Archive for the Art Category

The Moon and Blackrock Castle

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on April 14, 2021 by telescoper

Picture Credit: Cian O’Regan

This image of February’s Full Moon (the “Snow Moon”) by Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork is by Cian O’Regan. Prints of this and other beautiful images can be bought from his website here.

The Dead Christ

Posted in Art, Literature with tags , , , on April 3, 2021 by telescoper

The Dead Christ, 1521 (oil on limewood) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Twitter reminded me this evening of this extraordinary painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and I thought I’d share it here because I realize it was painted in 1521, which means it is 500 years old this year. Despite its age this work still has the power to shock, not least because it is so different from so many works of religious art of its period. The depiction of the dead Christ is 2m long, life-size (so to speak). His eyes and mouth are open, the clear signs of putrefaction appearing in the colouring of his face, hands and feet, the body marked by wounds, is brutal in its frankness and shocking in its authenticity.

But what is the message of this work? Was Holbein questioning the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection? Or was he emphasizing how miraculous it must have been? And where was a painting of this enormous size and peculiar shape supposed to be displayed? What purpose was it meant to serve? And what’s the reason for the extended middle finger?

I’m not the only one to have asked these questions. The author Fyodor Dostoevsky was famously moved by this work, so much so that in his novel The Idiot he has a character remark “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!”.

I don’t expect we’ll ever know what Holbein was trying to say, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Great art should make you think, but should not necessarily tell you what you should think…

Laocoön and his Sons

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , , on March 15, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I was remind of the above very famous statue which is on display in the Vatican. It dates from antiquity but was unearthed almost intact during an excavation in Rome in the 16th Century. It’s an extraordinary work that depicts a legendary episode in the Trojan wars of priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. Evidently it was very cold that day…

This scene is described in Book II of Virgil‘s Aeneid which happens to be the text I studied for Latin O-level back in the day. Virgil’s verse takes the form of a strict (dactylic) hexameter which provides a rhythmic pulse perfectly designed for action sequences such as this. Before this part, Laocoön (whose name has to be spoken as four syllables – Lah-o-co-ohn – in order to scan correctly) warns the Trojans about their gift of a wooden horse using the most famous phrase in the entire Aeneid:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva 40
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: ‘O miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
Creditis avectos hostis? Aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? Sic notus Ulixes?
Aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi, 45
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis

Then, while about to sacrifice a bull to the god Neptune, he and his sons meet their grisly end:

Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt;
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

(You can find a translation into English here.)

The colour and energy of this verse, propelled by the remorseless rhythm, brings the horrific episode to life in truly compelling and typically gore-filled way. You don’t really have to be fluent in Latin to appreciate its quality. The line sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora is particularly brilliant. It’s no surprise that Virgil is regarded as such a literary superstar.

My Latin teacher at school pointed out that epic poetry like this would probably have been performed in the Roman era by an actor as a dramatic recitation, probably with a drum pounding out the rhythm and with various sound and lighting effects to boot.

Anyway, today is the Ides of March so I thought I’d keep up classical theme by posting this  priceless bit of British cultural history relevant to such a fateful day.

This is from the First Folio Edition of Carry On Cleo, and stars the sublime Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar delivering one of the funniest lines in the whole Carry On series. The joke may be nearly as old as me, but it’s still a cracker…



Birth of a Galaxy – Max Ernst

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 17, 2021 by telescoper

by Max Ernst (1891-1976), painted in 1969, 92 x 73 cm, oil on canvas.

The Hunger

Posted in Art, History, Television with tags , , on December 8, 2020 by telescoper

An iconic image of the Great Irish Famine: pen & ink drawing of Bridget O’Donnel and two of her children by (it is believed) James Mahony, published in the London Illustrated News on 22nd December 1849.

The last couple of Monday nights have seen the airing of a two-part documentary series called The Hunger on RTÉ. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever; the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels.

The series, based on a serious scholarly book called Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, and narrated by Liam Neeson, was unflinching and sometimes harrowing to watch, the dreadful personal accounts of suffering juxtaposed with equally shocking graphics showing the scale of the depopulation of rural Ireland. I haven’t read the book on which the The Hunger is based, but have ordered it from the local bookshop.

‘No imagination can conceive — no tongue express— no brush paint— the horrors of the scenes which are daily exhibited in Ireland’, observed Senator Henry Clay in 1847 at the height of the Great Hunger.

I think it would be great if The Hunger were shown on British television, though I suspect few would watch it. The British prefer their own propaganda to the truth about the empire. Oscar Wilde once remarked “The problem is the English can’t remember history, while the Irish can’t forget it”. I don’t think the Great Famine will be forgotten soon, but I for one don’t see that as a problem.

