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The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The Legend

Every November, young children in America are introduced to a colorful, hopeful story. One autumn day in 1621, the pilgrims celebrated a plentiful harvest with members of the Wampanoag tribe. This was a feast of thanksgiving where Englishmen and Native Americans came together as friends, expressing gratitude for the aid freely given during the harsh early years of the colony.

The History

The Wampanoag tribe led by Massasoit had just signed a treaty with the Plimouth colonists. Upon hearing the sound of hunting rifles, 90 members of the tribe anticipating war ventured to the English colony only to stumble upon the pilgrims celebrating their first successful harvest. So, the Wampanoag joined the feasting, but the atmosphere must have been tense because neither group fully trusted the other.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

The Holiday

For the year of 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving to emphasize the theme of family and brotherhood amidst the brutal, bitter Civil War. At that time, there was great interest in Plimouth colony, which Lincoln capitalized on. FDR, furthermore, declared the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday that was then formalized by Congress in 1941. In fact, the modern holiday owed much of its origins to politics and public relations.

The Legacy

Even though the actual history of the Thanksgiving holiday has been twisted, many of the sentiments remain valuable. Friendship, family and gratitude have been emphasized in harvest festivals for generations. For many families, following the Puritan tradition, the holiday is devoted to prayer and religious observance. For others, Thanksgiving means travel, food, and shopping. Regardless of beliefs, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the bounty of life.  

Resources:

National Geographic – First Thanksgiving

Indian Country Today – The Wampanoag Side

Plimouth Plantation- Thanksgiving History

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KellsFol034rChiRhoMonogramCrossing the treacherous sea one stumbles upon an inhospitable rocky island. At the ends of the Earth this lonely isle emerges from the deep. Like the famous ark of Noah this island sheltered a community of writers and artists from the ignorance and violence that engulfed the rest of the medieval world. This island is the mysterious Iona.

In the 6th century a luminary later known as St. Columba arrived on Iona with his followers. On the isle he established a monastery and its influence spread throughout Scotland and the isles. The name, Columba, meant “dove” evoking the white bird of hope that brought tidings of land and life to Noah. It is an auspicious title. For the Holy Spirit of Christianity is also represented as a dove heralding the conception of Christ. The bird of peace symbolized miracles.

The Book of Kells is that miracle. For the Christians of this time writing in and of itself was a miracle. They believed that each letter was a message from heaven and that with each stroke of the quill God was speaking to them. It is an ancient idea; the ancient Greeks would always invoke the Muses at the start of every tale.

Work on the manuscript likely began in the 8th century in that monastic community. Generations of the community’s greatest scribes and illuminators toiled through the years on this task. This collection of the four gospels was so finely written and illustrated that it was deemed the work of angels.

KellsFol292rIncipJohnIronically for a Christian Bible much of the iconography is actually derived from Pagan culture. The combination of Christian ideas and Celtic symbolism is startling. For instance, the snake boss motif abounds throughout the Book of Kells. This leads to the question: Why, in a book glorifying Christ, is the traditional symbol of the Devil so prevalent? The answer lies with the Celtic culture. To them, snakes were not emissaries of deception and evil but rather transmitters of wisdom. In shedding their skins, they signified rebirth and resurrection. The monks of the Iona abbey latched onto the idea of snakes as symbols of resurrection and connected it to the story of Jesus Christ. The Book of Kells illustrates quite literally the adaptation of Celtic art and culture into the Christian tradition.

Another relic of Celtic art is the presence of so many circles, curves, and knots. Every millimeter of space is threaded with these delicate loops. Some of the designs may have been inspired by metalwork as can be seen in the Ardagh Chalice. It is likely that both illustrators and metalworkers utilized similar tools and techniques. This style of art, a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon motifs, is known as Insular Art which reached its peak in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The Celtic cross is a premier example of this phenomenon. The traditional cross of the Celtics is that of an equidistant cross set amid a circle. The Christians lengthened the cross to resemble their own but retained the circle. In fact some of the earliest stone monuments of this style are situated in Iona and also at the Abbey of Kells where the book would later find its home.

