erudite whilst maintaining his independence in creative aesthetic. He is also familiar with esoteric concepts, in particular the ideas and writings of Alistair Crowley (1875-1947), a major figure in British esotericism whose present-day reputation Rodulfo accurately assesses as one of character-assassination through the prudery, prejudices and misinformation of the British tabloid press of Crowley’s day. 

David Bowie’s allusion to the ideas of C.G. Jung can be found on the  album with its word-play title, Aladdin Sane, (1973) in the song Drive-in Saturday  in the line - ‘Jung the foreman prayed at work’, a word-play allusion to Jung’s fixation upon the number four or quaternity as the number which he believed symbolizes totality and wholeness best, citing the four points of the compass, the four seasons, four elements and the Christian tetramorph among numerous examples, as expressions of totality.

Whether intentional or not, Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant features no less than four mammals - an elephant and a fox, a youth and an elderly woman. Together the polarised figures of elephant and fox may be considered as having a relationship to the youthful figure astride a sea-shell and the elderly woman contemplating the sea, that of anthropomorphic aspects of the human psyche. All four mammals in totality form a Jungian quaternity no less; for once the polarity of the figures of youth and elderly woman are identified as symbols representing Youth and Age, (technically known as puer et senex in both Mannerist art and alchemical iconography and commonly associated with the planetary symbolism of Mercurius ei Saturnus), then the pairing of the utterly antithetical fox and elephant may also hint of planetary symbolism when explored through the prism of comparative religion and mythology. 

In Hindu mythology the elephant's thick, grey skin is likened to the latent and hidden power and strength of the sun when occulted by thick and heavy grey cloud [8]. Such symbolism is highly suggestive of the elephant's s association with the solar.

In almost all world mythology and folk-lore the fox with its nocturnal activities and changeable nature is associated with the feminine and the moon. The fox’s feminine and deceptive qualities are reflected in the anima projections of  rock-music lyrics such as  Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’ and Jim Morrison’s song ‘20th century Fox’. Thus its possible to extract from Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant a planetary quaternity consisting of Sol et Luna in conjunction with the pairing of puer et senex (Youth and Age) which are invariably represented by the planetary opposites Mercurius et Saturnus. This planetary quaternity of two luminaries and two planetary opposites, is identical to those named in the German alchemist Michael Maier’s book of Mannerist styled emblems Atalanta Fugiens (1617). The very same quartet of planetary symbolism is allude to by the quartet of statuettes found upon the funerary monument known as the Layer monument (c. 1600, Norwich).  

Yet even in the ecstatic rubedo moment depicted, there’s a hint of a curtain ready to fall and in an instant black-out Rodulfo’s vision of the inter-connection of life, and for a cyclical return from rubedo revelation to a nigredo state of darkness, gloom and unknowingness. This return to a nigredo state is hinted by a spectral church, perhaps an allusion to the death-throes of Christianity in the 21st century, to houses perched precariously upon cliffs, and above all, by a raven seen entering in full-flight intruding into the frame. (top-right). 

Birds and avian symbolism in general often occur in the surrealist art of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, as well as in alchemical iconography where the black raven, dove, eagle, white swan, peacock, pelican, phoenix and vulture among others, are frequently encountered. Birds can also be seen in several of Rodulfo’s paintings, sometimes making a nuisance of themselves by playfully intruding into the frame of a well-ordered composition, quizzically eye-balling the viewer.

In the early 17th century alchemical anthology the Theatrum Chemicum  a black raven settles upon the stomach of a melancholic adept who is is under the influence of rays from the malefic planet, Saturn.

An Elephant in the Garden

Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant has a remarkable affinity with another great art-work which also expresses itself in a lighthearted, optimistic and idiosyncratic, yet visionary manner, and which likewise delights in multiplicity and variety, as well as concerning itself with evolution and the inter-connectivity of life on earth, namely Sir Thomas Browne’s Discourse The Garden of Cyrus

Although differing in form, Browne’s hermetic discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) shares the same geographical place of origin to Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, namely the city of Norwich. Not only does it make specific reference to a wide variety of life, including those depicted in Laughing Elephant such as trees, star-fish and seas, but also elephants, when Browne cites the quincunx pattern as a battle-formation which effectively, 'defeated the mischief intended by the  elephants’. 

