Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013

Image

“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!

Here we go again…

August 7, 2012

I have this on my desk at work

Another year, another extraordinary claim about poor old Leonardo. I picked this one up from Doubtful News, which quite frankly is a real goldmine for this blog. I’ve covered several instances of this in the past, including the ‘Last Supper’ debacle, which continues to bring most visitors to these pages (sadly).

The really obvious problem this time is that the painting is by no means certain to be Da Vinci’s. Until and unless it is authenticated as such, it’s pretty pointless to try to look for hidden meaning where there may well be none (even if it were a Leonardo). This is a practice that is fraught with difficulty in any case, as any ‘code’ would be indistinguishable from the false patterns one could read into just about any work of art (or natural feature, cloud, cheese sandwich, or book, for that matter).

If you need any more of a warning, the author of the new book (and yes, there’s a book to be sold, and no, it’s not written by an art historian), has serialised it with…you guessed it…the Daily Mail (purveyor of such stories as this).

The ‘similarities’ that they point out (here) are just that; artistic conventions of a certain style and period. I’m not an art historian either, but the second toe being longer than the first is a genetic trait, not just a Da Vinci one. It’s also another artistic convention dating to Classical times (check out Graeco-Roman statues – short winkies and long second toes are pretty much de rigeur). The fleur de lys is a massive red herring, since the Priory of Sion was essentially a hoax. The symbol itself is widely used outwith the ‘Priory’, and oh look, it’s one of the Virgin Mary’s symbols. Talk about cherry-picking meanings.

As for the rest, this is the Leonardo that the author/paper claim is so similar; see what you think. Note however that all of the specialists consulted are either pretty equivocal about it, or outright state that it may be Da Vinci’s school, but do not attribute it to the man himself. The ID of Mary Magdalene is suspect because the Madonna with baby Jesus and young John the Baptist is a massive trope of Christian art. How is this any different? Reminds me of the claims that the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel depicting plants and ‘green men’ are somehow definitively ‘pagan’, when in fact the natural world was important to Christians too. If you ignore the bigger picture, it’s easy to fool yourself into seeing significance where none exists.

More Hidden Music?

May 14, 2012

My scepticism as to the ‘hidden’ music of Rosslyn Chapel is well-documented. The same people have also tried to show hidden music in planets, plants, and even the DNA of customers. Now it’s the turn of artwork by, and you can probably guess this one, Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (not, as the Daily Record states, ‘The Musician’), and you can see the inscription of interest in this hires version of it.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s actually some musical notation on that piece of paper. However, there’s no actual claim in the article that they’ve managed to decipher it. They are ‘…working on trying to find a piece of music which fits…’. And we all know where fitting the facts to the evidence leads. We also know that these guys did not find the musical notes in question. They were uncovered in 1905 after restoration work, and have been plainly visible since.

Finally, there’s the claim that the first word (but not, apparently, the second) of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ appears backwards on the same part of the painting. All sources I could find state that the text reads ‘CANT. ANG.‘, for ‘Cantum Angelicum’, a work by the supposed subject of the painting, Franchino Gaffurio. Even if that interpretation is itself highly speculative, I can’t see the letters resolving into ‘AGNUS DEI’ any way you cut it. You can just make out the letters in this zoomable version of the painting, and this Wikimedia version. I thought I’d have a bash at mirroring it myself. Here’s the original;

You can see the large capital ‘C’, and then what has traditionally been read as ‘ant’, all one discrete word. There’s then a space, and a very clear capital ‘A’ followed by the ‘n’ of ‘ang’, with a horizontal line below. You can just barely make out the lower case ‘g’ that follows it (look for the tail in faded, brown ink if you’re struggling).

Now, here’s the mirrored version;

The only way in which I can see what they’re seeing is if I ignore what is now the first bit entirely, and take the ‘A’ as the first letter of ‘Agnus’, ignore the gap and then interpret the next letter as ‘G’ by ignoring the horizontal stroke of the ‘t’, keeping the ‘n’ but calling the ‘a’ a ‘u’, and then somehow taking the reversed ‘C’ as an enormous deformed ‘s’.

See what you can see.

A Proper Charlie

November 22, 2010

Or:

‘We’re Gonna Need a Biggar Boat’

 

 

Reincarnation. It’s what you need, if you wanna be a record breaker. Or was that ‘dedication’? I forget. In any case, there are people out there who think they’ve lived before. Unfortunately virtually all of them want to be the same important historical figures, members of royalty, celebrities, noted fighter pilots, and so on. Even employing the logical gymnastics of the past-life believer, or invoking some $cientology-inspired Thetan-based scenario, this is difficult to explain. The reality of course is that there’s little kudos in claiming to be a medieval peasant who died of the plague aged 37.

 

Members of the reincarnation crowd feel the need to go around telling everyone they can about their glorious past life, perhaps to distract from the tediousness of their current one. The age of the internet has made boring and/or amusing people with such tales far easier. One such claimant is Charles Edward Stuart Boden, who claims to be the reincarnation of his namesake Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie.

 

Boden has been bouncing around internet forums and discussion lists for years now, and recently blundered into the JREF sceptical forum, with predictable results. Having failed to take in a single suggestion provided by the sceptics, internet drama ensued, involving an entire forum of reincarnated people. Even they weren’t buying what Charles was selling. Literally. The sceptics however, were hooked. We decided to get hold of a copy of Boden’s book, ‘Descendent of Kings’ and see just how deep the crazy-pool was. You can dip a toe in here, if you choose. Besides some substantial comedy potential, I had in mind an exercise in falsifiability. Would it be possible to pro-actively debunk the past-life related claims contained therein? Or would they be so vague, or so directly based on written history as to be unassailable (though by no means automatically true of course).

 

In this regard it was a disappointment, as it is heavily padded with a lot of biographical and historical information rehashed from existing history books and websites. I wonder why someone who was there would need to draw upon such flawed secondary source material. Though not the focus of my interest, I did check out a sample fact-check and much of it, at least, is basically accurate. However, a total lack of referencing as well as slipshod quoting and structure make it rather difficult to fact-check. There’s also no bibliography, index, or even pagination, and there are a good number of spelling and grammatical errors in the book (‘Bannockburn’ has two Ns, Charles, if you’re reading). The author is also a fan of pointless neologisms, “mediumnic” is a key one, as Charles (re)discovered his supposed past life via the world of Spiritualism (or “Spiritism” as he calls it).

