The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 10 Sep 2023

The Killer Whale Dagger

Last month Toph and I went on vacation to Juneau, Alaska. I walked up to look at the glacier, but mostly we just enjoyed the view and the cool weather. But there were some surprises.

The Killer Whale dagger against
a black background.  It is shiny steel with copper overlay and leather
wrapping about the grip area. The blade is a long, tapered triangular
form with three prominent flutes down the center of its length. The
integral steel pommel is relief-formed into the image of two orca
whale heads looking outward with a single dorsal fin extending upward
from the whale heads. A single cut hole pierces the dorsal fin. The
pommel is flat on the reverse side

One day we took a cab downtown, and our driver, Edwell John, asked where we were visiting from, as cab drivers do. We said we were from Philadelphia, and he told us he had visited Philadelphia himself.

“I was repatriating Native artifacts,” he said.

Specifically, he had gone to the University of Pennsyvania Museum, to take back the Killer Whale Dagger named Keet Gwalaa. This is a two foot long dagger that was forged by Tlingit people in the 18th century from meteorite steel.

This picture comes from the Penn Museum. (I think this isn't the actual dagger, but a reproduction they had made after M. John took back the original.)

This was very exciting! I asked “where is the dagger now?” expecting that it had been moved to a museum in Angoon or something.

“Oh, I have it,” he said.

I was amazed. “What, like on you?”

“No, at my house. I'm the clan leader of the Killer Whale clan.”

Then he took out his phone and showed us a photo of himself in his clan leader garb, carrying the dagger.

Here's an article about M. John visiting the Smithsonian to have them 3-D scan the Killer Whale hat. Then the Smithsonian had a replica hat made from the scan.

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Mon, 27 Mar 2023

Spires of la Sagrada Família

Everyone seems to agree that the Sagrada Família will (when it's finished) have eighteen spires:

Writing about this last week I was puzzled. Which spire is which? Some of the evangelists were apostles, so do they get two spires each? And one apostle was Judas Iscariot, what about him? Did Gaudí plan a glorious spire for Judas the betrayer?

I remember when Richard Nixon died, there was some question about whether he would get a commemorative stamp like all the other presidents did when they died. The U.S. Postal Service was unequivocal: when a president dies, he gets a stamp. Even Nixon. I wondered if maybe the spires are like that.

Apparently not, the Christians have already dealt with this problem. Acts 1 explains that Simon Peter proposed that someone should be appointed to take Judas's position so that there would be twelve apostles to witness the resurrection. (Twelve is important, it symbolizes perfection. For example, when Jesus feeds the multitude with the loaves and fishes, there are twelve baskets of leftovers.) The disciples pick two candidates and then let God choose one at random, Matthias. The Sagrada Família has a spire for Matthias, and none for Judas Iscariot. Probably a good move on Gaudí's part, nobody would have wanted to work on it.

Researching this would have been very difficult if I had not discovered this helpful floor plan of la Sagrada Família, apparently on display in the basement museum of the Sagrada Família.

This is a reduced version of
a very large, full-color floor plan of la Sagrada Família and its grounds,
extensively annotated in Catalan. Some details follow in the article.

Confusing the issue are:

  1. There were a lot of disciples, and little agreement on which ones should be considered apostles. There are at least four lists of the apostles in the New Testament.

  2. The labels on the floor plan are in Catalan

  3. The Catalan Wikipedia article on the Apostles only has one list and it isn't the one that Gaudí used. For example, it includes Judas Iscariot.

  4. Some of the apostles have the same names; others are known by multiple names

  5. The Sagrada Família not only has spires and towers named after evangelists and apostles, it also has individual columns named for evangelists and apostles. Everything about the Sagrada Família has a symbolic meaning. This makes it a little harder to interpret the floor plan.

Nevertheless I think I've worked it out.

First, here are the locations of the eighteen spires and their labels:

Same floor plan
as before, with eighteen colored circles marking the locations of the

The four big spires (green circles) are the evangelists, clustered around Jesus. They are easy to identify because the labels are nice and clear. Counterclockwise from the lower left (south) they are:

  1. Matthew (Mateu)
  2. Mark (Marc)
  3. Luke (Lluc)
  4. John (Joan)

Each of these spires sits over four of the columns (little orange circles) of the transept, one named for the same evangelist, and three named after three apostles.