Browne’s Garden of Cyrus, as Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant is in essence an idiosyncratic, artistic vision of the inter-connection of the cosmos. Although separated by centuries, both works of art delineate nature’s multiplicity and variety throughout the macrocosm. Crucially, both creative artists possess the necessary technical skills of their respective craft in order to construct a communicative frame-work for their vision of evolution. Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus like Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant is a work of art which expresses an awareness and a sense of wonder of the artist’s own unique place in the world, as an individual and as artist. Ultimately, both works of art engage in transcendent synthesis, that is, the total sum of their imagery and symbolism multiplies into a greater vision, one of evolution and humanity’s place within it.


Not only are all four elements represented in Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant  via fish and bird, tree and star, but also imagery allusive to the Microcosm and Macrocosm, with its depiction of  the small world of humanity represented by a mercurial youth and a matriarchal senex, as well as the large and cosmic, the Macrocosm; thus it may be be interpreted as a mandala, that is, a work of art which invites contemplation, reminding and refreshing the individual of their place in the cosmos. Together, microcosm and macrocosm, in conjunction with the metaphysical framework of Space and Time, the basic template of all mandala art, can be discerned within the canvas.

The art-historian Arnold Hauser defined Mannerist art as, ‘a vision of a new spiritual content in life, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse’ [8].

Hauser’s definition is applicable to Browne’s Garden of Cyrus as much as Rodulfo's Aquarian-tinted vision of evolution. Indeed, visionary art, such as both Browne's and Rodulfo's invites a receptive viewer to a cosmic ‘soul-journey’ of the imagination.

Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant a highly-crafted composition. Its a canvas involving a multi-layered perspective which is capable of producing a transcendent or numinous moment, transporting a receptive viewer from the ordinary and mundane, to a place where imagination is unconfined, and where future possibilities and unrevealed relationships are found.

K.Faulkner 2012-2016

In Memorium  David Bowie (Jan 8th 1946 - Jan 10th 2016)
Starman singer and song-writer, actor and multi-media performer.

With thanks to Krzysztof Fijalkowski


[1]  Religio Medici (1643) Part 1 Section 15
[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica  (1646) book 7 chapter 15
[3]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) book 3 chapter 1
[4]  Miscellaneous Tract 13 Museum Clausum pictues Item 13
[5]  John Banville ‘The Sea’  pub. Picador 2010
[6] Dictionary of Symbols ed.Chevalier and Gheerbrant Penguin 1996
[8]  De Gubernatis, Angelo - Zoological Mythology (Volume II)  1872. 
[9] Arnold Hauser -  Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art 1964 


Mannerism - John Shearman Penguin 1967
The Alchemy of Paint  - Spike Bucklow pub. Marion Boyars 2009 reprinted 2010 and 2012.
Arcanum 17 - Andre Breton 1945 pub. Sun and Moon 1999

See Also

Rudolfu's Mandala of Loving-Kindness

Monday, June 06, 2016

Paracelsus on the interpretation of dreams

Although the alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) is credited as the first to advocate chemical processes in order to obtain new medicines to alleviate diseases and illnesses, he remains a controversial and little-understood figure in intellectual history. It was during his life-time, that of the Renaissance, that new discoveries in almost every branch of the arts and sciences occurred, including the 'discovery' of the psyche.
'The Renaissance study of nature included the study of human nature. Christian theology however did not always possess a clear-cut view or answer to the many new spiritual and psychological concerns experienced by those living during the Renaissance era. Dissatisfied with Christian dogma, alchemists, many of whom were physicians, augmented concepts originating from the western esoteric traditions of alchemy and astrology with their own home-grown schemata, neologisms and symbols, in order to express their understanding of the psyche. Symbolism originating from western esoteric concepts, enabled alchemists, in particular Paracelsus, to discuss topics considered to be near heretical to the inflexible dogma of Christianity, namely, the components of the psyche, and the development of individuation.' [1] 
The rich and complex symbolism of alchemy contributed to the Renaissance 'discovery' of the psyche and the embryonic origins of modern-day psychology no less, although it was not until the early 20th century that the unconscious was identified and named as such by Freud. The hitherto hidden workings of the unconscious psyche could be revealed, Freud proposed and demonstrated, through an in-depth analysis of an individual's dreams. 
The English alchemist-physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) was a critical follower of Paracelsus who also held a deep interest in dreams and the workings of the psyche. In his short tract on dreams Browne expressed a highly-evolved theory of dream interpretation which anticipates Jungian psychology-
"Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense & mystery of similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional depends, may by symbolical adaptation hold a ready way to read the characters of Morpheus." [2]
Both Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne can justifiably be identified as Ur-psychologists who anticipated the analytical methodology of Sigismund Freud and Carl Jung for Paracelsus, like Freud centuries later, considered dreams and their interpretation to be the 'Royal road' to understanding of the psyche. He also recognised the supernatural element of dreams, and that their interpretation is endorsed in the Biblical stories such as Joseph successfully interpreting the Egyptian Pharaoh's dreams. 
Paracelsus wrote the following extracts on dreams and their interpretation -
"The interpretation of dreams is a great art. Dreams are not without meaning wherever they may come from - from fantasy, from the elements, or from another inspiration.One can find something supernatural in them. For the spirit is never idle. If the earth gives us an inspiration - one of her gifts - and if she confers it upon us through her spirit, then the vision has a meaning.
"Anyone who wants to take his dream seriously, interpret it, and be guided by it, must be endowed with "sidereal knowledge" and the light of nature, and must not engage in absurd fantasies, nor look upon his dreams from the heights of his arrogance; for in this way nothing can be done with them. dreams must be heeded and accepted. for a great many of them come true.