 

As Alice Shortcake on the JREF forum (credit to her also for my title and associated picture) has shown, Boden has also made a hash of his genealogical claims to be directly descended from royalty (aside from the reincarnation thing), to the point of some questionable Wikipedia edits.

 

Now, Boden’s lack of scholarship has no direct bearing on the veracity or otherwise of his past-life claims. If he really was there in the 18th century, his experiences ought to in some way reflect the reality of that period and the experiences of Prince Charlie himself. In line with his other claims, Mr Boden does seem to exercise psychic prescience when he writes;

 

“The historical significance of what is contained within this story, rather than a factor that might help to evidence it, will on the contrary most probably be used as an argument against it.”

 

Uncanny, as that is precisely what I am going to do. Boden also tries to head off critical analysis of his efforts by “those who choose to live in disbelief”. Luckily, belief and disbelief are not the only positions to take. The third way is scepticism – critical analysis based on evidence. I had most success with the first three claims dealt with below. These are all linked, and therefore all stand or fall together.

 

1. Charles (as Charlie) first heard the Jacobite song “Charlie He’s My Darling” in 1746.

The problem is that this song almost certainly wasn’t known by anybody until 1796, when the famous poet Robert Burns’ version was published in the ‘Scots Musical Museum’. The page reproduced at that link is from ‘The Songs of Robert Burns’ (1903). Here are a few of the later versions, all early C19th;

See also this comparison of versions. Now, the version Boden gives us in his book (p5 in the preview version) isn’t much like any of them, and I doubt that it’s because his is somehow closer to the original. Though a 1798 mention of the song suggests that it is a traditional air, there’s no real reason to suspect that any version of it existed before Burns. If there was a purely oral folk version, it would certainly have been in the Scots language (or possibly Scots Gaelic) and wouldn’t have resembled Boden’s wholly modern turn of English phrase. In any case it’s clear that he’s put together lines from the later versions.

 

Perhaps he got it so badly wrong because, as Charlie, he wasn’t there at the time. By the time this song was being sung, he had at the least buggered off to Italy, if not been dead for over a decade. Or perhaps he’s remembering only the version he heard in his present life? In any case, it hardly constitutes evidence of any past existence – if anything, it’s evidence against the probability of that.

 

2. He “…’saw’ a pair of army boots resting upon a stool in front of a fireplace, while a minstrel sat playing this same song”.

OK, this is a minor nitpick in the scheme of things, but ‘army boots’ is an oddly modern description. Boots weren’t worn by European infantry until the mid-19th century. Buckled shoes with hose were the order of the day in the C18th, often worn in British service with gaiters (large spats in this context) of varying lengths and styles. See this chap from the 1742 ‘Cloathing Book’. Perhaps he meant cavalry boots? Conceivably Jacobite cavalrymen or mounted gentlemen may have worn these. Depictions of this are lacking, however, and Charlie himself is never shown wearing anything but shoes or brogues. Besides, Boden doesn’t say “cavalry”, “riding”, “long” or other kinds of boots – he says “army boots”.

Anyway, on to the juicy stuff…

 

3. Charles was able to recognise the skyline of a town he’d seen 250 years previously

Forgive me, I got a bit carried away with this one…

Boden tells us that he heard said song and saw said boots in a specific Scottish town on the retreat from the Jacobite incursion into England in 1746. When Charles visited Scotland in 1997 he drove through Biggar in Lanarkshire and felt that he had seen it before. In his words;

 

“The sight of the entrance to this small town, from the road that we were on as we approached it, hit me like a blow in the stomach. The vision of its row of houses, forming a curve into the main street, was literally the same as the vision of the town which had been in my memory ever since childhood.”

 

Having confirmed with his father that he had never before visited the town, the historical source that he turns to to confirm this as evidence of his past life is… a “tourist brochure” he’s given in a pub.

 

The screamingly obvious alternate explanation is a glitch in the Matrix de ja vu. If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the reincarnation of a famous 18th century wannabe-Scots noble, and you’re visiting the land of his exploits, then chances are you’re going to read some significance into this de ja vu. If Boden had been reading up on Charlie, he would likely have come across the name of the town. Another explanation, for the same reasons, is simple imagination. Boden may not have known that Charlie rested with his army at Biggar, but it was a pretty good bet that he at least passed this way, since Biggar lies on one of the only thoroughfares to/from Scotland (then in particular).

 

Boden states that the approach into Biggar in 1997 was “literally the same” as his 1746 “vision” of it. But what did Biggar actually look like in 1746? Thanks to British military mapping and to National Library of Scotland’s digitisation programme, we can get a good idea. To cover my bases, I also reviewed maps of the same area from 1832.

 

I’ve compiled these together with Ordnance Survey coverage of the town from the present day:

 

 

 

Despite a near-tripling in population between the first two maps, the town remained nonetheless nuclear, in the sense that it had yet to grow outwards along the roads radiating from the marketplace around which it had been established in the medieval period. Though there are little blobs alongside the road on the 1832 map, when zoomed right in, these are clearly trees and not buildings. Since that time however, Biggar (like virtually all UK towns) has changed substantially, creating the “…row of houses, forming a curve into the main street” that Boden describes in 1997. This was nothing but fields until the late 19th century.

 

Could it be the wrong road? Unlikely, as the main road through the town today (now the A702) follows the same route as it has since Roman times.  The only other realistic possibilities are Boghall Road, also empty of structures, and what is now John’s Road, which takes you straight into the heart of the town but again lacks any roadside buildings outwith the main street. Even if Charlie approached not from the south at all, but from the east via Peebles, or the west via Cormiston and Langlees (which would then have taken an even more westerly direction), there is still no curved “entrance” to the town.

 

This is the “curve” that I think Boden is talking about – just after the meeting of the roads into the town from the south-west. Even this far into the modern town, none of the buildings visible in Street View appear on those old maps, and none show any visible architecture older than perhaps the 1840s.

