August 11, 2011

Commentary on Song of Songs; Letter on the Soul; Letter on Ascesis and the Monastic Life

This 14th-century manuscript is a collection of translations into Arabic. At the beginning is the Commentary on the Song of Songs, originally in Greek, by Gregory of Nyssa (died 394), brother of Basil the Great and, with him and Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the three so-called Cappadocian Fathers. Next comes one of the many pieces of philosophy in Arabic attributed to Hermes the Sage, A Letter on the Soul. The manuscript concludes with a letter of Isaac of Nineveh (active, end of the seventh century) on asceticism and monasticism, originally written in Syriac. Isaac’s works on monasticism became very influential, not only among Syriac and Arabic readers, but also in Greek and eventually Georgian and Slavonic translations.

Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

Early in the 19th century, as wagon trains streamed into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, settlers came upon vast numbers of abandoned earthworks that they attributed to a sophisticated race of long-gone mound builders. Giving rise to often-loaded questions about human origins, the mounds and the artifacts found within them became the focus of early American efforts toward a science of archaeology. Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848) was the first major work in the nascent discipline as well as the first publication of the newly established Smithsonian Institution. It remains today both a key document in the history of American archaeology and the primary source of information about hundreds of mounds and earthworks in the eastern United States, most now vanished. While adhering to the popular assumption that the builders could not have been the ancestors of the supposedly savage Native American groups still living in the region, the authors set high scientific standards for their time. Their work provides insight into some of the conceptual, methodological, and substantive issues that archaeologists still confront. The book includes numerous maps, plates, and engravings.

Zhong Kui Painted by Sesshu

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Isoda Koryūsai, who flourished 1764–88, significantly contributed to the development of nishiki-e (full-color prints) which Suzuki Harunobu had introduced around 1765. Although he is well-known for his bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women), here he is depicting Shōki, a Taoist god and slayer of demons, whose tale is told in China as well as Japan. Koryūsai created this work soon after he received official recognition with an honorary religious rank of hokkyō in 1781. He refers to the rank on the right side of this print. Few extant works are signed in this manner.

Ichikawa Ebizō as Takemura Sadanoshin

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. In this yakusha-e (pictures of actors) by Tōshusai Sharaku, a famous Kabuki actor plays the role of an unfortunate father who commits suicide to redeem the honor of his daughter. The corner of his mouth expresses grim determination, while his hands plead forgiveness. Sharaku produced actor prints of radical design during a short period of ten months in 1794–95. His identity remains a mystery, as there are no records that give hints about the rest of his life. The exaggerated facial expressions and bold colors as in this image made Sharaku unique in his frank portrayal of his subjects, which revealed the interplay between the actor in his role as a fictional character and as an individual. Although not confirmed, it is surmised that his works were not well-received as he went against the convention of idealism and there was a sudden end to his production of new prints.

Plum Tree of a Country Farmhouse

Along with new artwork, a new and less formal style of poetry called haikai (linked verse) spread among the urbanites of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo in 17th-century Japan. Haikai was also very much a social activity, with linked-verse parties held on regular occasions in homes or at restaurants. Such poetic gatherings helped give rise to privately commissioned woodblock prints, called surimono (printed matter), which paired images with representative verses from the circle. Both were typically intended to carry the cachet of “insider knowledge” for a cultured and well-educated audience. Because such surimono were not intended for sale but as gifts, artists, engravers, and printers would produce them with extreme care. The final products are, in many cases, among the finest examples of woodblock-printing art. The poetic text on this print describes the enticing scent of a plum tree, which compels passersby to look up at its source. It is by artist, print maker, and book illustrator Toyohiro Utagawa (circa 1773–1829).

Updated Version of Hagoromo

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This playful print by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711–85) depicts a scene in the folklore of the hagoromo (literally “feather kimono” or heavenly garment), in which a young man helps an aerial spirit retrieve her mantle from a tree. In return he gains the opportunity to witness her celestial dance, but the spirit rises in the air as she dances, returning to the heavens. The flowing lines of the robe revealing her leg is typical of Ishikawa Toyonobu’s mature style of bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). Bijin-ga captured the trends in feminine beauty by featuring both real and idealized images of high-ranking courtesans, historic figures, geisha (performers of music and dance), lower-ranked courtesans, fictional characters, notable townswomen, and ordinary women.