"For the most part presentiments appear in man in so unimpressive  a form that they are ignored. And yet Joseph discovered in his sleep who Mary was and by whom she was with child. And because dreams are not sufficiently heeded, no faith is put in their revelations, although they are nothing other than prophecies.......

"The wise man must not neglect them, but recall that Christ too appeared in invisible form and was ridiculed. If he understands that inconspicuous things must not be ridiculed but judged with wisdom, he will also know Christ. The scoffers have no understanding, but the wise possess the knowledge that God has conferred upon them.

"The dreams which reveal the supernatural are promises and messages that God sends us directly; they are nothing but his angels. His ministering spirits, who usually appear to us when we are in a great predicament......Of such apparitions we must know how they take place and how they come to us; when we are in great need, we can obtain them from God's kindness if our prayer pours in true faith from a truthful mouth and heart. Then God sends us such a messenger who appears to us in spirit, warns us, consoles us, teaches us, and brings us His good tidings.

"From time immemorial artistic insights have been revealed to artists in their sleep and in dreams, so that at all times they ardently desired them. Then their imagination could work wonders upon wonders and invoke the shade of philosophers, who would instruct them in their art. today this still happens again and again, but most of what transpires is forgotten. how often does a man say as he wakes in the morning,  " I had a wonderful dream last night," and relate how Mercury or this or that philosopher appeared to him in person and taught him this or that art. but then the dream escapes him and he cannot remember it. However, anyone to whom this happens should not leave his room upon awakening, should speak to no-one, but remain alone and sober until everything comes back to him, and he recalls his dream. [3]


[1] The Layer Monument: An introduction and interpretation as an alchemical mandala  K.Faulkner Pride Press 2013

[3] Paracelsus Selected Writings edited with an introduction by Jolande Jacobi Princeton University Press 1951 

See also

Wikipedia on Paracelsus  (This entry - begun by a Wikipedia contributor who has also been active for over 13 years, has on average 700-900 views daily)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Purple Rain

On Saturday 16th October 1646, purple rain fell upon the city of Brussels. It flowed through the city's rivers and canals to the astonishment of its citizens, many of whom imagined it to be blood or wine and a God-given judgement upon Brussels. At a nearby monastery monks collected a sample in a barrel. [1]

The scientist Godfroy Wendelin (1580-1667) visited Brussels in order to investigate the event. Wendelin was recognised internationally as an astronomer and in his lifetime he corresponded with leading European scientists, including Mersenne, Gassendi and Huygens.

Wendelin's treatise 'On the Cause of Purple Rain in Brussels' (De Causa Pluvia Purpurea Bruxellensis) contained findings which tried to explain the phenomenon of purple rain in terms of natural causes such as chemistry rather than theological, and as such his book is important in the history of science. In addition, the treatise contained discussions of other astronomical issues, including a defence of the theories of Copernicus. A crater on the moon is named after Wendelin.

Wendelin's treatise of scientific journalism, listed as once in Sir Thomas Browne's library, is testimony to both how the Norwich-based scientist kept well-informed upon contemporary scientific discoveries throughout Europe, and how he was fascinated by anything of an unusual nature. Browne's edition of Wendelin's 'On the cause of purple rain in Brussels' [2] was in all probability swiftly purchased upon its first publication in 1647 by the Norwich early scientist. It became available translated from Latin to English, several years later, in 1655.

