Tag Archives: Art History

English Romantic poet John Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Note: Part of the earliest known manuscript can be viewed here. It is a transcription by George Keats; the first draft was lost. For an explanation of the poem or background about it, click here. To see a photo of the actual Sosibios Vase, about which the poem is written, click here. For more information about the poet,  John Keats, click here.

A Drawing Keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase, circa 1819,Louvre Museum. By litmuse via Wikimedia Commons

A Drawing Keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase, circa 1819, Louvre. By litmuse via Wikimedia Commons

John Keats, painted by William Hilton (died 1839). See source website for additional information. This set of images was gathered by User:Dcoetzee from the National Portrait Gallery, London website using a special tool. All images in this batch have been confirmed as author died before 1939 according to the official death date listed by the NPG. Via Wikimedia Commons

John Keats, painted by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery, London. By Dcoetzee via Wikimedia Commons

Ode on a Grecian Urn, by John Keats


Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?


Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.


O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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Good Impressions, Part 5: The ceramic legacy of Moorish Spain

Cuerda seca, lion in a landscape, 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Cuerda Seca: While investigating an Art Nouveau method of tilemaking, cuenca, I learned about the technique from which it originated: cuerda seca. The latter is a Portuguese word meaning ‘dry string.’ Coated string was used to make a line of black resist to prevent glazes from running. Originally, the string was saturated in animal fat and minerals that blackened when fired, like iron or manganese. The fat soaked string was heated, placed on the piece to outline the design, then burned off in firing, leaving a black line that separated colors. Cuerda seca is an Islāmic method of tile decoration that was brought to Spain by the Moors. Wikipedia states that “the craft is still in use in the Arab world” with two main traditions, Egyptian and Moroccan Zalij. “This origin explains the unmistakable Arab influences in many tiles: interlocking curvilinear, geometric or floral motifs.” In Spain, Seville became the tilemaking center where cuerda seca tiles were made. Recently, Christie’s sold a tile panel from Toledo for 10,000 Euros at the Decorative Arts Sale, held in Amsterdam in June.

Vase with palm tree. 8th–9th century CE, Iran. Source: Wikimedia

Cuenca: In the 19th century, cuerda seca was again popularized during the Art Nouveau period. The style evolved during that time. Sometimes designs were simply outlined with black. Cuenca, a Moorish method of outlining with slips and engobes also became popular then. In fact, it became a hallmark of ceramics during the Art Nouveau period. Cuenca means ‘basin;’ a reservoir was created by the trailed slips into which glazes were pooled. There is a tie-in with the Arts and Crafts period, too, as style eras overlapped. It was during this time that the cuenca method also came to be known as tube-lining. Because of the popularity of bungalow style, since the 1990s, there has been a return to the production of these decorative methods and motifs. Motawi, Historic Style, and Du Quella Tile & Clayworks, and are but a few potteries that sell ceramics made in the cuenca style. Today, safer methods are used for cuerda seca, too, which has also experienced a comeback. Now, black wax resist is used to outline designs. Using Aftosa’s product, black lines will remain up to Cone 8. These decorative styles and methods have spanned centuries and are still actively used. That’s what I call staying power! In the early 1990s, my mother gave me an Art Nouveau vase. Little did I know then that I would come to learn about the method with which it is made, cuerda seca, or that I would be writing about it today….

My Art Nouveau cuerda seca vase


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Kabyle (Berber) pottery from northeastern Algeria

Kabyle double vessel (19th century). By cliff1066 via Wikimedia Commons.


Areas in Algeria where Kabyle is spoken. By Yoos via Wikimedia Commons

“The inhabitants of the mountainous Kabyle region along the Mediterranean coast in northeastern Algeria were superb artists noted for their jewelry making, textiles, mats, basketry, pottery and house mural decoration. In North Africa, wheel-thrown pottery made by men dates from the 7th century B.C. when the Phoenicians introduced the potter’s wheel to the Algerian coast. Handbuilt pottery made by women, including those from the Kabyle, an older, probably indigenous tradition, dates back 2000 years before the birth of Christ. The vessel depicted here originates from earlier prototypes. To this day, Kabyle women coil and decorate pottery with beautiful painted geometric designs for their own household use and for sale. Kabyle women handbuild vessels of various sizes and shapes for holding water, milk, oil, cooking and eating food, and oil lamps. (National Museum of African Art, Washington DC).” By cliff1066 via Wikimedia Commons

1886 woodcut of Kabyle women, from Century Magazine May 1886-October 1886. By Danny via Wikimedia

Kabyle pottery, early 20th century. By Michel-georges bernard via Wikimedia Commons

Migonney - Femme kabyle

Kabyle woman. By Jules Migonney via Wikimedia Commons

Ceramic Kabyle peoples jar (19th century)

Ceramic and pigment vessel with the head of an animal from Algeria (National Museum of African Art). cliff1066 via Wikimedia Commons


This is a French language video, but it is well worth viewing, no matter which language you speak, as it is very visual and has a beautiful soundtrack.

