A Swedish Valentine

 

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The Nordiska Museum in Stockholm devotes a great deal of space to Swedish courting and wedding customs, for good reason.  In Sweden, folk art is still revered.

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For centuries, humble rural people in little towns and villages all over Sweden celebrated love and marriage and family using the materials at hand: wood, yarn, thread, and simple fabrics.

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A young man courting a young woman used to spend many hours carving an elaborate wooden spoon as proof of his devotion.  The woman’s parents would also be interested in the young man’s skills and willingness to work; wood carving was a necessity of life in poor farming communities where most anything had to be made by hand.

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After the wedding, the courting spoon was hung on the wall of the new couple’s kitchen, but wood-carving never ended. Country people took inspiration and materials from the natural world around them. The handy little table above incorporated a twisted tree branch as a decorative snake. Did the wood-carver’s wife appreciate having a snake forever in her house? Personally, I’d have relegated the snake table to the guy’s Man Cave.  But that’s just me.

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I’d have loved the little dog bench, though.

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Brides spent many hours making wedding finery which was then passed down through generations. The hours were precious, stolen from housework and farm work.

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Material could be precious, too–colorful scraps of silk and cotton lovingly worked into heirlooms.

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Wedding finery was carefully packed away for future brides and grooms.

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A bride might surprise her groom with a special wedding vest.

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I love the handwork on this one, and I’m sure the embroidered designs had special meaning for the couple.

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A colorful wedding proclamation was another treasured keepsake, for those who could afford it.

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A special tapestry or painted wall hanging might do double duty as a Biblical lesson about Adam and Eve, and a decoration on the wall at the wedding feast.

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Then as now, getting married can be tiring work.  A mannequin in the museum shows a bride falling asleep in her wedding outfit, maybe during the feast.  But I’m sure she’s about to wake up full of energy to start her married life.

Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers, past, present and future!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Rudyard Kipling’s Beloved Bateman’s

 

1fac83c7-7594-479b-a24f-4643c42663f6The Nobel prize-winning British author Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936 in his beloved country home, Bateman’s, aged 70. The house is deep in the rural countryside of East Sussex, close to the site of the Battle of Hastings.

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Public Domain portrait of Rudyard Kipling, from John Palmer’s 1915 biography

I have to confess I’m not really familiar with much of his work, but I loved visiting the home where he and his wife chose to spend the last 34 years of his long and productive life.

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They bought the house in 1902.  It had  no bathroom, no electricity, and running water was only downstairs. But Kipling wrote, “Behold us, lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house–A.D. 1634 over the door–beamed, panelled, with old oak staircase, and all untouched and unfaked. We have loved it ever since our first sight of it.”

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The house is now in the hands of the National Trust.  Most of the furnishings are from Kipling’s happy time there. It is hard for us to appreciate just how famous this man was even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but the house was a peaceful retreat from Kipling’s busy life–he was active in politics and journalism, besides literature, all his life.9313938c-3171-478f-ad25-bc04c49b1791

His wife Caroline ran his affairs, working tirelessly in a tiny hidden office with a window looking out into the entry way, above and to the right of the fireplace.  She kept an eagle eye on the many people who knocked on the door, seeking time with the great man.  Not many were admitted when he was working in his study, pictured below. (We should all probably have someone like Caroline to turn off our internet when we want to get something accomplished).

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Kipling spent a good part of his working life in India and Africa, writing about both the glories and pitfalls of British imperialism.  He wrote with foreboding about the difficulties–and the morality–of maintaining the global British Empire, which was still in its heyday during Victorian times.

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In 1915, at the outbreak of World War I, Kipling’s son John was wild to join the fight.  He was rejected by both the Royal Navy and the Army because of poor eyesight.  So Kipling used his connections to get his son into the Irish Guards. John Kipling was killed in the Battle of Loos, aged 18, having been sent in with reinforcement troops.  He was last seen stumbling blindly on the battlefield, possibly from a face wound. His childhood bedroom, pictured above, is a poignant memorial to a lost son.

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I especially liked the dining room. The walls are covered with embossed leather brought from India.

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Above the fireplace is a painting that everybody in the family hated, but it was too good to get rid of. (Or maybe it was a gift from someone who was not to be insulted? I have items like that in my house, but I generally just get them out when the giver is visiting). The painting really is pretty ugly. It seems to show a naked crying baby, maybe with a mother or nanny wondering what to do.

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Mr. Kipling’s chair was placed so that his back was always to the hated painting.