Et in Arcadia…

Posted in Art with tags , on November 28, 2020 by telescoper

“It says ‘Top Shop’…”

I doubt if anyone will get the joke without a hint.

Astronomy Photograph of the Year 2020

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 24, 2020 by telescoper

Very busy today so I only have time to share a this stunning picture, the overall winner of the 2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year, Andromeda Galaxy at Arm’s Length? by Nicolas Lefaudeux (France).


Photo credit: Nicolas Lefaudeux/2020 astronomy photographer of the year

A Revolutionary Manhole Cover

Posted in Architecture, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2020 by telescoper

I must have walked dozens of times past the above manhole cover on Maynooth University’s North Campus without paying too much attention. Then I noticed a post on Twitter of another such cover in County Kerry, in the thread following which someone mentioned one on Maynooth campus so I thought I’d take a picture of it. They must have been made for the centenary commemorations in 2016. There’s more than a hint of Soviet-style design in the artwork.

The figure depicts Eamon Bulfin raising the flag of Irish Republic above the GPO on Easter Monday 1916, the start of the Easter Rising. After the end of the rising Bulfin was condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted and, after being imprisoned in Britain for a time, he was deported to Argentina. He returned to Ireland when the Irish Free State in 1922 where he lived until his death in 1968.


The people who do things and what they do

Posted in Art, Cricket, Football, Opera, Television with tags , on July 19, 2020 by telescoper

It’s a tough lesson to learn in life that the people you admire or idolize for their contribution in a particular arena (whether that be sport, art, science or something else) turn out to be people you can’t stand in terms of their character or political views.

You have to separate, for example, having a high regard for Ian Botham’s cricketing prowess from having a high regard for his personal character. In fact I can think of few sportspeople whose company I’d enjoy socially.

The same goes in many other spheres. Richard Feynman was a truly great physicist but I’ve never bought into the personality cult surrounding him. In fact I doubt I would have liked him very much at all if we’d ever met in person. They say you should never meet your heroes. They’re right.

Another example is Richard Wagner, a brilliant composer but really horrible man, who brings us to this clip from the end of Twilight of the Gods (the last episode of Series 7 of Inspector Morse, first broadcast in 1993).

I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen it but it involves a famous opera singer, Gladys Probert, who visits Oxford to perform and receive an honorary degree. On the way to the ceremony she is shot, but was she the intended victim?

Opera-loving Morse is a huge admirer of Gladys Probert but in the course of his investigation he uncovers some unpleasant truths about her private life. He solves the crime but the case leaves him dispirited.

Here is the ending. John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Kevin Whateley is Detective Sergeant Lewis.

Evicted – Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)

Posted in Art, History with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by telescoper

I was listening to an interesting radio programme the other day about artistic depictions of Ireland and Irish history. One of the paintings discussed  was a work called Evicted which was painted in 1890 by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler). I haven’t seen the actual painting – the original (oil on canvas) is apparently somewhere in University College Dublin – but i found the discussion intriguing and decided to see if I could find a representation on the internet. Here it is in reasonably high resolution.



I’m not a proper art critic or anything, but I found this a remarkably powerful work of art made all the more interesting when I read a little bit about the artists. Elizabeth Thompson married Lieutenant General Sir William Butler after which she became Lady Butler. She made her name as an artist painting heroic depictions of British soldiers in, for example, the Crimean War. When her husband retired from military service the couple moved to Ireland, and at the time this painting was made they were living in Wicklow where one of their neighbours was none other than Charles Stewart Parnell. The late 19th Century was the time of the Land War, a period of intense social unrest in rural Ireland caused by the exploitative practices of landlords and the unfair treatment of tenants. Parnell was a vigorous campaigner for land reform and the Butlers became staunch supporters of the cause.

One day Elizabeth witnessed the eviction of a Irishwoman from her cottage in the Wicklow mountains and was so moved by it that she made this wonderful painting. When it was exhibited in London it was met with disapproval for being “too political”. The British establishment of the time did not appreciate anything too critical of the Empire.

In the painting itself there are some striking touches. The eviction party, its job done, can be seen to the left disappearing back down the valley. By all accounts the people who did this sort of thing were sadistic brutes who very much enjoyed their work. Tenants were not only evicted, but their homes  and possessions completely destroyed in order to prevent them returning.  The standing figure of the woman seems to form a group with the pieces of her cottage that are still standing, her own devastation mirroring that of her home. A few glowing embers can be seen among the wreckage.

But it’s the depiction of the woman herself which in my opinion gives the painting most of its power. You might have expected her to be shown in obvious distress, hunched, perhaps crying or wringing her hands. Instead she is standing up with her hands by her sides, looking up at the sky. Is she praying? Resigned to her fate? Or perhaps just traumatized? The painting seems to ask the viewer: how would you react if this happened to you?