Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fashions for the Pulchritudinously Attired Skeleton

Charnel houses, ossuaries, reliquaries and the remains of saintly skeletons preserved in their furs and jewels are a source of endless fascination for the insomniac; entire itineraries have been planned with the intent of squeezing as many of these in as humanly possible. The websites Atlas Obscura and Curious Expeditions are both religiously checked before planning any trip to be sure no gaudily outfitted saint will be missed. And while these objects are perhaps not quite so fascinating to the insomniac's  long-suffering spouse, he tolerates a fair number of these excursions provided there is the promise of frequent stops along the way for a nice, cold beverage.

Here are a few favourites, some of which have already been visited, others planned for future itineraries, and still others having been missed entirely while already in the country. Dammit.

Note: Although the insomniac  is very good at trying to capture a decent picture, she is not equally as good at taking note of where it was taken or who was the subject, as attempting to capture the perfect shot through glass is such an all-consuming endeavour there is little energy left for acquiring any actual history about the saintly relics. Therefore, one hopes the reader understands if memory has dimmed and only vague references about the subject or location are given.

St. Barbara's Church, Kutna Hora

Closeup of Above - Occupant's Name Unknown

A short stop in Fribourg, Switzerland before departing to Gruyères (and the H.R. Giger Museum, which was also on that year's itinerary), unearthed this lovely fellow. Quite obviously not an extremely popular tourist destination, as the insomniac  and her spouse were the only people there for a large portion of the time, but quite worth the effort it took to locate him. Unfortunately, one can't quite recall the address in Fribourg where Felix resides ...

 St. Felix - Fribourg, Switzerland - Exact Address Unknown
And yes, the insomniac  has tried taking pictures without using the flash,
but they turn out even worse than this one did ...

A closeup of Felix scanned from a postcard, having previously learned from past experience that upon returning home from the trip and downloading the 800+ pictures to the computer, one is lucky if even one-quarter of them are worth saving. And if the picture happens to be taken in a dimly lit charnel house or the saintly relic is safely nestled in an ornate glass casket, it's probably a safe bet that not a single one  has turned out. Accordingly, always an excellent idea to purchase a postcard, when available, as a backup. 

Photograph by Primula Bosshard

A Reliquary at the Same Unknown Location as Felix

Whilst researching painted skulls and gaudily dressed skeletons, the insomniac  stumbled upon the painted skulls in St. Michael's Chapel in Hallstatt, Austria. Having just been to Hallstatt and having managed to completely miss these, the insomniac  reexamined last year's itinerary and saw that she had specifically made note of two attractions that were “a must see” while in Hallstatt - the Salt Mines and the Charnel House - neither of which were visited while there. It should be noted that a tour of a fairly impressive salt mine in Poland had already been done at the beginning of the trip, so it is understandable that touring a second seemed slightly redundant. Quite probably the reason the Charnel House was ignored was because the exact location had not been determined prior to departure. Perhaps if the insomniac  had made mention of Painted Skulls and not simply jotted down Charnel House, greater efforts might have been made to locate the attraction.

It has since been further discovered that both routes to St. Michael's have “steep inclines and numerous staircases”, a small detail that suggests any future itinerary should include Hallstatt at the beginning of the trip when one is still fresh and eager, and not nearing the end of the trip when one peruses the itinerary and proclaims “Well, we've already seen a Salt Mine and quite a few Charnel Houses. Let's just sit and have a few more beers before trying to locate these next points of interest, shall we?” And as a direct result of that particular decision, the following photo WAS NOT taken by the insomniac  herself, but comes instead from the pages of the book referenced below ...

The parish gravedigger also painted the skulls.
It bears repeating -
why aren't there jobs like that around anymore?

Here are a few pictures that WERE taken by the insomniac  in Hallstatt; the first showing where St. Michael's might possibly be located, and the second showcasing a unique Gothic garden decorating idea, which has absolutely nothing to do with pulchritudinously dressed skeletons but that one feels is interesting enough to include, nonetheless.

One vaguely remembers an extremely steep set of stairs leading up
to the church behind the yellow house, right forefront,
at which point it was unanimously decided another beer might be in order ...