 

Now, there is an even Biggar (ha) issue with Boden’s claim than some discrepancies in mapping (as he might argue). That is, Prince Charles never actually stayed at Biggar.

 

That’s right, I’ve just wasted your time and my own. I’m sorry about that. I fear that Mr Boden has been the victim of the tourist trade. Every vaguely historic residence or town in the country claims to have played host to royalty or celebrity, regardless of any supporting evidence or lack of it. Even places just down the road from each other. It’s rather like past-life people always wanting to be the famous dead people.

 

Note that Charles also swallows the story that William Wallace was also at Biggar, from the same source. This “Battle of Biggar”, like much of what we think we know about Wallace, is actually an invention by the chronicler/story-teller ‘Blind Harry’.

 

But I digress. The fact is that the movement of the Jacobite army and of the Prince in particular was well documented – we know where he stayed and when. Biggar features in historical sources on the ‘45 only as a muster point for Jacobite recruits in and around Lanarkshire; never, so far as I’m aware, as a camp-site for Charles and the forces under his direct command.

 

Not only that, but it’s even highly unlikely that an unrecorded stay was made there, since the closest to Biggar that the Prince’s route to Hamilton Palace took him was Douglas Castle. Biggar lay ten miles in the wrong direction (due east). Even if nearby Carluke’s claim were to turn out to be valid, that’s even further away (15 miles). I’m aware that Google Maps uses modern roads, so for the really keen I checked the actual route onward from Dumfries. This was roughly that of the present-day B7078, from Leadhills to Douglas Castle (where he really did lodge) Hamilton Palace (likewise) and Glasgow (check for yourself here). It’s essentially a straight line, which makes sense given the exigent circumstances. What makes no sense whatever is a detour to Biggar. Unless it was for the excellent fish and chips (which I can vouch for).

 

Phew. Thanks for staying with me through that. We have Charlie’s Skye Boat pretty well sunk by my estimation (shame the same can’t be said of the Corries). But for the sake of completeness, here are the other, less falsifiable claims from the book.

 

4. The ‘Golden Bridge’

Boden has a vision of making a ‘bridge’ in the mud with a gold necklace (as the young Prince), and promising the real thing to a young girl when they grow up. This has no historical parallel that I’m aware of. It’s therefore either secret knowledge from the Akashic Record, or he’s making stuff up.

 

5. Flora MacDonald hid Charlie’s face from prying eyes with her big, floppy, green hat.

We’re lucky enough to have MacDonald’s own narrative of events, which Charles himself appears to draw from for his book. It isn’t short on detail, yet there is  nothing about a hat. Charles himself admits that he hasn’t been able to validate the story. So again, he must either really have been there, or is imagining it. Which is more likely?

 

I would just point out that in the 1891 G.W. Joy painting of Flora, she’s wearing a big green hat…
6. Reincarnation: a game for all the family.

Like all good fictional stories, there’s a big twist at the end of this book. Boden is told by a psychic that his wife is the reincarnation of Flora MacDonald, and perhaps even more extraordinarily, that his son was his arch-enemy the Duke of Cumberland! There’s no historical evidence offered for the son – an apology for bad behaviour that Charles can’t otherwise explain is taken as validation of this new level of dysfunctional family life. But Charles confirms the Flora link by comparing a picture of this painting to his wife. You can see for yourself whether Charles’ missus bears a resemblance to George William Joy’s rendering of Flora in the painting.

 

She actually looks more like this painting, which is actually contemporary and less romanticised than the Joy painting. It doesn’t look entirely UNLIKE her. But why would one reincarnated person resemble their past self, and another not? Because Charles sure as heck doesn’t look anything like his namesake. Charles’ “Spiritist” contact also gives him her psychic impression that Charles’ past-life-wife was “extending her hand to (him) in order to help (him)”. Charles is convinced by Joy’s depiction of Flora extending her hand to Charlie – yet as I’ve said, the work wasn’t painted until 1891; making this an irrelevant coincidence at best.

 

That’s it. Six claims, none of which are remotely convincing by any objective standard. But then like all who fall in love with an idea, it’s clear that Charles’ past life is not something that he’s able to be objective about. We can see that he’s willing to read an awful lot into these dreams, ‘visions’ or outright flights of fancy in order to make them fit his need to believe “until proven otherwise” that he was once someone of international importance and influence. For me, it’s been an interesting exercise in active debunking of “past lives”. For although the onus should always be on the claimant, by their very nature such people don’t see why that should be the case. Of course, if they did, I’d be out of a blog.

 

I hereby dedicate this post to the crazy people of the JREF Forum who stumped up the cash to purchase what may well be the only copy of ‘Descendant of Kings’ ever sold. Thanks to all who contributed to the cause!

Sacred bleu!

October 28, 2010

That unusual cruciform French vampire killing kit that I blogged about a while ago sold for 6875 Euros ($9364). That’s more than three times the original estimate! Stephanie Meyer clearly has a lot to answer for. Then again we’ve seen Blomberg type kits go for even more than that, so perhaps the level of interest in these things isn’t dependent on pop-culture resurgences. I suspect that casual interest IS, but the sort of loon* that’s prepared to drop that much money on a curio is likely to do so regardless of whether vampires are ‘in’ or not at the time of purchase. It’s all speculation really.

My old link within the article should still be valid, but for the sake of convenience:

http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5346074

This brief update might have to suffice for a Halloween post – but if I can find the time to finish something I’ve been working on about the mummies of St Michan’s in Dublin, I will.

Note to French-speaking readers – apologies for the deliberate misspelling of the title. I have a thing for pun titles.

*No offence meant. I would count myself amongst said loons if I had that sort of disposable income!

Towards a Typology of Vampire Killing Kits

October 2, 2010

It seems we have a new VKK on the market – a “high-end” piece regardless of its authenticity and age.

For once we have hi-res images to work with, and it’s almost believably “19th century”, with a pistol that’s clearly hand-made. However, there is a lot of bright steel and fresh scratching on the under-side of the pistol. The red felt lining, though worn in places, is pristine in others and still suspiciously bright. In fact the dye used in its manufacture has stained the ivory on both pistol and the case.

