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Marking World Heritage Day today we are focusing on the ancient Japanese art of picture conservation and mounting known as Hyōgu.

1923 woodblock print after the earliest known image of a hyōgushi priest and his assistant Original by the 14th century Japanese painter Fujiwara Takakane
Private collection Great Britain

Hyōgu and the hyōgushi

The art of restoring and mounting works of art on paper and silk has been practiced in the Far East for nearly two millennia. Originating first in China at the beginning of the Christian era, conservation techniques and materials then spread to Japan where they developed into the refined art that we now know as Hyōgu.

The word Hyōgu means a picture or piece of calligraphy lined with paper and mounted as a hanging scroll. The words hyōgushi, hyōguya and kyōji refer to the mounter/conservators of Japan who not only repair and mount hanging scrolls but also conserve other forms of pictorial art such as the handscroll, screens, sliding doors, murals etc.

The hyōgushi of today is required to undergo a long and strict period of training. During this time he or she learns not only the skills which will enable him to conserve scrolls, screens etc, but also the knowledge and sensitivity required to present them in their correct context. He must know the appropriate style of mount used for any subject and be aware, for example, of the meanings associated with the patterned silks used with such mounts. He or she must also know how and where an object will be used as this will often dictate the materials and techniques employed in its conservation.

Like the Western bookbinder, the hyōgushi is responsible for objects which must be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The objects he is conserving are made to be opened and closed, rolled and unrolled and, apart from the demands of conservation and aesthetics, the hyōgushi must always bear in mind that they are to be constantly handled and not merely viewed.

An Egyptian craftsman weaving a mat on a floor loom

Mohamed Badry Kamel Basuny, writing for UNESCO, reports on the Intangible Heritage of Egyptian mat-making –

Mat, as a traditional craft, is considered a local craft dating back to ancient Egyptian era. The local people had been developed this innovative production “Mats” to face the common problem of humidity and insects. There are numerous models and forms to Egyptian mats, which are displayed in Torino Museum, Italy, that was used in ancient Egyptian rural community. This craft is needed a group of material and tools such as reeds and grasses especially el-Summar herbs (Juncus), and flax to weave strongly these reeds together. Unfortunately, the craft of mats doesn’t be well-known and popular like the old periods. Now, it is known in few Egyptian governorates such as el-Qaliubiya, el-Sharkeya, Kafr El-Sheikh, Qena, Assiut, el-Monoufia. (Egyptian Archives of Folk Life and Folk Traditions (EAFLFT), 2013).

Detail of an Egyptian floor loom

Full article here.

 

 
 Witch marks in the Tithe Barn at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, England
Image credit Peter Williams/PA
 
The public is being encouraged to help map Britain’s historic obsession with the paranormal by searching for ancient scratchings in old buildings, used as charms against witchcraft and evil spirits.
 
So writes Maev Kennedy in The Guardian yesterday –
 
Historic England would like help to find more of the marks, typically concentrated around entry points seen as vulnerable such as windows, chimneys and doorways. Faint symbols have been recorded in buildings and sites across England, including Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London, and Wookey Hole caves in Somerset – where a tall stalagmite has been shown to tourists for centuries as the petrified body of a witch.
 
Full article here.
 

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Suffragette film producer Alison Owen surrounded by Law Scrolls in the Act Room of Victoria Tower, the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) London
Image credit Houses of Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The age-old tradition of recording and enshrining British law on vellum is to continue after almost coming to an end last week when the House of Lords decided to stop the enshrinement of British law on vellum for reasons of cost. Fortunately the British Cabinet Office has intervened and is to provide the necessary financing from its own budget for this thousand year-old tradition to continue.

Vellum is not a paper (which is generally made from vegetable fibres) but from carefully prepared calf-skin. Probably the most famous use of vellum in Britain are the several extant copies of the Magna Carta, drawn up some 800 years ago and sealed by King John, and the Lindisfarne Gospels. A more recent use of vellum was for the marriage certificate of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

Watch the preparation of vellum by Paul Wright, a parchmenter, here.

 

St Cornély: Patron Saint of Carnac with paintings of bulls surrounded by menhirs and dolmens on either side. Source Wikipedia

Today being All Saints’ Day, we wondered if there was a saint for megalithic structures; sure enough there is – St Cornély, Carnac’s patron saint. According to the ANCIENT-WISDOM website –

Carnac’s patron saint is St Cornély, who is also the patron saint of cattle, and a bull cult still lingers in the parish church on tumulus St. Michel, which displays an image of the saint blessing two paintings of bulls surrounded by menhirs and dolmens. The roots of this cult can be traced back to the earliest finds in the Carnac region at 6,850 BC, which coincidentally come from beneath the very same church.