Outside an antique store in Hallstatt - Moss and Antlers and Old Chairs -
and on the insomniac's  ever expanding To Do List ...

The next location is one the insomniac  previously investigated but determined was quite difficult to get to and therefore didn't fit nicely into the already planned itinerary. However, one feels it is always wise to leave a few things unseen, thus necessitating the need for a return trip at some point. To be sure, the decorated skeletons at the Basilica of Waldassen in Germany will most definitely be included on next year's itinerary.

Magnificent, no?

The following martyred skeleton at St. Peter's Church was completely missed when in Munich last year, and obviously missed the previous two visits as well. In one's own defense, once one steps inside the doors of the Hofbräuhaus, any good intentions of visiting other tourist attractions pretty much fall by the wayside ... perhaps next time.

St. Mundita - Patron Saint of Unmarried Women

The insomniac  would like to recommend the book referenced below, not only for the beautiful images but also for the ossuary, charnel house and embellished skeleton sites listed at the end of the book, grouped according to country. This information should be a tremendous aid in helping you plan your next itinerary by choosing the countries with the most sites - Italy coming in first with thirteen, and the Czech Republic, Germany and Portugal running a close second with eight apiece. Entirely feasible in a four week trip, provided one doesn't tire too quickly and end up spending far too much time sitting in a café swilling beer, that is.

Until next time, the insomniac  wishes you nights of blissful sleep filled with pleasant dreams, while visions of painted skulls dance in your heads ... Goodnight, my pretties.


PostScript: Isn't pulchritudinous a fabulous word? The insomniac  has been dying to find a way to work that one into the conversation since she first started posting ...

Picture sources:
   The Empire of Death, A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Paul Koudounaris

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Musings on Victoria Day and Various Other Victorian Mourning Rituals

This Monday, those of us residing in Canada will celebrate Victoria Day, affectionately referred to as the May Long Weekend. The ritual of the May Long commences with the disinterring of the tenting equipment from the bowels of the basement and the mass exodus to the mountains for the first weekend of camping, and generally culminates with the eventual surrender to the elements at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning after a foot of snow has caved in the ceiling of the tent.

While contemplating the origins of this holiday weekend and Queen Victoria herself, one started researching her obsession with mourning after her royal consort Prince Albert died, these musings quite probably precipitated by remembrances of previous Victoria Day Weekend camping experiences and the resultant thoughts of one's impending death by freezing.

Queen Victoria, to whom we Canadians are eternally grateful
for the “Ritual of the May Long” ...

One of the most important mourning rituals of the Victorian era was the wearing of the proper clothing. Mourning dress reached its peak during Queen Victoria's reign, who set the standard by wearing mourning for the remainder of her life after the death of Albert. The strict custom of attiring oneself entirely in black while grieving for a loved one was observed by every class, and those who could not afford the change of dress often altered and dyed their regular garments black, a trick the insomniac  often uses to extend her own wardrobe.

For women, the custom involved wearing heavy black clothing and veils of black crape, the attire commonly known as Widow's Weeds, from the Old English Waed  meaning garment. First or Deep Mourning for a widow lasted one year and a day, after which she moved on to Second Mourning, lasting another twenty-one months. During Third or Ordinary Mourning, the addition of black jet, ribbon, embroidery or lace embellishments was permitted on mourning attire (this is the stuff the insomniac  loves to collect). Following Ordinary Mourning, a minimum two year span, the widow went into Half Mourning, which continued for an additional six months but could be sustained for the remainder of her life, if she chose. Half Mourning attire consisted of the fashions of the day but made up in special colours, including soft mauves and grey, colours the insomniac  would happily wear for the rest of her life, whether she was in mourning or not.

One could picture oneself wearing these Widows Weeds for
much longer than the requisite mourning period ...

Photo courtesy of the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

The insomniac  wasn't quite sure if the following cabinet photo of a family should appear under the caption Mourning Dress or Post Mortem Photography, as the entire family appears to be either dead or well on their way, especially the gentleman.

Oh, how the insomniac  regrets not purchasing
this cabinet card off Etsy or eBay
or wherever it was she saw it  ...