Browne himself has a place in the history of British meteorology. In 1667 he wrote upon a dark thick mist which affected East Anglia and Holland for several days. His miscellaneous writings also include an account of a violent thunderstorm in Norfolk which produced fire-balls. Browne's own major work of scientific journalism Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was translated into several European languages and reprinted no less than five times with amendments in its author's life-time. 

Several centuries after the event of purple rain falling upon Brussels, the American singer/songwriter Prince (1958- April 21st 2016) had a big hit in 1984 with a song entitled 'Purple Rain'. Whether Prince ever heard of the meteorological event of 17th century Brussels, its not known and sadly, with his premature death, may now never be known; it is however, a curious coincidence of  recorded event and  lyric imagery !


[1] Renaissance Meteorology : Pomponazzi to Descartes
Craig Martin 2112 Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore

[2] 1711 Sales auction catalogue edited J.S. .Finch pub. Brill Leiden 1986
Entry - De Causia Pluviae purpurea Bruxellinis  - Brux. 1647
page 26. no. 140

See Also

Sir Thomas Browne: Miscellaneous writings

Account of a thunderstorm               Upon the dark, thick, mist

Friday, March 18, 2016

Thomas Rawlins

Among the many unsung treasures in Norwich's three dozen medieval churches there are an extraordinary variety of well-executed and beautiful funerary monuments. These include the seventeenth century monument to Christopher Layer at the church of Saint John the Baptist, Maddermarket, and those to Sir John Suckling and Robert Suckling at Saint Andrew's. A number of splendid eighteenth century funerary monuments, in particular those by the sculptor Thomas Rawlins (1727-1789) can also be seen in Norwich's medieval churches.

Thomas Rawlins died on March 18th 1789, 227 years ago today. Although from a humble background as the son of a weaver, he was trained by a London sculptor, speculated to have been Sir Henry Cheere. In 1753  Rawlins advertised himself as a carver and mason of monuments and chimney pieces, both ancient and modern. He worked as a monument mason at a yard on Duke Street in Norwich and had a relatively long career, active from circa 1743-81. Rawlins specialised in coloured marble and was a leading member of 18th century 'Norwich school' of stonemasons.

Ranking high as a sculptor in the view of  the art historian Nicholas Pevsner, Rawlins, like other English funerary masons, followed artistic trends which originated from the work-yards of London stonemasons and sculptors. Following in the foot-steps of London trends, a stylistic change in Rawlins sculpture can be seen, from a late Baroque Rococo to Neoclassical in style. This significant stylistic change is well-illustrated by two funerary monuments at St Andrew's church; the first to John Custance (circa 1756) is intricately decorated, with sweeping and detailed flourishes, in complete contrast, the monument for Richard Dennison (circa 1767) is uncluttered and opts for linear simplicity in geometric forms, including oval and circular arches.

This transition of artistic styles from that of late baroque to Neo-classical, occurs sociologically, from the rule of the ancien regime to the various movements which advocated and even installed Democratic rule; its a radical transition which can even be expressed in terms akin to keyboard instruments with the dominance of music written for the harpsichord giving way to the new voice of the pianoforte during approximately 1730-1770 .

In addition to specialising in coloured marbles, Rawlins seems to have had a predilection, held in common with his patrons, for putti, some of which are colossal in dimension, at least three times the size of any normal-sized baby. Rawlin's monuments for Hambleton Custance at St. Andrew's (left) and for Timothy Balderstone at St. George's (right) are both over 5 metres height in total. 

Later monuments by Rawlins, such as the one for Robert Rushbrook (1705-81) in the church of Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, (detail top of post) are considered to display a great awareness of neo-classical motifs. However, its his monument for Sir Thomas Churchman at St. Giles which is considered to be exemplary of his finest work. The monument features a sarcophagus, upon which are carved in bas-relief, allegorical figures representing Vanity, Time and Judgement, with a structurally incomplete Egyptian pyramid in background.

Rawlins also practised as an architect. His designs, like those of his contemporary Thomas Ivory, the architect of the Octagon Chapel (1756) of Norwich, were Neo-Palladian in style. In 1768 he published his, Familiar Architecture: or Original Designs of Houses for Gentlemen and Tradesmen; Parsonages; Summer Retreats; Banqueting-Rooms; and Churches. subsequently reprinted in 1789 and 1795. Remarkably, Rawlin's book remains in print today.