KellsFol032vChristEnthronedThe Book of Kells aside from offering us a glimpse of the fusion of Celtic and Christian traditions also offers a peek into the lives and personalities of those who labored on it. Three to four scribes composed the words. Some were very conservative and solemn, while others wrote with flair and brightly colored inks. The artists and illuminators also provided their own perspective. One, known as the Goldsmith, composed the elaborate folio page. His work is characterized by remarkable detail and coded language and symbolism. Another decided on a more metaphorical approach, depicting the church as the literal body of Christ with the apostles acting as the foundation. Humorous images of animals and humans litter the pages, telling us that the lives of the monks despite their solemn and sparse way of life actually contained an unexpected amount of love and fun.

Unfortunately this way of life came to an end in the 9th century with the advent of Viking attacks. For that reason the Book of Kells was never completed. In 1006 the book was stolen but thankfully recovered with only its elaborate cover missing. Magnificent as that cover must have been, the heart and soul of the creators is found in the actual pages and so has awed and inspired humanity even to today.

Further Information

Trinity College – The Book of Kells

Insular Art

The Book of Kells: Work of Angels?

The Secret of Kells

IMG_1060The days grow short. The air grows cold. The harvest comes to an end. The leaves fade and the plants wither. Summer is dying. Winter lurks around the corner. Samhain has arrived. In Celtic tradition, October 31st marked the end of the year. On that day the old year would die. On that day the world of the living and the world of the dead would intertwine.

IMG_1045For the Celts, this was a time for celebration, preparation, and remembrance as well, for the dead would walk amongst the living once more. Loved ones, long gone, would rejoin their families. The Celts lit great bonfires to guide these spirits safely to their new home. When we light candles and illuminate carved pumpkins for Halloween, we carry on this ancient tradition unaware of its original purpose.

IMG_1038Of course spirits of the otherworld were not necessarily benign. Often mischievous and sometimes malicious, the ghosts would receive food and blessings from the households they visited. If not, the family could expect tricks. Some people would dress up as the otherworldly creatures and once mistaken for one of the spirits would then be left alone. Some would even take advantage of the night to obtain food and gifts for themselves.

IMG_1178However, Samhain was not necessarily a night of terror for the Celts, not for a people who so valued darkness and the dead. Samhain was a time for the people to celebrate the gift of life before they were worn down by the hardships of winter. They could revel in their harvest and enjoy the fruit of their labor. Games with apples and pumpkins were as popular then as they are now. The community would host parties and feasts even inviting the spirits. 

With the spread of Christianity, the old holidays were superseded, Samhain among them. The day was converted into All Hallow’s Eve to eventually become known as Halloween. However, the people were loath to give up beliefs so fundamental to their culture. To those who look, the old celebration is buried just beneath the surface. This is the day where we are reminded that life and death are not as far apart as they seem, that a belief in the supernatural lurks in the mind of every human. Like the Celts we also remember that it is a time to just appreciate life itself. 

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Rapid Heartbeat. Vertigo. Fainting. Visions. These are symptoms of a condition known as Stendhal Syndrome. In 1817, a French author made a visit to the Tuscan city. There, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, while gazing upon the frescoes of Giotto, Stendhal was overcome by such powerful emotions, described as “celestial sensations,” that his “Life was drained from [him.]” The trigger for this response: the presence of awe-inspiring and transcendent art. This condition is also known as Florence Syndrome.

IMAG0874Viewing Michelangelo’s David for the first time, my mother says, almost drove her to tears. Such was the majesty of this sculpture. And masterworks of painting, sculpture, and architecture can be found on practically every street corner in this rather diminutive city. I would expect nothing less for it was here that the Italian Renaissance first came into being, like Athena springing from Zeus’ head or Venus arising from the sea foam.

It begins with conflict and decay for the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. In the resulting vacuum of power, Italy is divided into warring city-states, each controlled by wealthy, influential families, each seeking to subdue the other. One family in particular comes to dominate the region; the Medici. Political intrigue, murder, and blood feud characterize the Medici’s rise to power and furthermore inspire the writings of Machiavelli.

Fortunately for posterity, war was not the only means of proving superiority. To gain political support and power, the great families of the time exalted their native cities by commissioning magnificent works of art. The Medici certainly did not remain apart from this competition. In fact, they were the most prolific and generous patrons of them all, and the citizens loved them for it. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, Boticelli, Giotto, all were funded by the Medici.

Perhaps Machiavelli is correct in saying that “the ends justify the means.”

Florence at its height could not fail to evoke the ancient city of Athens. Home to legendary artists, writers, politicians, and thinkers; Home to wondrous works of art and architecture; is it any wonder that those who experience it firsthand are struck with awe?

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