hidden mothers in victorian photography

… but I don’t think they are the mothers.


I’ve come across those images months ago, and then again recently: A small child, sitting on the lap of a shrouded woman. It usually looks eary, if not downright creepy in cases where the mother is hunching behind a chair, like this:



The mother hidden under a cloth is weird enough, and why not take a picture of mother and child? those images are common enough, and have been around even before photography. Hidden-Mother.png

But a mother, a woman wealthy enough to afford very fine clothing for her child as well as an expensive modern portrait, and she’s all but lurking, crouching behind  a chair?  Even worse, in some images the women in question have a rather rough cloth spread over their face and upper body ; it’s unpleasantly reminiscent of putting a paper bag over someone’s head.

So my theory is that this is a nanny, which would explain why it is thought necessary (or allowable!) to cover her up or make her crouch. Family portraits are an expensive commodity, and they are for the family, not for the servants.

But why have a servant there anyway?

Well,  if you have seen just a few old pohotographs then you know that there are often blurred bits where someone, against all warning, moved a hand or even head. And if you took pictures of a small child you know how hard it is to get them to keep half-way still. From what I have seen, all those “hidden mother” pictures are of children who are in that age bracket where even with promises and threats, it’s very, very difficult to make them keep absolutely still for 20 or even 30 seconds.

My guess is: very often the only chance is to have the child on the lap of someone it’s very familiar with (the nanny, mother or maybe elder sibling) and who has experience in getting this small child, or small children in general, to behave well, at least for half a minute.  Depending on how much time the mother spends with her child and how experienced the nurse is , putting the child onto the lap of its nurse or even wet-nurse may be the best hope for getting a picture of anything but a baby-shaped blurr. (And wet-nurses are not picked for their photogenic qualities.)


(example images found at https://ridiculouslyinteresting.com/2012/07/05/more-hidden-mothers-in-victorian-photography-post-mortem-photographs-or-not/)

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Endearing Demons and Bland Angels

The devil has the best jokes, Evil is sexy, and Girls go all hot and vapid about the bad guys – old news, I know.

Only for me those are storytelling patterns, and just now I keep seeing images, and older images too, along those lines.

This got triggered by sauntering through the tamer areas of the web and stumbling over this image:


(Larger image here)  Attributed to one Jean-Marie Saint-Eve, but I couldn’t find much more information on him, except that he lived (and painted) in the first half of the 19th century.

Now, what stands out …

Coloring – Jesus in all pastels and white toga and clean, light skin. The devil has a darker, somewhat unhealthy skin-tone (is there a bit of grey or green in there?) and greyish, bat-like wings.

I don’t think that the different skin-tones are, or a meant to be, a racial slur – the facial structure on both figures looks western-european to me, and I can see nothing in the face of the devil that would hint at him being meant to look African, (east)-Indian or Asian.

Clothing versus nudity – of course. Well, as far as Jesus goes, of course he’s decently dressed, while his adversary of course isn’t. But though these days sexy demons are a staple, I’ve rarely seen such a blatant example from the 19th century. They could’ve given him some tattered clothing. They could used the “evolution of man” trick; that is, have put him into stance where his genitals are hidden from view and maybe his backside hidden by a convenient gesture, shadow or bit of his own wings.

But no – full frontal nudity, and not of an average looking or repulsive body, either. It resembles classic statues with it’s anatomically detailed representation of a healthy, athletic body. Speaking of anatomical details:  if you follow, for the sake of education and art history, the above link then you’ll see that Saint-Eve’s original included a little bit more of anatomical details than the image above. The motive … a bit anatomy education for the ladies? Devils are shameless? If you copy greek statues, you might as well do it right? Who knows.

As for athletic: if you pay attention to your Lord and Saviour on the left again, you’ll notice hints of muscles there too. Look at the neck, the lines of the shoulder and the lifted upper arm. This could nearly be the same person modeling for both of them. And that might explain something else that I keep noticing:

Quality of posing models.