The apostles are in three groups, as is traditional. The Sagrada Família has three façades, and one group of apostles stands at each façade. The main front façade is the “Glory” (Gloria) façade, with (bright blue circles) spires representing:

  1. Simon Peter (Pere)
  2. Andrew (Andreu)
  3. James (Jaume, son of Zebedee, not son of Alphaeus). It's hard to make out, but I think in the floor plan James is annotated with a little capital ‘M’ to make clear he is Jaume el Major, James the Greater.
  4. Usually the fourth in this group would be John the Evangelist, but he has been replaced with Paul (Pau), I suppose because as an evangelist he has his own, bigger spire.

Gaudí put Peter and Paul in the middle, perhaps because they are more important, with Peter on the right-hand side.

On the left side of the picture is the “Passion” (Passio) façade. I marked the spires with greenish-blue circles:

  1. James (Jaume, son of Alphaeus. I think this is annotated with a lowercase ‘m’ to indicate that this is Jaume el Minor, James the lesser.
  2. Bartholomew (Bartomeo)
  3. Thomas (Tomàs)
  4. Philip (Felip)

Matthew (the publican) should have been in this group but seems to have been displaced by James. One would expect James to be over on the other side with Simon the Zealot, but he's here for some reason. I don't know why Matthew was left out. I suppose it is because he is sometimes identified as Matthew the Evangelist. If Gaudí had understood him this way, he would have felt that Matthew already had his own spire, and would have replaced him similar to how John was replaced with Paul at the front.

On the right side of the picture is the “Nativity” (Naixement) façade. Its four spires, marked with pinkish-blue circles, are:

  1. Barnabas (Bernabé),
  2. Simon (Simó, the Canaanite, not Simon Peter)
  3. Judas (Judas, son of James, not Iscariot)
  4. Matthias (Matias, not Matthew the Evangelist or Matthew the publican)

Normally Barnabas would have been James the Lesser, be he's over on the other side. As I mentioned earlier, Matthias has replaced Judas Iscariot.

I wonder if Matthew the Apostle is sitting around in the afterlife, stewing about having been left out? I suppose not, he's too busy dancing around the Eternal Throne. But maybe there's a lesson there about not having the same name as a more important person who comes after you.

I hope the post office makes the commemorative Donald Trump stamp really big, so I can wipe my ass with it.

[ Addendum: The flag of the European Union has twelve stars, because twelve symbolizes perfection. They emphasize that the twelve stars are not related to the number of countries in the Union, wisely declining to repeat the mistake made by the United States. It was Simon Cozens who brought to my attention the significance of the twelve baskets of leftovers. ]

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Sun, 19 Mar 2023

Here I am at the Sagrada Família

I just found these pictures I took twenty years ago that I thought I'd lost so now you gotta see them.

Back in 2003 I got to visit Barcelona (thanks, Xavi!) and among other things I did what you're supposed to do and visited la Sagrada Família. This is the giant Art Nouveau church designed by the great architect and designer Antoni Gaudí. It began construction in 1882, and is still in progress; I think they are hoping to have it wrapped up sometime in the next ten years.

When I go to places I often skip the tourist stuff. (I spent a week in Paris once and somehow never once laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower!) I wasn't sure how long I would spend at the Sagrada Família, but it was great. I stayed for hours looking at everything I could.

Sagrada Família is marvelous.

Interior of Sagrada Família, still under
construction: walls and parts of the roof are missing, windows lack
stained glass, scaffolding is visible at left.  The roof is held up by
fluted stone columns the resemble tree trunks.  Far overhead the tree
trunks are decorated with huge stone boles and knots, and above the boles the
columns divide into branches on which hang stone foliage.

Some of the towers in this picture are topped with enormous heaps and clusters of giant fruits. Fruits!

Outside of Sagrada Família, clearly under
construction: part of the structure is covered with scaffolding, and
there is a big yellow construction crane right in the middle of the
picture.  Behind this the wall of the building is divided into
sections, each with a tall stone window divided into circles and
flower shapes; above that a sculpture of a saint, above that an oval
window, an then a steeply pointed stone roof.  Each steep point is
capped by a four-armed basket of colored stone globes resembling
fruits of various colors: the leftmost ones are warm oranges and
yellows; to the right are smaller but more numerous reds and purples.
Behind this is another similar row of roodsm even higher, with more
fruits like enormous bunches of purple and green grapes.