The invention of the daguerreotype provided the middle class with a means of preserving a keepsake of their deceased loved ones. This was especially important in the case of  infants and young children, as childhood mortality rates in the Victorian era were extremely high and a post mortem photograph might be the only image the family possessed. Regrettably, the practice of post mortem photography peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century, as the beauty and sensitivity of these photographs is undeniable.

Poignant, but beautiful nonetheless ...

In nineteenth century England, children were mourned and buried using the same rituals as adults, with the exception of colour. Children were dressed in white to symbolize their innocence and purity, and buried in a coffin of white, as they are to this day.

Innocent and pure ...

Another Victorian ritual was the use of black ostrich plumes during a funeral procession, first introduced in the eighteenth century and flourishing during Queen Victoria's reign. In order to achieve a sufficiently sombre effect, the horses pulling a funeral hearse were oft-times dyed black and given glossy false tails, the ostrich feathers mounted between their ears with special black rosettes worn on the forehead. If a coffin had to be transported in the hearse for a great distance, stops for refreshments at local pubs along the way were scheduled, in some instances, every twenty minutes along the route. Truly, an admirable custom and one that should possibly be resurrected for today's funerals.

Offspring, take note: this is how your Sainted Mother wishes to be transported
to her final resting place. And here's the link, in case you forget ...

A traditional gift given to mourners were specially printed booklets or cards, containing details of the service and often kept as souvenirs. Although the insomniac  does keep the little cheaply printed booklets given out at today's services in an old cigar box, they lack somewhat the beauty of these older examples. There's a thought for all you budding entrepreneurs - revive the production of these beautifully embellished mourning cards, so we have mementos worthy of saving in our cigar boxes, please.

Folded Memorial Card from 1909
with message and name inside ...

Prince Albert's In Memoriam Card

An excerpt from a lovely and melancholy Gothic poem, and exactly what the insomniac wishes for her final resting place, especially the wailing Owl and mournful Moon ...

 Behind me rises huge and awful Pile,
Sole on this blasted Heath, a Place of Tombs,
Waste, desolate, where Ruin dreary dwells,
Brooding o'er sightless Sculls, and crumbling Bones.
Ghastful He sits, and eyes with stedfast Glare
The Column grey with Moss, the falling Bust,
The Time-shook Arch, the monumental Stone,
Impair'd, effac'd, and hastening into Dust,
Unfaithful to their Charge of flattering Fame.
All is dread Silence here, and undisturb'd,
Save what the Wind sighs, and the wailing Owl
Screams solitary to the mournful Moon,
Glimmering her western Ray thro' yonder Isle,
Where the sad Spirit walks with shadowy Foot
His wonted Round, or lingers o'er his Grave.

From Excursion by David Mallet (1726-8)

Until next time, the insomniac  wishes you nights of blissful sleep filled with pleasant dreams. And if you happen to be one of the brave souls out camping in the snow this May Long, best not to fall asleep at all and concentrate instead on not perishing from frostbite ... Goodnight, my pretties.


PostScript: The insomniac  swears she never heard of the above referenced book before this week, and did not plagiarize the title for her "Art Nouveau - A Magnificent Obsession" blog post of last month.

   Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, Lou Taylor
   A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, Helen Rappaport

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Decorating Your Gothic Mansion According to the William Morris Golden Rule

You may hang your walls with tapestry instead of whitewash or paper; or you may cover them with mosaic; or have them frescoed by a great painter: all this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty's sake, and not for show: it does not break our golden rule: Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. 
William Morris - The Beauty of Life, 1880

Last week during a furniture painting class, a random comment made by a participant in the class got the insomniac  thinking (not exactly a common occurrence, one is quick to add). The comment in question was “wallpaper is so expensive, hard to remove, etc. who would ever choose to use it?” implying that anyone who had made that decorating choice might very well be considered mentally unfit. The insomniac  took immediate offense, since every room in the Gothic Mansion is indeed wallpapered (except for the kitchen and the offspring's bedrooms, for purely practical reasons). One is not disputing the fact that good wallpaper is expensive, but since the Morris wallpaper in question has lasted twenty-five years, and one feels absolutely no desire to remove it within the next twenty-five, it would seem the cost might be considerably less than repainting every few years in whatever colours happen to be the latest fashion. Accordingly, expensive wallpaper would appear to be an excellent decorating choice ...