One might expect someone familiar with working with such materials not to have made this mistake, which must have manifested soon after manufacture of the kit and marrs an otherwise attractive object. Someone turning out a modern curio, on the other hand, might not anticipate this result or have hung onto the kit long enough to see the dye bleed in this way. I also see the remains of adhesive on the inside of the lid, and have to wonder whether this kit might too once have borne a spurious “Ernst Blomberg” trade label. I’m not discounting the possibility of a very late (post-Dracula!) C19th kit,

Whatever the authenticity/age of this new kit, I thought it a good opportunity to try to make sense – if such a thing is even possible – of the some of the kits out there.

As you can see from Spooky Land’s attempt to classify and categorise VKKs, it is a daunting task, as no two kits are identical, and very few are even similar, despite the precisely-worded (“Blomberg”) label that many they share. This in itself suggests many different places and persons of origin. However, there are some parallels between kits that may be significant.

According to the seller of the new kit, there were three others like it from the same source. This we can’t confirm, but aside from its unique ivory case and accoutrements, this new kit is very similar to a pair of equally fancy kits sold by Sotheby’s in April 2007.

A very similar fourth kit with cruciform pistol was sold by Fain & Co in 1997.

Like the other three, it is also inscribed ‘I.H.S.’ (for the first three letters of Christ’s name in Greek). A fourth kindred kit is that published in Guns & Ammo magazine (1989) that I mentioned last time. There are no images of this kit anywhere else online, so far as I know (including on G&A’s own site);

It too is really nicely done, and though without “IHS” inscription, contains that unusual under-hammer cruciform pistol. To get techy for a moment, the similarity between the pistols is far from superficial. All are muzzle-loaded, featuring a combined mainspring and (under-)hammer that is ‘cocked’ into a notch on a folding trigger. When this is pulled, the tensioned spring slaps down onto a percussion cap at the breech and fires the main charge. A crude but clever way to incorporate a gun barrel into a wooden cross-shaped stock. The Fain kit lacks the combined ramrod/stake of the Forgett piece, as well as the bevelled arms of the cross/stock on the latter (probably an attempt at ergonomics)! The new (Greg Martin) gun opts for a folding knife-bayonet in lieu of a stake. The other cross-pistols also have wooden ivory-faced cruciform stocks, where this new one is solid steel with ivory cladding. Otherwise they are clearly either by the same maker, or are close copies of each other.

There is one other possible example of kit with cross-pistol at the Gatlinburg branch of Ripley’s, however the contents of the kit don’t seem to match their own caption. In any case, the pistol visible in that kit does have a similar underhammer system of ignition albeit fitted to a much more conventional mid-C19th pistol.

Where to go from here? I decided to look for parallels beyond kits with cruciform guns. I found it in the Ripley’s kit from San Francisco, which has a cross in the same style as the guns (possibly even a gun in its own right) which, like the two Sotheby’s kits and this new example, is also ivory-clad and marked ‘IHS’.

We then have yet another Ripley’s kit with what appears to be a folding plug bayonet (with silver-tipped stake attachment) for its (unusually flintlock), again marked ‘IHS’. Incidentally, despite its cheesy appearance, it is also more convincing than most kits, as the typically French case design, complete with cruciform cut-out for the bayonet, all look to be genuinely mid-C19th in date. It is essentially a cased pistol with the one specialised “anti-vampire” component, rather than the usual mish-mash in which the pistol is just one element.

There are then many more kits containing small wooden crosses faced with ivory – it is tempting to include these also, but I don’t want to over-reach myself by making such tenuous connections.

Returning to the Mercer museum’s kit – proven to be of modern manufacture, let’s not forget – we find yet another cross, lacking the IHS inscription but containing the same clipped circular religious medallion at its centre as the Forgett kit’s cross-gun. The author of the Guns & Ammo article supposed this to be St Peter, but given the analogies of impaling demonic creatures with long phallic objects, this is most likely Saint Michael.

This probably relates to the association of St. Michael with the exorcism of evil spirits in the Catholic religion. Not really something seen with the folkloric vampire, and so tempting to take as another hint that we’re dealing with the post-Dracula era.

From the Mercer kit, which has silver balls marked with crosses, we can also include this kit, now in the Victoria Police Museum in Australia.


This in turn takes us right back to the Forgett kit, as all three contain silver (possibly actually pewter) balls (i.e. bullets) with crosses cut into them. As I’ve commented before, the literary references for this practice date from the ’60s and ’70s.

The Victoria Police Museum kit is another fascinating one for which I have some more details. The pistol is a late percussion type made by Calderwood & Son of Earl Street, Dublin. This version of the name plus its obsolete form lets us date the gun to the period 1857 to 1870. No other kit contains a pistol of this size and type. In addition, its case bears an unusual inscription in a vaguely medieval script;

aski kataski
haix tetrax
damnameneus
aision

It’s a version of an old supposedly magical phrase (think ‘abracadabra’) found on the statue of Artemis at Ephesius (c500BC) – a phrase of unknown origin that was used in everyday magic and ritual in the classical world. It seems to have survived via Gnostic Christianity into the 19th century in the form found on that lid – which whatever the maker’s rationale for using it, certainly appears in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical glossary (Theosophy being a new age religion from the 1870s onwards). It’s still in ‘use’ today with ritual ‘magicians’ of one sort or another. The inscription is in a bizarre typeface resembling none I have ever seen (answers on a postcard). It is inlaid in a style that to me suggests mid-19th century at the earliest – but shows cleaned areas in the aged/treated wood around each letter, suggesting that they are later additions. Pistol cases typically either eschewed decoration altogether, or had an escutcheon plate or decorative shape inlaid into the centre of the lid. The lining itself is not very mid-C19th as it uses cut-out forms with finger slots instead of the usual divided compartments. I think it likely that this is a re-use of an older pistol case.

