"It is an hour or so before dusk, on Christmas Eve, and the landscape has turned completely monochrome. Far away to the north-east, at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, a lone chorister is singing the opening notes of 'Once in Royal David's City', a moment for me that always marks the true beginning of Christmas." Wild Hares and Hummingbirds Stephen Moss
The Adoration of the MagiPeter Paul Rubens
Altarpiece in King's College Chapel
Wishing all my fellow bloggers a joyous Christmas!
This month sees Capricorn the goat usher in the winter, although unlike this image from a medieval manuscript, the true sign is a sea-goat, with coiled serpent-like hindquarters. As a goat, it is linked in classical myth with the god Pan (who leapt into a river and grew a fishtail, to escape the giant Typhon), and with the forest satyrs, or is shown drawing Bacchus' chariot, and is a symbol of lust to be overcome in christian art.
Capricornus, from a medieval calendar book
Capricorn appears with serpent tail in Henry VIII's great clock at Hampton Court Palace ( seen just above Sagittarius with his arrow). With its many dials, the clock shows the phases of the moon and the times of high tide at London Bridge - essential knowledge for river transport to and from the Palace.
Hampton Court Palace astronomical clock, by Nicholas Oursian, 1540
The zodiacal Capricorn image with coiling tail was also chosen by the Florentine ruler, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as his impresa, or personal device, together with his motto, "Fidem fati virtute sequemer" : I shall pursue with valour the promise of Destiny. He believed the influence of the stars had brought him victory against Siena under the sign of Capricorn.
Cosimo's capricorn impresa in the Laurentian Library, Florence
Designed by Michelangelo, the library was opened by Cosimo in 1571. The stained glass windows, after drawings by Vasari, were added later. Here the Capricorn figures act as supporters to the central Medici coat of arms.
The ship's concert tradition goes back a long way, although in Shakespeare's plays sea voyages tend to be stormy and perilous, reflecting the reality for those wind-driven ships.
"Thou God of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell;
Thy deafening, dreadful thunders…" Pericles, Act III
SoGertrude the Queen describes Prince Hamlet as:
"Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier." Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act IV
The first recorded performance of Hamlet took place at sea in 1607, on board the East India Company ship, the Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Woodcut of The Red Dragon c. 1595
(from the Dutch E. India Company archives, 1645-6)
The sailor audience would be keenly aware of the risks when Laertes is urged aboard by Polonius -
"The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, and you are stayed for" - and later Hamlet too is hastened on his sea voyage by Claudius, the king:
"The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates ready and everything is bent for England!"
When Hamlet, safely back on land in Denmark, describes his narrow escape and rescue by pirates, did the sailors cheer and exchange anecdotes?
"…a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour; in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner…."
The Red Dragon began life in 1595 as the Earl of Cumberland's flagship, a 38 gun 'privateer' ship, for raiding on the Spanish Main, and was given its name TheScourge of Malice by Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1601 it was sold to the newly formed East India Company, renamed the Red Dragon and sailed for the Indian Ocean under the command of James Lancaster.
Sir James Lancaster c. 1600: (the ship may be one he captained in the Armada 1588)
The Red Dragon's third East India Company voyage was captained by William Keeling, and it is surviving accounts from him and his sailors which record the plays performed.
Later in the voyage, the entertainment was Shakespeare's Richard II, but even this tale of English wars and treachery two hundred years before would have extra meaning for sailors, far from home on a round trip voyage which would last two to three years. As the play opens, Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk are banished and sent into years of exile:
"Must I not serve a long apprenticehood
To foreign passages, and in the end,
Having my freedom, boast of nothing else
But that I was a journeyman to grief?" Richard II, Act I
King Richard himself, returning from Ireland, marks the moment of landing in Wales:
Aumerle: "How brooks your Grace the air,
After your late tossing on the breaking seas? Richard: " I weep for joy to stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand." Act III
King Richard II with his patron saints, The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-9
This folding devotional panel painting was probably King Richard's personal portable altarpiece. It has his emblems on the exterior side and the angels also are wearing his white hart device, and would have been taken on campaigns, such as his trip to Ireland.
And John of Gaunt's speech in Act II of the play might mean as much to the homesick sailors in the Red Dragon, sailing on distant oceans:
"……this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune,……"
Detail from the National Gallery's Wilton Diptych, showing a castle on an island, discovered during conservation in 1992
I have been dipping into Wild Hares and Humming Birds for more than a year now, a city flat-dweller marking the beginning of each month with a glimpse of life in the countryside. My images of the county now are mostly memories of our holiday journeys, as the M5 traffic crawled across the Somerset Levels, and the thoughts the landscape evoked of fugitives after Monmouth's disastrous defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685.
So Stephen Moss's monthly record of the seasons in one village have been both thought-provoking and reassuring.
"A couple of miles beyond the River Brue, the southern boundary of the parish, another winter dawn breaks over Catcott Lows. As the mist rises from the the cold ground, revealing the silhouette of Glastonbury Tor, I begin to lose any sense of feeling in my fingertips. All around me a shrill chorus of whistles pierces the chill air. It is the unmistakable sound of hundreds of wigeon, the most striking and handsome of all our dabbling ducks. ….."
"Of all the birds here before me, the wigeon have travelled the furthest. Although a few hundred pairs breed in northern Britain, their numbers are massively swelled each autumn, when close to half a million birds arrive here from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia. Because these areas freeze up during the winter, the wigeon must travel southwards and westwards, seeking out the more benevolent, maritime climate of Britain and Ireland.
Here on the Somerset Levels we have our fair share of these engaging ducks, but another winter visitor from Siberia, Bewick's swan, has all but disappeared. Named after the nineteenth-century engraver, publisher and political radical, Thomas Bewick, small flocks of these wild swans have always spent the winter here, filling the air with their yelping cries, But in the past decade numbers have fallen away, and nowadays only a handful overwinter on the levels. Most are well to the south, in the vast waterlogged fields around the villages of Muchelney, Stoke St Gregory and Curry Rivel, whose very names reflect the long and fascinating history of this landscape.
Even without Bewick's swans though, the sight and sound of more than a thousand dabbling ducks lifts the spirits. My encounter with them reinforces the continuity of this place and its wildlife over time, much in the same way as the distant backdrop of Glastonbury Tor reminds me of our human presence here across the centuries. "
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds Stephen Moss
A boy birdnesting - tailpiece in The History of Birds Vol.II 1804 Thomas Bewick