Gaudí's plan was to have eighteen spires in total. Supposedly there will be twelve big ones like these representing the twelve apostles:

The Nativity façade, as seen
from the ground, looking up.  On each side of the façade are two tall,
curved spires, somewhat resembling the congealed wax on the outside of
a candle. <br />
Each is decorated with sculpture columns, and windows and other
perforations.  Far above the spires end with huge red and yellow
flowers or medallions.

After these, there are four even bigger ones representing the four evangelists. And then one enormous one representing the Virgin Mary, and the biggest one of all for Jesus himself which, when finished, will be the tallest church tower in the world.

In the basement there is a museum about Gaudí's plans, models, and drawings of what he wanted the church to look like.

This is a view of the southeast side of the building where the main entrance is:

A colored painting of one side
of the building, as it was imagined around 1902.  At the bottom, we
see that main entrance is decorated with clouds labeled “CREDO”,
“Patrem”, “Deum”, and so on.  Four of the apostles” towers are around
this.  Behind these we can see two of the evangelists’ towers,
surmounted by a winged lion (for Mark) and an eagle (for John).
Behind these, in the center, and by far the largest, is the conical
tower of Jesus, surmounted by an immense golden cross, from whose arms
stream rays of light.  Under this the pointed top of the tower carries
the Greek letters alpha and omega, and under this are columns of stone
panels with more letters on them.

Hmm, there seem to be words written on the biggest tower. Let's zoom in and see what they say.

Closeup of just the top of the
Jesus tower from the previous photograph.  We can now see that each
column of stone panels carries one Latin word: “SAnCTuS”,
“AltiSsimus”, and … “DOminuS”.

Hee hee, thanks, great-grandpa.

[ Addendum 20230327: I spent some time figuring out which spires were for which disciples. The four in the photograph above are Matthias, Judas (not Iscariot), Simon (the Canaanite, not Simon Peter), and Barnabas. ]

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Fri, 28 Jan 2022

Was the Lollipop Guild inspired by W.W. Denslow?

Yesterday I was thinking on these creepy Munchkins, and wondering what they were doing there:

Still from the
1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz”.  Three midgets, dressed respectively
in bright red, green, and blue suits, look simultaneously like
overgrown babies and like weirdly shrunken old men.  They are bald
except for fancifully curled golden mohawks that resemble gilded
staircase bannisters, and are making contorted faces.

It occurred to me that these guys are quite consistent with the look of the original illustrations, by W.W. Denslow. Here's Denslow's picture of three Munchkins greeting Dorothy:

Dorothy and Toto stand before the Witch of the
North and three bowing Munchkins.  The Munchkins are nearly bald, but
each has a little forelock on his forehead.  Two have long beards and
mustaches, one has only a pencil mustache.  All three have round eyes
and big puffy cheeks like overgrown babies.

(Click for complete illustration.)

Denslow and Frank Baum had a falling out after the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the illustrations for the thirteen sequels were done by John R. Neill, in a very different style. Dorothy aged up to eleven or twelve years old, and became a blonde with a fashionable bob.

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Tue, 02 Feb 2021

Hildebert and the mouse

This is the famous self-portrait of Hildebert, a 12th century scribe in what is now the Czech Republic. In this picture, Hildebert is shaking his fist at a mouse, which is eating his lunch.

A pen drawing,
in black and red ink, or some sort of neutral-colored medium.  The
rest of this article describes the drawing in detail.

There is quite a lot going on here! First off, Hildebert is carrying one of his quill pens behind his ear. This seems to me like a good way to get ink in your hair, and I wonder if medieval scribes often had smudges on their forheads.

I think the thing in his hand is a piece of bread. But what is on the table? I think the mouse is eating Hildebert's cheese (we can see the already-cut piece under the mouse's butt) and there seems to have been a small roast bird of some type, which the mouse has upset but which has not yet hit the floor. The table with the mouse is labeled Mensa hildeberti, “Hildebert's table”, in case it was unclear just whose lunch was being stolen.