What conclusions can we draw from this group of kits? Sadly, not many. Though far from being copies of each other, there are clear connections between these half-dozen or so kits that suggest a common origin. One possibility is a ‘school’ of vampire kit makers turning out multiples in order to make money. Another, just as likely, is that we are witnessing an organic string of copyists taking ideas from a kit or kits that they’ve seen and making their own version with the antique items and craft skills that they have available to them. In any case, this web of connections includes our only proven fake, casting doubt upon the others by association and to varying degrees. This doesn’t automatically make them all fakes of course.
Given that Val Forgett was a replica gunmaker by trade from 1956 onwards, it would be a neat conclusion indeed if we could say that he was the originator of the Blomberg kits. However, he was also an international dealer in antique arms and armour, and claimed in the article that he bought the kit ‘at a gun show’ in the US. This is unlikely to be the kit allegedly sold by Michael De Winter in England in 1972, as he made no mention of such an unusual pistol. Is it the product of an imitator? As with most other questions surrounding these kits, we are unlikely to ever know unless more VKKs can be scientifically tested or at least subjected to closer scrutiny by specialists outside the auction houses that do so well out of selling them.

Un kit d’extermination de vampires

September 12, 2010

<Update> – the below kit went for 6875 Euros ($9364).

Just a quick comment on the latest Vampire Killing Kit (VKK) to appear on the market, which is being offered by Christies in Paris. It’s a very unusual piece even for a VKK, departing significantly from the Blomberg pistol-case concept and indeed the traditional ad-hoc doctor’s-bag of popular fiction. It’s more of a custom travelling case. Interestingly they’ve had their head of modern art sales comment on the piece, including this knowing caveat:

“Although it is classified as a piece of furniture, the humour of this work means one might also regard it as a piece of contemporary art.”

I’d agree entirely. Contemporary. About time someone acknowledged the elephant in the room. Yet, perhaps for fear of alienating a quarter of the customer base for this kind of thing, she goes on to date it to;

“…the late 19th century, when legends about vampires were widely believed.”

…despite even the actual lot description saying;

“early twentieth century, with later additions”.

…though they don’t specify what they believe those additions to be.

This seems contradictory, as contemporary art is usually defined as post-WW2. In any case, as this is not a ‘Blomberg’ kit, with no spurious label, no firearm, and no silver bullets, this is actually a plausible enough date on the face of it. Dating of the individual components aside, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t have been familiar in western Europe post c1730 with the original reports from the east, and particularly into the 19th century with the growing number of fictional tales about vampires. The kit itself looks just about old enough for the claimed date(s), though there’s something odd about the pattern of wear on the case, which also looks somewhat bodged together – the joints at the arms of the cross for instance appear to be simply butted together.

However, I’m not sure that vampires were ‘widely believed’ by even the late 19th century, at least not in ‘western’ world, which is where every single known example of kit has been ‘found’. The closest we’ve got to a kit being owned in earnest is the example recovered by police in Australia from a Romanian immigrant – but there’s still no evidence that the kit itself had come from there. The usual interpretations of VKKs are;

1) ‘Genuine’ i.e. mid-late C19th, actually intended for killing vampires (their actual existence notwithstanding).

2) Period novelty items.

3) Modern novelty items.

4) Out-and-out fakes of (1) and (2).

I discount 1) entirely, would love to find an example of 2), and think that most if not all actually fall into categories 3) and 4).

Now, as the lady from Christies herself says, there is ‘humour’ in this piece – it’s cross-shaped, for goodness sake. Hardly practical for carrying about, nor even for brandishing the box at a vampire if caught short. The arrangement of the contents is oddly symmetrical. The whole thing is even more obviously tongue-in-cheek and stylised than the Blomberg kits. Like those, it’s likely a play on the religious war aspect of vampire literature (typified by ‘Dracula’) – the vampire as demon to be exorcised. So which is it? Late C19th and made in earnest to kill ‘real’ vampires? Or a piece of modern art? You can’t have it both ways. Unless you’re trying to sell a badly-made pine box full of trinkets for 2000 Euros, that is. It’s whatever you want it to be. If past sales are anything to go by, and with the current vamp-craze still in full swing, this is likely to realise substantially more than that. It’s enough to give one ideas…

Wary Had a Little Lamb or “Peruvian Pareidolia”

December 5, 2008

Thanks to Foolmewunz on the JREF forums for this beaut of a BS History story. An “archaeoastronomer” named Bill Veall claims to have found an ancient temple in the Andes. But not just any temple. This one is LAMB SHAPED, baby!

This has to be textbook pareidolia. Think Jesus on a skirting board, the Face On Mars, that sort of thing. So far, this guy is keeping his cards close to his chest – when and if he releases the location, we can check for ourselves just how lamb-like this “feature” is. I suspect that is the real reason why he hasn’t yet done so. To quote Veall himself;

“I have a very simple explanation for those who don’t believe me,” Mr Veall says. “If I gave you the co-ordinates of the site, a million people would find it immediately. When you know where it is, it’s obvious. But we want to secure and preserve the site until we can get a scientific team to have a look at it.”

Last time I heard evasion like that, the earth-shattering discovery in question turned out to be a monkey-suit covered in offal. Then (assuming it is our chum) we have the rather childish retort on the Sky comments page;

“To all those disbelievers in what is surely a momentous and historical discovery- please keep your inane rubbish off SKY NEWS;I know for a fact that the images are absolutely genuine and the whole site will be filmed at close quarters in April/May 2009Habasha”

I really hope that isn’t you, “Bill”, for your sake. The internet doesn’t give a fig for your ego.

William J Veall’s only internet presence prior to this story was the Nascodex site a bounty of speculative online archaeology. See what you think of an earlier discovery of his – an, erm, “owl”… Neither can I find any academic or other publications under his name. Aside from “Nascodex”, we do have the website of the company that produced his promo video (as featured in the Sky News link).  There’s some lovely self-publicity and handy press contact details on the  bio page, but precious little of substance re the actual “discovery”.

Shadron of the JREF Forums has whipped up a nice little analysis of one feature – the so-called “language” on the so-called “altar”. You can see it in the link above, but for reading ease (and because this entry lacks piccies!) I reproduce it here;

“OK, just for grins I did a little analysis on the pics on Bro. Veall’s images on his web page. On the first page he shows “altar” with the supposed writing on it; for those who are blind to his imagination, he shows another image on a “more…” page. The two are obviously extracted from the same image (first of all, no maps service is going to update some forgotten crag in the Andes very often, and for he second, all the snow patterns are identical). Now, Veall states at the bottom of the page that the images have been “lightly retouched to enhance definition for transmission over the Internet”. Indeed. Unfortunately, the point of this all is in that “definition”.