Rawlins' reinforcement with ironwork of the south aisle of the church os Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, in 1772, became the subject of satirical verse, in what was the first English provincial newspaper, the Norwich Mercury.

Curiously, a stone inlay in the floor of the aforementioned church describes him simply as an architect; however, Rawlin's legacy can be seen in various Norwich churches today, in particular at Saint Andrew's, where no less than three of his funerary monuments can be viewed.

This post is developed from an earlier Wikipedia contribution.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mozart: The three last Symphonies

No-one really knows the full motivation or reason why Mozart composed what were to be his last three symphonies, or whether he heard any of them performed. What is certain is that in his last three symphonies, Mozart expanded the canvas of the relatively new genre of the symphony in both duration and emotional scope, establishing the composer's right to express personal feelings, thus paving the way for the Romantic symphony of the nineteenth century.

There’s a tendency which has developed over the centuries, to mythologise Mozart as a near Christ-like figure. His being misunderstood by society, the poverty of his last years, and early death at an age close to Christ's, along with music sounding as if from another-world, heavenly or trance-like, which is heard occasionally in his music, are factors also contributing towards a ‘deification’; Mozart however, was an all-too-human figure, he possessed what would  today be considered a coarse, and even scatological sense of humour; he enjoyed playing billiards, skittles, dancing and drinking, and at one time or another he kept as pets, a canary, a starling and a dog, along with a horse for recreational riding. It is now considered likely that Mozart's unique experience of travelling and touring extensively throughout Europe as a child and teenager, enduring the rigours and inconveniences of travel, along with exposure to various viruses and illnesses so prevalent throughout 18th century Europe, may have contributed to his early death.

Mozart’s surviving correspondence reveals an engaging personality. There is however, a huge difference in his view of life in the ten year period spanning the years from 1778 to 1788. In a letter to his cousin dated 1778 when aged 21 he humorously signs off  a letter to his cousin thus-

Adieu little coz. I am, I was, I should be, I have been, I had been, oh, if I only were, oh, that I were, would God I were; I could be, I shall be, if I were to be, oh, that I might be, I would have been, oh, that I had been, would God I had been - what? A dried cod ! Adieu ma chere Cousine, whither away ? I am your faithful cousin,
Wolfgang Amade Mozart
Mannheim, 28th February, 1778

In stark contrast, ten years later, aged 31, in one of a series of desperate begging letters to fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, Mozart wrote-

I am obliged to tell you frankly that I cannot possibly pay back so soon the sum you lent me......My circumstances are such that I must absolutely get money... I am sorry enough to be in this situation, but that is the very reason why I want a fairly substantial sum for a fairly lengthy period, as I can then prevent its recurrence......I have done more work in ten days than in two months at any other lodgings, and were I not visited so frequently by black thoughts (which I must forcibly banish) .......  27th June, 1788

Mozart’s last three symphonies were written in a seven week period of white-heat creativity during the summer of 1788, after he and his family moved out of central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. They've been described by musicologist Ralph Hill thus -

The first is, we may say, lyrical, the second dramatic, the third ceremonial. But they vary not only in character: they do so also in mood. The first has a kind of autumnal but not melancholy mellowness; the second is tragic and idyllic by turns, and somehow the latter atmosphere poignantly intensifies the former; the third utters festive sounds but at the same time gives evidence of an intense concentration of thought, the kind of foresight and hindsight that distinguishes a great mathematician or chess player.

Symphony no. 39 in E flat major (K.543) was added to Mozart’s personal catalogue, on June 26th 1788. Its solemn adagio opening movement has been likened to music accompanying a Masonic ceremony. According to Ralph Hill, ‘one secret of Mozart’s greatness... is his ability to accommodate a great many emotional or dramatic contrasts within a single tempo.’

The finale of the 39th symphony is rhythmically vigorous and startling in its sudden changes of key.

Mozart’s 40th symphony in g minor  (K. 550) was completed according to the composer’s personal catalogue on July 25th 1788. Its opening movement is probably the most well-known of all Mozart’s symphonies, partly from a kitsch pop arrangement made by Waldo de los Rios in 1971. But in fact, an uneasy calm pervades the  g minor symphony. An attentive hearing reveals there's scarcely a happy moment in any of its four movements. An under-current of quiet desperation, resignation, anxiety and even despair pervades it, making it fitting mood music for our own age.