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Mesa Verde and the Anasazi cliff dwellers

I’m not sure how old I was when I saw the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, but it must have been in the late 1960s, when we moved either to or from Texas. Since then, I’ve seen many sights, but the “green table” stands alone. The impression Mesa Verde makes is so great, you just don’t forget. I remember the impossibility of it all and the enormous overhanging cliffs…. A great silence engulfs the area today, but in ancient times it housed a rich and thriving culture. The ingenuity and tenacity of the Anasazi still astounds me. Back when my brothers and I were scrambling around it, there weren’t as many restrictions. Thankfully, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a very good thing because it is a fragile site and, while well-preserved, it needed more protection than it had when we whirled through like dust devils.

The geology of Mesa Verde determined what sort of shelter the Anasazi had as well as the type of water supply that was available. The tan cliffs . . . are composed of sandstone, a porous rock which allows rain, snow, and running water to slowly seep down through it. Beneath this sandstone is a layer of shale through which the moisture cannot penetrate. Water reaches the shale, flows between the two layers and emerges in the form of a seep or spring such as the one at the head of [the] canyon.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 3.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. By Sascha Brück via Wikimedia Commons

Around A.D. 1200, some of the people living on Mesa Verde moved down into the alcoves, often occupying the same ones that had been inhabited by their ancestors, the Basketmaker people, 600 years earlier. . . . The construction of Cliff Palace was a herculean effort, most of which occurred in a very short time, only about twenty years…. To create a level floor, the builders of Cliff Palace erected a retaining wall along the front of the alcove and backfilled behind the wall, making a flat working surface and solid foundation for rooms. Some 150 rooms-living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces-were eventually created.” — Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association

Mesa Verde National Park Spruce Tree House Kiva 2006 09 12

Kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park. Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling among several hundred within park boundaries (Cliff Palace and Long House are larger), was constructed between A.D. 1200 and 1276 by the Anasazi. The dwelling contains about 114 rooms and eight kivas (kee-vahs), or ceremonial chambers, built into a natural cave measuring 216 feet (66 meters) at greatest width and 89 feet (27 meters) at its greatest depth. It is thought to have been home for about 100 people.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 5.

Mesa Verde Pueblo II corrugated jars

Mesa Verde Pueblo II corrugated jars. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

When Spruce Tree House was occupied, the courtyard . . . was filled with activity. Here women ground corn into flour, made pottery, wove baskets and prepared food. Men made stone tools, turkey feather or cotton blankets, or prepared for summer planting. Older people sat in the sun and talked, while children, domesticated turkeys, and barking dogs scurried about the plaza.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 11



[T]he kivas had an efficient ventilation system. The large pit in the center of the floor was a fireplace. Fresh air was drawn in through the ventilator shaft at your feet, hit the deflector wall between the ventilator outlet and the firepit and circulated evenly through the entryway. Beyond the firepit in the center of the floor is a small hole. This hole, called a sipapu (see-pah-poo), represents the opening through which man emerged onto the face of the earth. . . . Niches held special ceremonial objects such as turquoise, shell beads, and prayer sticks. . . . The bench was used for storage of many ceremonial objects; the pilasters supported the beams of the roof.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p.15.

This is a section view of Kiva A in Mesa Verde’s Fire Temple, cut from laser scan data. Kiva is a Puebloan term for ceremonial rooms, and most of the Kivas at Mesa Verde are round in form and subterranean. The entire courtyard of Fire Temple itself is defined as a Great Kiva by both modern Puebloans such as the Hopi and by archaeologists due to its design and entirely non-domestic function. However, since Fire Temple was at least partially built to conform to the dimensions of the cliff alcove in which it was built, it is neither round in form nor truly subterranean. Along the southern terminus of Kiva A are the foundations of an original wall or a stepped bench. Archaeologists have disagreed over the years as to whether this represents an enclosure to the Fire Temple’s Kiva, or whether it would have been open at the front perhaps to keep its prominent fire hearth visible from some distance away. Kiva A’s walls were originally covered in white paint, with black and red geometric designs and symbols on it that are very similar to those found on black and white pottery found in Mesa Verde from the same time period. Due to exposure to the elements over time only scattered remnants of this paint remain intact and most of the designs are faded. By CyArk via Wikimedia Commons

Mesa Verde Pueblo II Mancos Black-on-White jar and ladle

Mesa Verde Pueblo II Mancos Black-on-White jar and ladle. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.— Willa Cather

Long House

Long House in the Mesa Verde National Park. By Khlnmusa Kyong H. Lee (Kyong H. Lee via Wikimedia

By A.D. 1300 nearly everyone had left Mesa Verde, and in fact the entire Four Corners area that had been the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. They departed for a number of possible reasons. A long-term drought at the end of the 1200s had been documented. Without water, crops would shrivel and people would be thirsty. Essential resources such as fertile soils, wood, and wildlife might have been exhausted after centuries of harvest and use. Warfare, disease, and internal disputes have also been offered as explanations. . . . but people did not “vanish.” By all evidence, they went south to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona, to Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. To some of them, Cliff Palace remains a special place.” Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 15.

Map of Mesa Verde National Park

Map of Mesa Verde National Park. National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons

To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day. — Willa Cather

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