After rotating one image and then resizing it downward to match the other in resolution, here are the two images side by side:

peru-pareidolia1

The one on the left is the enhanced image on the second page. The enhancements include:

  • Touch up on the “letters” on the stone (apparently done in snow on the altar), particularly the first and third characters, but including all.
  • All the surroundings except the altar are grayed out.
  • The color on the altar is played up, particularly the green, which is only hinted at in the right image.
  • The pic is stretched in the vertical direction about 12%, giving more room for the letters to be better depicted.

Now, NASA photo users enhance some of NASA’s astronomical photographs (over and above the fact that many are false color images anyway) for more spectacular results in public consumption, but that’s not really an attempt to deceive.

This does appear to be. Why am I not surprised?

Shame on him for trying to con a poor country like Peru, anxious to get some tourist attention. Shame on them for believing him, if they bite.”

Shame indeed, Shadron, if it is indeed a hoax.

Update – the rather good Museum of Hoaxes has similar feelings.

Update #2 – still no proof offered by Veall, but another counter to the original claim that I can’t believe I didn’t think of myself – THERE WERE NO SHEEP in Peru until Europeans introduced them, well into recorded history. Needless to say, there were therefore no lambs, sacred or otherwise, to serve as models for any carved feature.

Those Elusive Knights Templar

December 10, 2007

Though entirely without substance, the notion that the medieval order of the Knights Templar hid and persisted somewhere in Scotland after their destruction in the early C14th is too far out of control to be dispatched in one post. It’s also been tackled quite thoroughly by others, notably Robert Cooper in his “Rosslyn Hoax?” and Mark Oxbrow in the less in-depth but rather more accessible “Rosslyn and the Grail“. I’ll focus on the claims surrounding some stone grave slabs at sites in Kilmartin and Kilmory Knap, both in the West Highlands of Scotland.

kilmory.jpg

National heritage institution Historic Scotland describe Kilmory succinctly as “A small medieval chapel with a collection of typical West Highland grave slabs and some early medieval sculpture.” A bit of a “Mostly Harmless” entry, but hey, it’s accurate. This interpretation is not enough for the speculative historians, who propose it as evidence of a long-running hypothesis that the Knights Templar somehow survived disbandment and hid themselves in western Scotland (Argyll is the location usually given in the pseudohistorical “literature”). The Argyll connection was proposed by Baigent and Leigh of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” fame, and as readers will know, once a claim is out there, it’s pretty tough to fully lay it to rest. Those carrying out some casual online research into the Templars or this area of Scotland will no doubt encounter the RosslynTemplars.org.uk site. This seems to be somewhat of a prototype for parts of Robert Cooper’s book, and hosts some useful images and musings. Being unfinished, however, and Cooper’s book (quite rightly) available in print only, it does not effectively separate fact from fiction and can appear ambiguous in places.

The lynch-pin, in fact, the only supposed evidence for the Templar connection is the idea that the grave marking slabs found there somehow represent Templar burials. A typical example is shown at the top of this item, and many more from Kilmory are to be seen on RosslynTemplars.org.uk. That site does recognise some flaws in the claims they relate, but ultimately still seem to “want to believe” that there must be something to the idea, and that Templars might indeed have been buried there. Of course, they’re working backwards – trying to fit the evidence to the claim and doing Baigent and Leigh’s work for them in the process. A more critical approach is needed.

For those unfamiliar with both the graveslabs of the West Highlands and the history of the Templars (i.e. most people!) this seems quite plausible on the face of it. But are these slabs so unusual? Do they really bear Templar symbolism and even depict Knights of the order? Well, this blog isn’t called the “BS Historian” for nothing. Let’s take a realistic run through the Baigent and Leigh checklist of “Templar” features…

Templar Slabs?
Let’s not mess about. They don’t look anything like Knights Templar, or any other crusading knight, for that matter. As an artefact type, the slabs themselves (an example from elsewhere is pictured above) constitute nothing more or less than evidence of a warrior elite with ties in all three areas – fighting men who lent or sold their skills and weaponry to anyone worthy or wealthy enough, from Irish chieftains to Robert the Bruce himself. In fact slabs like this are quite common not just in Argyll, the claimed refuge of the last Templars, but across the West Highlands and Isles of Scotland. Thanks to the Galloglass branches of the families in question, they also have direct parallels in Ireland, typically show more heavily armoured men. One theory is that the original West Highland warriors, being more reliant upon their wooden galleys for transport (see below), eschewed easily corroded and difficult to maintain mail armour in favour of their distinctive long quilted aketon/cotuns, possibly faced with deer hide. Of course it’s also possible that the reverse is true, with mail worn under the aketon, the Galloglass being the ones abandoning their outer armour (for some reason). The other de rigeur features of such figures (although not all slabs have all features) are a rather pointy type of bascinet , a simple spear, and usually, a distinctively Scottish style of single-handed sword.

slab1.jpg

Grave slab from Islay

The intention of all of this material depiction was the same – to display power, prestige, and wealth. In the case of the Galloglass kindreds, this was hard-earned by mercenary soldiering. Much of the military equipment shown tallies with that listed in the Bruce’s Arming Act of 1318 – the warriors may have been demonstrating that they were so equipped, and then some! But none of it, not one feature, has any connection whatever to the Knights Templar. In light of this, Andrew Sinclair’s claim that a figure at Kilmartin is that of a “crusader” is odd. As armed and armoured men go, he could not look less like a crusading knight, let alone a Templar specifically. See the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” for a good idea of what they ought to look like, or some of the images on this excellent page (about the great helm of the period):

knight-c1285.jpgkt-effigies.jpg

Crusaders c1285 (left) and effigy drawings of REAL Knights Templar (right)
All wear typical head-to-toe mail and sleeveless surcoats.
Nothing like the West Highland warrior slabs.