Hildebert seems to be wearing a long garment with fancy matching sleeves and collar, and over that what looks like a chiton. I wonder if Hildebert really wore a chiton?

On the left of the picture is a really interesting piece of equipment. Until I saw this picture, it had never occurred to me that the lap desk had been invented before I was born. But here it is, almost nine hundred years ago. And it certainly is a lap desk, having no legs. In this picture the lap desk is supported by a backward-headed lion, but in actual practice such luxuries are probably hard to come by, so Hildebert would have put the desk on his lap.

The two long curvy things on the left edge of the lap desk are not legs. They are inkhorns: sawn-off animal horns, filled with ink. When you need to get more ink on your quill, you dip the end in the inkhorn. I had heard of inkhorns but until I saw this picture I had never understood how you used them: they won't stand up, and if you lay them down the ink will spill. But Hildebert's picture makes it perfectly clear: the lap desk has a couple of round holes in it, and you slide the inkhorns into the holes until they stop. Very nice! Next to the inkhorns are two extra quills, and along the bottom edge of the lap desk there is a ridge to keep the paper or parchment from sliding into your lap. I am pretty sure that the lion is holding the desk by the bottom edge, so that it is presented to Hildebert sideways. Hildebert is too enraged by the mouse to care about this.

Also on the desk is a booklet, in which (according to Wikipedia) Hildebert has written:

Pessime mus, saepius me provocas ad iram. Ut te deus perdat

I think I can make this out. (Medieval scribes used a great many abbreviations. For example, iram is written as “irã”. Similarly, the hildeberti above the table is abbreviated to “hildebti”. If you are interested, I discussed scribal abbreviations a couple of years ago.)

Wikipedia's translation of this is:

Most wicked mouse, you incite me to anger once too often. May God destroy you.

I think the phrasing and the fist-shaking, directed at a mouse, are meant by Hildebert to be a humorous overreaction.

Underneath Hildebert is a drawing of his colleague Everwin (EVERWINVS). Everwin seems to be painting some sort of decoration with a brush. Check out his fancy sleeves and matching socks!

I am not sure what Hildebert is holding in his left hand or whether it intersects the lion's arm. My best guess is that it is Hildebert's table knife, and that the picture means to show it passing in front of the lion, not intersecting the lion.

Many thanks to Marnanel Thurman for bringing this to my attention.

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Tue, 07 Apr 2020

Fern motif experts on the Internet

I live near Woodlands Cemetery and by far the largest monument there, a thirty-foot obelisk, belongs to Thomas W. Evans, who is an interesting person. In his life he was a world-famous dentist, whose clients included many crowned heads of Europe. He was born in Philadelphia, and land to the University of Pennsylvania to found a dental school, which to this day is located at the site of Evans’ former family home at 40th and Spruce Street.

A few days ago my family went to visit the cemetery and I insisted on visting the Evans memorial.

A young girl, seen from the back, is climbing a large stone
monument.  She is wearing black boots, blue jeans, and a black leather
jacket.  She is about six feet off the ground. Attached to the monument to her right is a
green copper plate that says  (among other things) ‘In memory of
DR. THOMAS WILLIAM EVANS’.  In the background is a tree, and other, smaller
monuments can be seen.

The obelisk has this interesting ornament:

Description below.

The thing around the middle is evidently a wreath of pine branches, but what is the thing in the middle? Some sort of leaf, or frond perhaps? Or is it a feather? If Evans had been a writer I would have assumed it was a quill pen, but he was a dentist. Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I was able to find out.

First I took the question to Reddit's /r/whatisthisthing forum. Reddit didn't have the answer, but Reddit user @hangeryyy had something better: they observed that there was a fad for fern decorations, called pteridomania, in the second half of the 19th century. Maybe the thing was a fern.

I was nerdsniped by pteridomania and found out that a book on pteridomania had been written by Dr. Sarah Whittingham, who goes by the encouraging Twitter name of @DrFrond.

Dr. Whittingham's opinion is that this is not a fern frond, but a palm frond. The question has been answered to my full and complete satisfaction.

My thanks to Dr. Whittingham, @hangeryyy, and the /r/whatisthisthing community.

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