Wightwick Manor, papered with Honeysuckle (1876)

 Dining Room at Wightwick Manor, papered with Wild Tulip (1884)

At this point, the insomniac  was unsure how to continue with the remainder of this post. Should it become a rant against the current trend to redecorate every few years with all new items, simply discarding the old when one has tired of it? Or should it be an ode to the beauty of Wm. Morris designs and their lasting appeal, and along those lines, the inherent good sense of purchasing quality items with the intent of passing them along to future generations rather than having them end up in the landfill? The final decision on those questions has yet to be determined ...

The Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor, papered with Diagonal Trail (1893)

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for I should answer, a Beautiful House. W.M.

It appears to the insomniac  that things have changed greatly in the world since she first started her decorating journey. Back in the day, one would live on Kraft Dinner for weeks so as to be able to afford a piece of furniture, with the understanding it could take years before achieving the Beautiful House envisioned in one's mind. It would seem today that most prefer the immediate gratification of a fully furnished house, achieved by purchasing cheaply made items from some nameless Big Box Store rather than by taking time to purchase carefully thought out and saved for items.

The Hall at Wightwick Manor, Chair upholstered in Bird (1878)

All rooms ought to look as if they were lived in, and to have, so to say, a friendly welcome ready for the incomer. W.M.

And how better to achieve that lived-in look than by decorating with good quality items that will stand the test of time. This would seem to be a more eco-friendly form of decorating than purchasing new items of poor quality with the intent to discard, once one has either grown tired of the style or they have fallen apart. The question being, how could a home that is redecorated every few years in the latest trends possibly achieve a lived-in look, unless one has unlimited funds for the purchase of antiques, in which case one would probably not be reading a blog written by a thrifty insomniac with very limited funds. 

The insomniac's  style hasn't changed over the years, although the overly critical eye that one used to select imminent purchases with has all but disappeared. Having acquired an aged patina herself, the insomniac  finds she now prefers items with just such a patina - having finally come to the realization that perfection, in one's home and life, is generally unachievable and highly overrated.

The insomniac  can imagine growing old in this room without ever changing it,
except to possibly add more layers of stuff ...

Now that the offspring have moved out once and for all, and one no longer has to worry about the walls being used for target practice whilst the aforementioned honed their knife throwing skills, the last two rooms in the Gothic Mansion are now being considered for wallpaper; the insomniac  having become quite fond of the following two offerings from Sanderson ...

Acanthus (1875)

Artichoke (1898) 

Should this post have a moral, it would be this: Purchase finely crafted, quality items, whether it be wallpaper, carpets, furniture or any other manner of household goods, with the intent of keeping them for a lifetime. A home filled with well-loved and well-worn items is more of a home than one slavishly copied from some trendy decorating magazine. There's a very good reason the phrase “more money than taste” was coined, my pretties ...

And so to end this post, a poem by Morris embroidered on the bed hangings at Kelmscott Manor: 

The wind's on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
Twixt mead and hill,
But kind and dear
Is the old house here,
And my heart is warm
Midst winter's harm.
Rest then and rest,
And think of the best
Twixt summer and spring
When all birds sing
In the town of the tree,
As ye lie in me
And scarce dare move
Lest earth and its love
Should fade away
Ere the full of the day.

I am old and have seen
Many things that have been,
Both grief and peace,
And wane and increase.
No tale I tell
Of ill or well,
But this I say,
Night treadeth on day,
And for worst and best
Right good is rest.

Right good is rest, indeed ...

Until next time, the insomniac  wishes you nights of blissful sleep filled with pleasant dreams, in a Gothic mansion filled with treasures that you believe to be beautiful (and perhaps even useful) ... Goodnight, my pretties.


PostScript: The insomniac  and family can personally vouch for the Beauty and Durability of the Sanderson Wm. Morris wallpapers. Twenty-five years and counting ...