Templar Ships?
Some slabs, not just those near Argyll (see above), also include a depiction of a sailing vessel. The Templars did indeed use wooden medieval galleys of this sort – they even had their own shipwrights. So is this a true and reliable Tempar symbol? Unlikely. These are rather more likely to be depictions of West Highland galleys, even more vital to life in the watery world of the coastal and isles Gael than to the globetrotting Templar. There is also an element of the Scandinavian influence here again – these vessels were not so different in construction and function to the Viking longships still being built in the Norse homelands at the time. But they were more visually impressive, being owned and used by those at the other end of the social scale to your average logboat paddler. Kindreds or clans with West Highland connections like Clan Donald even came to use the galley in their coats of arms. For those with hereditary or battle-won prestige and finances, the grand galley, like the other slab features, was a symbol of their power and influence – an attempt to “take it with you” in death that the typical Christian burial ritual, with its proscription against grave goods, couldn’t sacrifice. It may actually be a hang-over from pagan days.

galley.jpg
A typical West Highland galley – but from a named Gaelic tomb
in the Western Isles, not the Argyll area…

Templar Swords?
RosslynTemplars pose the question of whether the ubiquitous and disctinctive sword design seen on the slabs might be a uniquely Templar weapon. I can answer this by saying that there is no evidence at all that these swords were ever used by Templars, and every indication that they were a Scando-Gaelic Scottish design. This page mentions the Baigent and Leigh claim that graveslabs bearing a sword like that seen at Kilmartin, did indeed once mark Templar graves. This is clearly nonsense when one examines the dozens of West Highland, Isles, and even East Highland slabs that feature the same type of Gaelic single-handed or hand-and-a-half sword in some capacity. These weapons all feature a swept guard with swollen tips, protruding central “langets” along the blade, and either lobated or “tea-cosy” type Viking style pommel, or a later rounded type with protruding tang enclosure (as seen two links back). The blade is usually a pan-European design classified by sword historian Ewart Oakeshott as Type XII – a wide but tapering 3/4 fullered blade, whose heyday was the 13th and 14th centuries – within the period of both Templar (1100-1307) and our warriors (c1300-1400). It’s not possible to establish a closer date for either carved depictions, or for the several examples of these swords that exist today in museum collections, but we know from these real swords that the depictions are accurate and Gaelic in origin, because no weapons of this complete design (or “halflang”, as some arms and armour scholars call it) have ever been found outside Scotland. Further, many elements of the hilt were retained or adapted in the later and much more well-known two-handed “claymore” of the 16th Century, with its quatrefoil (rather than swollen) terminals. A tell-tale typological sign is that the later pommel on the “halflang” is identical to that on the earlier of the claymores, before a globe pommel was adopted, which was in turn (along with many cut-down blades) retained in the basket-hilted “claymore” of later years. These earliest swords are therefore part of an traceable tradition of Scottish swordmaking. Any refugee Templar choosing to be buried under a representation of such a weapon, must have wholly embraced the culture of his adopted land in order to forsake the conventional cross-hilted weapon of his crusading days. Or to quote Eddie Murphy, deep deep deep undercover. So much so, that we wouldn’t actually be able to tell him from his native counterpart. Which makes a nonsense of the original claim.

west-highland-swords.jpg
One of the Kilmory slab swords (left) and one of several surviving “halflang”
swords recovered in Scotland and Ireland (this one is now in Glasgow)


Templar Crosses?

The other vaguely plausible claim about these slabs at Kilmartin is that one of them (far left in this linked image) bears a cross pattee – the symbol of the Knights Templar. A conclusion of Templar origins must first ignore the classic single-handed Scottish sword, as discussed above. Granted, the cross within the circle somewhat resembles the cross pattee, one application of which was as a Templar symbol. However, it’s not actually a cross at all (though may have been intended to serve as one in this context). Have a look at the below images, especially another slab from elsewhere in the Highlands which depicts another textbook West Highland warrior, with the same so-called “pattee” cross at his feet. Compare the supposed “Templar” example… In fact, it is a cross-of-arcs – a common early (“Celtic”) Christian, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian design. See “Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands” for some examples of this, especially page 128. They are found not just in this area, but across Scotland and England. This makes sense given the mixed cultural background of the warriors in question, but none at all in terms of any supposed Templar connection. Though the Kilmartin and Kilmory crosses may be contemporary with the Templars, the style of cross pre-dates them. It didn’t originate with them, and wasn’t exclusive to them even in their heyday.

pattee.jpgslab2.jpgslab7-ringknotslab.jpg
Kilmartin cross claimed as Templar (left) compared to West Highland (middle) and English Cumbrian (right) equivalents

But wait a second, there is another, quite strikingly “pattee” cross at Kilmory. There’s no denying that it matches pretty closely. Again though, one only has to start looking for similar crosses in the medieval Gaelic world, and we start to see them everywhere. For example in Ireland, carved into older, pagan stones in an attempt to assert religious control. Clearly these cannot all be Templar in origin. In fact the style of cross is a popular and recurring form of the famous Christian “brand logo”, one of many chosen for subtle variations in their meaning, now lost, or simply for stylistic or regional reasons.

The same goes for this example, with the extra snag that the piece of stone bearing this supposed Templar temple marker was found in modern times, more than ten miles from the chapel. The chances of it being carved to mark out Kilmory chapel as a Templar one are therefore slim (never mind the issue of just how incognito these secret Templars could be with the medieval equivalent of a flashing neon sign over their door…

And how about this slab below? Is this a Templar cross?

slab5-radulfus.jpg

Nope. This is the slab of a priest who was dead and buried on the opposite coast to Argyll – in Aberdeen – more than 100 years before the Templars were even disbanded (remember, the claim here is that the remaining Templars took refuge in Scotland after their early C14th disbandment). The folks at RosslynTemplars.org.uk must be aware of other crosses similar to the croix pattee that are certainly not, because they show an example of a consecration cross here. The bracelet design on this slab is another, the sword denoting another career warrior of note in the area. Other funerary art of the time and region includes plant-like designs and wheel-like crosses like the “escarbuncle” to be seen on the grave slab of William St Clair (now in Rosslyn Chapel). Of course the St Clair slab is also claimed to be Templar, despite his family giving evidence against the Templars at a 1309 trial. The design of cross to be included on any given English or Scottish slab of the 12th-15th centuries was down to personal or family preference, and each had subtly different meanings. The Templars themselves used a variety of cross designs beside the pattee or St John’s cross, and even if the crosses at Kilmory were perfect matches for a croix pattee, we could still not say with any certainty that this denoted a Templar grave.