While the Sacred Sites website records that –

The legend of Carnac which explains these avenues of monoliths bears a resemblance to the Cornish story of ‘the Hurlers,’ who were turned into stone for playing at hurling on the Lord’s Day, or to that other English example from Cumberland of ‘Long Meg’ and her daughters. St Cornely, we are told, pursued by an army of pagans, fled toward the sea. Finding no boat at hand, and on the point of being taken, he transformed his pursuers into stones, the present monoliths. The Saint had made his flight to the coast in a bullock-cart, and perhaps for this reason he is now regarded as the patron of cattle. Should a bullock fall sick, his owner purchases an image of St Cornely and hangs it up in the stable until the animal recovers. The church at Carnac contains a series of fresco paintings which outline events in the life of the Saint, and in the churchyard there is a representation of the holy man between two bullocks. The head of St Cornely is said to be preserved within the edifice as a relic. On the 13th of September is held at Carnac the festival of the ‘Benediction of the Beasts,’ which is celebrated in honour of St Cornely. The cattle of the district are brought to the vicinity of the church and blessed by the priests-should sufficient monetary encouragement be forthcoming.

 

Crossing boundaries: a guest feature by Littlestone.

‘Offerings’ at the Swallowhead Spring. Image credit Moss 

The leaving of ribbons, dolls, articles of clothing, crystals, t-lights, even food and drink, at places of historic interest is now generally frowned on in the West and regarded by many as an unwelcome blot on the environment, or at the site of historic interest where they are left. There are, however, countries where the leaving of offerings in the form of ribbons, prayers written on paper which are then tied to the branches of trees or left at the base of stones, is commonplace and forms part of that country’s religion or cultural tradition. In Japan, massive ceremonial straw ropes (shimenawa) are often seen tied round the trunks of old or large trees and these form an intrinsic and deeply embedded aspect of the cultural makeup of the country. Often these trees are not on some secluded mountainside but are found in parks or city centres. Such is the reverence shown by the public towards the spirits that are thought to be, or to dwell within trees, rocks rivers and waterfalls, that it is not uncommon to see passers-by stop, put their hands together and bow respectfully to a tree or stone.

Sacred Japanese oak with shimenawa at the Imagumano Shinto Shrine, Kyoto © Littlestone

In modern Western societies there is a (perhaps) understandable reaction against the neo-pagan tradition of leaving offerings at springs and trees, but we should not look too unkindly on these practices as they seem to be tapping into a pre-Christian tradition and a deeply felt need to revere nature in its more ‘approachable’ manifestations such as trees, springs and stones. What is lacking in the West is a follow-up ceremony for such offerings. In other words, there are few who bother to clean up after an offering has been left at a site. In Japan this problem does not generally arise because, when visiting the grave of a loved one for example, where it is not only customary to take along flowers and burn incense but also to take rice cakes, and perhaps a bottle of sake for the deceased, those offerings are not left behind but taken away after one’s respects to the deceased have been paid. In Japanese this concept is embodied in the wider concept known as kimochi dake itadakimasu. Roughly translated this means ‘I will take only the spirit of your kindness’ and is used for example when thanking (but politely refusing) an offer of help. In practice, no bottles of sake or parcels of rice cakes are left at the family grave; instead they are placed there for a short time while respects to the departed are paid and then they are packed up and taken home to be consumed by members of the deceased family. In other words, only the spirit of the offering is left behind.

The sentiments behind the nature-based Shinto practices of Japan, and the neo-pagan ceremonies of the West, do seem to be broadly similar. What is different between the two cultures is the absence in the West of a ‘Rite of Disposal’ for offerings left at special or sacred places. In Japan there is a ceremony called Dondo Yaki (どんどやき). This is the annual and ritual burning of offerings left at sites throughout the year. To quote from the Let it Burn! blog

If you don’t burn the New Year’s decorations, it’s like holding on to the past. Moreover, holding on to the past is an act that doesn’t help you grow and mature as an individual. It’s a time to say good-bye to the old year and to any old, emotional attachments that might have held you back on a personal or professional level.

Perhaps this is what the West needs for its ever-growing pagan tradition of leaving offerings at sacred sites – an annual burning celebration of the offerings, and worn out dreams, of one year and a clear statement heralding in the next.

 

UNESCO has added two more Japanese traditions to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The two new registrations are Mibu no Hana Taue, the ritual of transplanting rice in Hiroshima Prefecture, and the Sada Shin Noh sacred dance performed at a shrine in Shimane Prefecture.

Mibu no Hana Taue is an annual event held in Kitahiroshima Town. It is dedicated to the god of rice paddies and calls for a good harvest. In the ritual, villagers use colourfully decorated cattle to plough paddies. Sada Shin Noh is a dance performance at Sada Shrine in Matsue City that dates back nearly 400 years. The inclusion of the two brings the number of Japanese traditional events on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list to 20. UNESCO defines intangible cultural assets as traditions handed down over the generations that are in need of urgent safeguarding.

Video and more on the news here.

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