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I think the kitchen must have had modern conveniences in the years leading up to Kipling’s death in the house in 1936.  Now, it’s a serene mostly-empty space where National Trust volunteers and staff dry flowers from the gardens.

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Literary fashions come and go, even for Nobel prize winners.  Having seen Rudyard Kipling’s country home, maybe I’ll find the time to dip into his writings. I’m sure Mr. Kipling would appreciate a visitor.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

Get-Well Wishes for QEII

 

qeii-telegraphI just read that Queen Elizabeth is resting indoors  for the second weekend in a row at her Sandringham home.  She didn’t make it to church on Christmas.  Now the word is that she may not be well enough to attend services on New Year’s Day either. She’s pictured above after delivering her annual Christmas address to the nation (photo from “Telegraph” article cited below).

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I visited Sandringham about a year and a half ago and was royally wowed. No photos are allowed inside the house, but the grounds and gardens are spectacular.

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Tourists enter through the same grand door as invited guests. The place is off the beaten tourist track.  It’s way in the northern stretches of East Anglia, an area blessedly neglected by travel writers like Rick Steves. It took me many years and many trips to England to finally get there. That is the whole point, for the Royal Family.  It is their private, personal residence–a place to really get away from it all.

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Naturally, there’s a gift shop, well supplied with royal portraits, china, tea towels, and stuffed Corgis.

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There’s a delightful museum, too, in the old stable block.  It holds all sorts of bits and bobs of royal life.  I was especially charmed to learn that Prince Philip (now 95) is a very decent painter. I loved his little painting of the Queen reading the morning papers.

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I wrote about the parish church in two previous posts, cited below.  It’s one of the most beautiful small churches I’ve ever seen.  Each year, locals and a few tourists line up along a fence to watch the royals walk to church on Christmas, and this year on New Year’s Day too.

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I hope the Queen is well enough to walk over to her pretty little local church and take part in prayers for New Year’s Day. Whether she makes it to church or not, I wish my favorite 90-year-old reigning queen a happy  and healthy 2017.

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https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/07/06/a-royal-christening-at-sandringham/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/07/sandringham/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/30/the-queens-church-at-sandringham/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/31/queen-may-attend-church-new-years-day-decision-expected-sunday/

My Favorite Nativity Scene, with Angels on the Buddy System

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My all-time favorite image for Christmas was painted into a fresco by an unknown artist around 1370 in the Umbria area of Italy. It depicts a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe. His smiling dog dances in delight.  This is part of fresco fragments from the long-gone monastery of Santa Giuliana in Perugia. The fragments, covering about 20 feet in width and maybe 12 feet in height, are now in the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria.  I’d travel back there just to gaze at them again.  I wrote about this fresco last Christmas, and took another look this year.

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My favorite shepherd and his dog are really just side figures in a more conventional Nativity fresco. The entire fresco is too large to photograph in one shot, and my photography skills are pretty much limited to what I can capture on my trusty iPhone. So the view above shows the shepherd and his bagpipe, but not his joyful dog.

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The other side of the fresco, which once covered a wall, shows the traditional Nativity scene with the stable, the town of Bethlehem, musical angels neatly arranged in pairs, some friendly cattle, and Mary and Joseph with their child duly wrapped in strips of cloth–the Biblical swaddling clothes.

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The details are charming, the faces friendly and serene.

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What I find most appealing is the artist’s careful concern for the ordinary people depicted. They are painted somehow larger than life, and in loving detail.  A friend of mine commented on the cozy-looking black socks worn by one of the shepherds on his way to the stable.  At least I think they are shepherds–or could they be the Three Kings? Whoever they are, their feet are REALLY big.  This fresco was placed high on a wall, under a vaulted ceiling.  The rules of perspective would have dictated that the feet should be smaller in proportion to the heads.  The artist chose to do the opposite. Maybe the artist didn’t exactly have perspective down pat.  Then again, maybe he (or she) just wanted to contrast grounded humanity with floating angels.  These folks definitely have their feet on solid ground.

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The animals are grounded, too.  These are real sheep, solid and woolly. And each one has a unique personality, as animals do.

As a child, I always wondered what became of the sheep left behind on that hillside, after the angels in the story told the shepherds to get themselves into Bethlehem posthaste. Maybe the unknown artist of this fresco had an anwer:  the sheep trotted right along. The horned sheep seems to get what’s going on; he raises his head as though somehow lifted up by what he’s seeing.

On this Christmas Eve, my wish is for all of us to remember that we share this beautiful earth with many others. To those who celebrate Christmas and to those who don’t, I wish peace, friendship and health.