Masonic Set-Square?
There is only one Argyllshire slab that features all of the items on the Baigent and Leigh Templar Spotter’s checklist. The galley, the armed figure, the sword, the cross and “floriate” designs we have already covered in this article, as being typically medieval Gaelic features found across a wide area. The “masonic set square” is the last of these. It is a difficult feature to interpret, and seems to resemble a set-square only inasmuch as any right-angled design. But, even assuming it does represent a set-square, we are talking 300 years before the Freemasons were even established. There is, in addition, no historic connection between the Knights Templar and the Freemasons – only what the latter call “traditional histories” – myths, to you and I. See Robert Cooper’s “Rosslyn Hoax” for an excellent debunking of this connection. Prior to Freemasonry, which formed from earlier guilds of stonemasons, a set-square depicted in stone meant some connection to an actual craftsman. Given that at least one graveslab from the Isles features a dedication to three craftsmen apparently valued by the Lords of the Isles, the appearance of such a feature should certainly not result in a default conclusion of “Knight Templar!”

In conclusion then, to accept the above as evidence of French Templar knights in the Gaelic West Highlands is to deny an historically documented warrior culture. Baigent and Leigh claim that Argyll was chosen as the new HQ of the now secret order, because it was sparsely populated and remote. More modern-day snobbery I’m afraid. In reality medieval Argyll was a thriving sea port in an age when over-land travel was difficult, but wooden sailing ships afforded fast and reliable access to this, and other coastal towns. Another claim is that it was the Bruce himself who afforded safe haven to the Knights Templar because of their assistance to him, notably at the pivotal Battle of Bannockburn where a mysterious host of knights is said to have arrived at the eleventh hour to save the day. This too, is rubbish, with no mention in the contemporary sources. The “small folk” referred to latterly would have been lightly armed camp followers fighting on foot, not mounted knights. Their arrival on the field either persuaded the enemy that a reserve force was engaging and they must retreat. The very idea of a fanatical religious order of knights fighting with the excommunicated Bruce is inherently unlikely. Ironically though, West Highland warriors and Islemen; the men really buried under the slabs mentioned above, were among Bruce’s host that day. And the Knights Templar do have history elsewhere in Scotland; just not after their disbandment as claimed. It’s strange that instead of taking an interest in real history, some prefer to weave romantic fantasy.

Guests at the Last Supper?

August 6, 2007

This one’s more contemporary than my other posts, even if I am a little slow on the draw. It involves a recent claim by a guy who is variously described as a “computer analyst”, “amateur scholar” and “information technologist” (aka “a librarian”). Whatever he is, he’s called Slavisa Pesci, and he says that Da Vinci has hidden imagery within the painting, though he’s being deliberately coy about exactly what. Why do all that work yourself when there’s a world full of credulous loons to fill in the blanks for you? The story has been widely reported and, like all Da Vinci/Christ related claims, has attracted a lot of attention. Several of the websites set up to host the manipulated images he’s put together exceeded their bandwith which in turn led to further media coverage. His specific claims are:

1. On the extreme left and right of the painting, red-robed figures described as “knights”.

2. Mid-left, a female figure holding a baby, implied (if not stated) to be Jesus’ alleged squeeze and bearer of the holy bloodline, Mary Magdalene.

3. In front of the man himself, a goblet, presumably the grail itself (although perhaps not, as all recent speculative “historians” tell us that there was no actual cup).

Perhaps the most obvious problem here is that Da Vinci’s painting was made ooh, about 1500 years after Christ’s lifetime, and is therefore no more an accurate representation of the Last Supper than say, this. Another hitch with this theory is that the painting is, frankly, knackered. Da Vinci could not possibly have predicted how and to what extent his painting would fade and deteriorate. Possibly this has only made the alleged figures harder to make out, or, more likely in my view, it has allowed them to be imagined. You also have to ask why any 15th Century artist would hide these characters such that they would be undetectable by any known technology. Unless Nostradamus got him a very pre-release copy of Photoshop 0.0 I suppose. Not only has he flipped the image and superimposed it on top of the original, he’s had to make both copies semi-transparent to achieve the desired effect (which is still pretty unconvincing in my humble opinion). This makes “The Da Vinci Code” look like “History Today”. Thankfully, amongst the credulous and spinelessly neutral coverage, there is a goodly amount of scepticism (and naughty cynicism) out there – from expert soundbites and the good folk at howstuffworks.com, to outright parody. Cheeringly, many of the “have your say” sections are full of weary punters calling “BS” on this one. Has Da Vinci-mania finally jumped the shark? Let’s hope so.

Now normally, with these cases of pareidolia, I can at least see where the claimant is coming from, particularly assuming an acute case of Believeritis. But this time, it’s just not happening. It seems to me that you could read pretty much anything into the blurred mess resulting from Pesci’s photo-manipulation, and the things he’s “seen” wouldn’t be at the top of my personal list. The red “figures” look more like cardinals to me, or even these guys. This is why “analysis” like this is completely useless; there is no way to verify or corroborate these subjective claims. Have I strayed so far down the path of rationality and scepticism that I can no longer “see” with woo-tinted spectacles? Or this is actually an elaborate piece of viral marketing for a new wave of Magic Eye products? Who can say. See if you can still channel the spirit of Dan Brown by gazing at the images below until your eyes bleed:

Your recipe for guaranteed media coverage (not to mention potential book sales) is as follows:

last-supper.jpg
1. Take one JPEG of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo, save a second copy.

last-supper-2.jpg

2. Flip the copy horizontally.

last-supper-3.jpg

3. Overlay the copy on the original, and adjust transparency.

last-supper-4.jpg

4. Fire up the ol’ over-active imagination…

last-supper-5.jpg

5. Con. cen. trate…open your mind…let your brain wash over you…

Nope, sorry, still absolutely sod all. Methinks there’s something fishy about this Pesci bloke. Answers on a postcard to BSHistorian.wordpress.com…


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