Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Octopus in Armour and Other Halloween Ponderings

At Halloween one's mind is drawn to ghouls and those spirits who are no longer with us. How can this possibly be relevant to Balintore Castle? Well, read on ...

On a recent trip to Westminster Abbey, I unexpectedly bumped into one of my favourite neighbours from Balintore Castle.  I had no idea he had taken up permanent residence in London, so the encounter was one of great delight. And indeed the last place I expected to find Charles Lyell, whose family still owns the land surrounding the castle, was buried under a slab in the main aisle.
Charles Lyell's Tomb

Even before moving to the Angus Glens, I was aware that Lyell was a geologist of great repute, whose seminal work "The Principles of Geology" was responsible for widely establishing the principle of uniformitarianism, which states that the processes that had formed the landscape in the past are still at work today. I also knew that Lyell was an intimate of his namesake Charles Darwin, but even then to have made it to "scientists' corner" in Westminster Abbey is no mean achievement. I understand Lyell's observatory at his family seat of Kinnordy House a few miles from Balintore Castle, is still in existence and is being, or is to be, restored.

octopus in armour?

halibut in space suit?

An eagle-eyed friend who accompanied me on the trip to Westminster Abbey, spotted this extraordinary ghoulish carving on an ancient tomb (above left). What is it? We weren't sure if the head had worn away, but no, it is some kind of putative "octopus in armour". There is but a small leap to Admiral Ackbar (above right) of Star Wars ( a halibut in a space suit?). It just shows you that any CGI monsters we can create nowadays are more than matched by the artists of history. I am thinking particularly of the mediaeval depictions of hell and the outandish creations of Hieronymus Bosch that defy modern understanding. So what does the"octopus in armour" signify? Did it mean the resident of the tomb had died in a battle at sea? Neither my Latin was up to the challenge, nor my friend of other ethnic origin.

red heraldic lion

white heraldic lion

Another creature much in evidence at Westminster Abbey is the heraldic beast, which is one of my very favourite subjects ever. A successful treatment of a heraldic beast is one of the very toughest tests, that will only be passed by the best artists. It is not about the  naturalism in the fantasy, but whether there an animus in the creature, and an observing mind behind the depiction. The heraldic beast may be regal and may be magnificent, but with an additional cadenza of humour or pathos, you know you are seeing the very best of class. Mary Queen of Scots'  tomb features this mercurially disturbing red lion, while the woebegone beast in white marble is a masterful study in misery.

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