Often named the Great g minor symphony in order to distinguish it from an earlier g minor symphony composed some fifteen years earlier in 1773 (K. 183) when Mozart was just 17 years old, the so-called, "little g minor" symphony, uniquely scored for four horns, is also full of tension and syncopated rhythms. It was influenced by the proto-Romantic German literary and music movement of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) in which individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion are given free expression.

Mozart's 40th symphony in g minor, in contrast to his more conventional and cheerful music, packs a powerful emotional punch. Its minuet contains barely suppressed anger against the pomposity of the upper-classes to whom he was obliged to serve for much of his life. Here, the aristocracy appear full of self-importance as they approach the dance-floor when the invitation to the dance is announced.

Mozart’s 41st symphony (K 551) bears the nickname of The Jupiter, and is the most jovial and light-hearted of all three symphonies. An air of comic opera pervades its opening movement, while its technically brilliant final movement is described by Ralph Hill thus-

‘the ear catches everything going, so lucid and well-aired is the score, and it all flows by in a stream of beautiful music that will satisfy even those who have no notion of the incredible skill that went into its making...the attentive listener will come combining in canon with themselves or fitting against their own inversions, entries overlapping closely in fourfold imitation..Mozart’s perfect sense of proportion and timing knows exactly when to cease showing off those dizzy contrapuntal feats, and not the least wonderful proportions of this movement are those where the music suddenly smooths itself out into a plain statement, as if nothing out of the way had happened at all.’

The Jupiter's gorgeous andante is a quintessential example of Mozartean serenity.

Discussion of key signatures in Mozart’s music, along with his artistic relationship to keys, has been a perennial debate amongst musicologists. According to Wolfgang Hildesheimer for example -

If we hear Mozart’s keys as conscious choices, not as the spontaneous expression of the composer’s momentary frame of mind, we by no means imply that we are not also experiencing the minor keys as “gloomy”, or “tragic,” or sometimes even “despairing.” Our feeling is not limited to the minor itself, but overflows and spreads, often intensified, into a major key within the minor, especially E-flat major within G minor.

Yet Hildesheimer also concedes, 'Mozart's musical thinking eludes us. He puzzles us most in those places where the music is serious, even when the material would not seem to warrant it.'

It was in 2009 while in Amsterdam that the Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 - March 6th 2016) announced - "I have just discovered that the last three Mozart symphonies are an instrumental oratorio." Harnoncourt reasoned that because the 39th Symphony is the only one with a slow introduction, the 40th opens gently, while the 41st symphony is the only one with a full-blown finale, and that because thematic connections can be detected across all three symphonies, Mozart’s last three symphonies are in fact an inter-related triptych. Although Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s proposal that all three symphonies are a related and inter-connected triptych is without precedent, there's nonetheless also a possibility that Mozart may have taken as a model for his triptych, an example from the symphonies of the so-called 'Father of the symphony’, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

It was Haydn's good fortune to be invited in 1761 as Vice-Kappelmeister and placed in charge of most of the Esterházy musical establishment at Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, and later on at Esterháza, a grand new palace built in the Hungarian marshes. At the very beginning of his residency at Esterhaza Joseph Haydn wrote three symphonies, numbered as 6, 7 and 8, which soon acquired the nicknames of 'Le Matin’, ‘Le Midi’ and 'Le Soir’ because they were considered to depict the progression of a day.

There's a possibility that these three early Haydn symphonies were known to Mozart. We will never know for certain whether or not this is true: but given the fact that the two composers, who became close friends, had a mutual respect, influenced each other and studied each other's compositions carefully, its just possible that these three early Haydn symphonies may have known of, or at least heard of through Haydn himself recollecting the beginning of his long service to the Esterhazy court to Mozart.

One can only speculate as to what was the inspiration for Mozart's much larger in scope, emotionally contrasted, and enigmatic symphonic triptych of 1788.

Favourite Books

Mozart : His character, his work  Alfred Einstein 1946
The Grove Mozart : Stanley Sadie 1980
Mozart : Wolfgang Hildesheimer  1977
Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ed. Hans Mersmann 1972

Also consulted-

The Symphony Ralph Hill Pelican London 1949

Favourite Recordings

Jeffrey Tate - ENO
Carlo Maria Giulini - New Philharmonic Orchestra 1965
John Eliot Gardiner -  English Baroque Soloists

See also - Mozart in Paris

Symphonies of Joseph Haydn

In Memorium Francis Michael Faulkner (1936-1996)