Christmas Markets in Europe

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This photo is of skaters at one of the great Christmas markets, the one that takes up the main streets of Munich. As I sadly and angrily think of the carnage this week at the market in Berlin, I thought I’d post some photos of markets I’ve loved over the years–not that I ever buy much.  The point is for people to be together, enjoying the season and laughing at ice and snow.

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Vienna has some of the most beautiful markets, each with its own unique flavor. The one at the Rathaus–the City Hall–is the largest and has the most festive lights.  For weeks before Christmas, it’s packed day and night with happy people strolling, eating and drinking.

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Inside the august halls of the Rathaus, the Christkindl angel speaks with thrilled little children. In Austria and Germany, the angel seems to serve somewhat the same function as a visit to Santa in the United States.  But it has not become a big photo op–it’s just a chance visit, all the more thrilling because it can’t really be planned.

Children sign up for gift workshops in the Rathaus, making presents for their loved ones.  No hovering adults are allowed.  I would love to receive a lopsided gingerbread man from the baking workshop.

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My favorite Vienna market is the one in the plaza of the historic Karlskirche.

The Karlskirche market is especially kid-oriented.  There’s a big straw play area with animals ready for the bolder kids to pet.

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One of the most popular activities at Karlskirche is to lead a gentle llama around on a leash.  As soon as I find the photo, I’ll post it! Meanwhile, I’ll dream of being in Austria or Germany again at a Christmas market–hopefully in snow.

I haven’t posted in awhile because on my last trip I caught a nasty virus which took awhile to overcome.  Am I discouraged about traveling? Not a chance.  I’ll be on a plane again as soon as I can. And I’ll be praying for world peace and harmony.

Join me next time for more explorations in European art, history and culture!

 

 

Rome in November

Sunshine and no crowds–well, hardly any. We got up early to arrive at St. Peter’s at 7am, opening time. 


We waited just outside Bernini’s spectacular colonnade, contemplating the fact that the oval space was once Nero’s circus–a chariot racetrack with assorted atrocities against early Christians as extra entertainment. 


We were among the first 10 people in line. Our reward? We were allowed in at about 8:10, and suddenly there were quite a few people–some more colorful than others. All were welcome.


Inside, the enormous church feels smaller than it is–the architects, including Michelangelo, made the statues  way up high in extra-large sizes, so they seem closer.


There’s a list of all 250 or so Popes, with the dates of their deaths. The two most recent, Benedict and Francis, are not listed because they are still among the living.


A couple of them sleep eternally, enclosed in glass, in the actual church instead of in the crypt below. I’m not sure why this is, but I especially liked the comfy Santa nightcap on this Pope. 


Some years ago, I was able to walk right up to Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta, sculpted when he was just 24. Now, visitors are kept way back–the result of a vandalism incident. It’s like the disappointing view of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre–all jostling people with their cameras.


The closest I got to the Pieta was this plaster copy of it the next day in the Vatican Museums.


Still, St. Peter’s feels very much like a working church, not just a tourist attraction.


I’ll cheerfully visit any time I’m lucky enough to be in Rome. 

Thanksgiving Day: A Berwick Memory

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For Thanksgiving Day, I thought I’d post some paintings from beautiful Berwick Church in southern England.  St. Michael and All Angels is a little parish church in Sussex, dating back to at least the 12th century.  Parts of it are even older, dating from Saxon days. It was given a modern artistic touch in the 20th century.

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During the First World War, the famous Bloomsbury group of artists, writers and intellectuals decamped from their London homes and occupied the Charleston Farmhouse and Monk’s House in this area.  The men were mostly conscientious objectors.  They fulfilled their patriotic duty by doing farm work in Sussex.

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In 1941, several artists from the group were hired to paint new murals and decorations in the ancient church.  These are some of the few remaining works of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Quentin Bell.  They depicted themselves and their friends, both as country laborers and as figures in sacred scenes.

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The artists were all free-thinkers and even atheists living unconventional, sometimes scandalous lives.  But the local religious authorities hatched an ambitious plan to give artists employment; they hoped the plan would spread all over England’s ancient churches.  That didn’t happen, but I’d like to think the Bloomsbury group occasionally attended a service at the little country church they decorated so beautifully.

Berwick Church stands as an example of cooperation and understanding between people with very different views of the world.  After the tumultuous election season Americans just endured, I think we can use some cooperation and understanding. We’re different, but we can stand together.

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As for me, I’m spending Thanksgiving Day on an airplane, heading off on a new adventure.  They’re serving pumpkin pie in the airport lounge.  It’s pretty good!