Picture sources:
     William Morris Decor and Design, Elizabeth Wilhide

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Do-It-Yourself Gothic Furniture or Paint it Black, Part I

Despite the fact the insomniac  prefers to spend her weekends in a recumbent position on the couch watching Sons of Anarchy, this weekend her Crafting Buddy talked her into registering for a furniture painting class. The class promised to “teach one the skills to create the look of distressed furniture pieces at a fraction of the cost” using Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (most probably it was the fraction of the cost  portion of the description that piqued the insomniac's  interest). Before making the commitment to spend a Saturday somewhere other than her couch, the insomniac  did check to be certain Chalk Paint comes in black and, as luck would have it, a soft black shade called Graphite was an option. And although the insomniac  tends to avoid anything with the word Paris in it like the plague, a shade called Paris Grey appears to have potential, as does Emile (dull purple) and Emperor's Silk (crimson).

Imagine the possibilities of Graphite paint on Victorian furniture! Now, the insomniac certainly isn't advocating painting furniture of this quality, and is merely offering the following photos as a source of inspiration for the ebonized look ...

Late Victorian Ebony Kneehole Desk

French Ebony and Mother-of-Pearl Bookstand

Caption Not Required - The Piece Speaks for Itself

Now that the class is finished, the insomniac  has a great many grandiose plans. Firstly, repainting the entire kitchen and pantry cupboards in Graphite, which will be no small feat since the cupboards run from the floor to the 11 foot ceiling, each cupboard having many paned glass windows and small drawers which will require much steadiness of hand and probably a bit of alcohol as a reward once the job is complete. One anticipates this project will take at least three to four months and will render the kitchen (and therefore all cooking) impossible during that time, with the money saved in doing the painting oneself instead of hiring it out being spent on food take-out and delivery costs instead.

It's going to look so much much better
painted Graphite, isn't it?

When the kitchen cabinets have been finished, there are a number of other pieces to be tackled including, but not limited to, a bookcase built by the insomniac's  Sainted Father, an old dresser donated by the Brother-in-Law and a china cabinet inherited from the insomniac's  grandfather. Should these simple pieces turn out well, then an old carved sideboard that has been sitting in the basement since the arrival at the Gothic Mansion twenty-five years ago will be unearthed from beneath all the furniture stacked on top, to be reincarnated with a new finish. Once the piece has been exhumed from the basement and work begins, the insomniac  will certainly provide Before and After pictures of the project. Obviously, it pays off to save absolutely everything one has ever collected.

If one could only find shelves that didn't cost the earth, with the Graphite and Emperor's Silk paints one could reproduce this look exactly. Perhaps one should start scouring thrift stores for something similar, at a price more suited to one's budget.

Victorian Gothic Revival Ebonized Corner Shelves

Apparently, metal and all manner of materials can be painted with Chalk Paint, so all the vintage lamp bases that have been acquired over the years can now be refinished and fitted with coordinating shades embellished with antique beaded trim, of which the insomniac  has a rather large stash in the real third-floor attic just waiting to be used.

Whilst on the subject of vintage lamp bases, the following was a misguided eBay purchase and another compelling reason for the total moratorium on all 2:00 a.m. shopping until a potential purchase can be reassessed after a good night's sleep. Perhaps if her clothing were repainted in Graphite to emulate mourning fashion and a black and purple damask lampshade added, she might end up being a piece one could actually live with. We'll see ...

Unsure how this could have ever
seemed like a good idea, no matter what
ungodly hour it was purchased at ...

If you happen to live in the Calgary area, the insomniac  highly recommends the Chalk Paint Beginner Class at Lauren Lane Decor, so you too can start redecorating your Gothic Mansion using thrift shop finds and cast-offs that will surely end up being magnificent pieces using the fabulous Chalk Paint and Waxes.

The insomniac  is getting a short break from contract work at the end of May and is planning to complete at least a few pieces of furniture before heading back to work in July. Please stay tuned for Part II of the Paint it Black series later in June, once a few things have been finished ...

Until next time, the insomniac  wishes you nights of blissful sleep filled with pleasant dreams ... Goodnight, my pretties.