The Tempter is beautifully dynamic. The gestures of the arms and hands, neck and head, feet and legs – it all suggests movement and engagement in whatever is going on between them. He’s gesturing, pointing at something, arguing. His face is alive and expressive. Saint-Eve also did a beautiful job on the details that he had to imagine: the little talons a the lower edge of the wings, the hints of horns at the hair line,  that very prominent bone-structure at his cheeks and brows – you could meet a man like that and think that he looks strange, but not unnatural and (depending on his mimics) not even ugly. As far as creativity (and my attention) goes, the image belongs to him.

The King of the Jews on the other hand – cut and paste. The posture is absolute stock ingredient, his classic “about to dispense words of wisdom” stance. This is not a man who is tempted, who is fighting a battle in his own head. It doesn’t even look like he’s listening, more like he already marshaled his own reply and is now just waiting for half a second pause in his opponent’s words. He’d look like that giving the Sermon of the Mount, chastising a mob about to stone an adulteress, … half of the scenes in the New Testament qualify.

I’m not even sure whether he is looking at his opponent of slightly above his head. In Addition: although standing in front of Satan, Jesus seems to be painted on a slightly smaller scale, which makes me wonder even more that maybe the two models weren’t in the image together. Or that there was just one live model and one painting/picture of “Our Lord Speechifiying (TM)”.

That much for the 19th century. And incidentally, isn’t it interesting how this Jesus – northern European appearance, bland good looks and detergent-commercial clean even while fasting in a desert – is still very prevalent? Okay, these days, his hair is sometimes disheveled, but he certainly doesn’t look anything like this:

homeless-man_shutterstocknomad man

Badawit_naqibhomeless_guy asian

So, even in the 21st century, Jesus Christ rarely looks like a vagrant, socialist, rabble-rousing middle-eastern man. How about the demons? How about the angels?

A few quick google image searches show that both devil and demon keep up-to-date with fashion; they tend to be very, very athletic. Male demons tend to be rather on the ugly side, female ones, you guessed it, are very sexy with cute horns and pointy teeth and about as scary as your average pin-up.

The devil is usually less ugly, more likely to be attractive and far less likely to be a rotting corpse. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in modern media – Supernatural, Sleeping Hollow and goodness knows how many other good-vs.-evil derivations (guess which side is more likely to speak with a foreign accent!) – use demons as scary hordes, and CGI allows for a lot of rotting flesh these days.

Angels – well, google search doesn’t help much there, because most of what turns up on the first pages are electronic images like wallpapers, and that means: more pin-ups (just like pretty much everything and everyone on wall-papers). Still it is noticeable that in contrast to demons, both male and female angels are sex-symbols with wings stuck on.

One of the lot I find noticeable because it’s not your standard wall-paper, and my first reaction was along the lines of “whoa, pretty hot for an angel”.

lucifer-an-angel-of-musicAnd for good reason, as it turns out. This angel is fallen, which explains the strange change in his halo and the lack of shirt under that toga. I’m including him because I like the different elements here: the key, the somewhat arrogant look, the beautiful wings – the artist managed to make them look so soft and downy, just looking at them gives me a phantom-sensation of stroking over a kitten. And, yes, the halo. But most of all the blatant self-assurance and arrogance. (Image credit apparently  to “braders”, whose account seems lost.)

On Christian themed web-sites, I mainly found stuff like this:


I’m tempted to say: We’re back in the 19th century. Good is dressed in dirt-repellent, flowing white robes (cleanliness is next to godliness!) and Evil shows skin. On older images, it’s very noticable that the devil comes with very dark skin, thankfully, that has died down. (Though I can’t help noticing the absence of dark-skinned angels.)

Then there’s a recent trend christian-themed sites, especially blogs, that I’ve been noticing for a while now:

antisemitic up to 111 I think the idea is to show that (1) evil is disgusting, (2) Jesus is perfect and (3) Jesus is, despite being the pacifist, loving, self-sacrificing Lamb of God, also very bad-ass in fighting evil.

As you can probably guess, it’s too blatant, too photo-shopped and too jarring to work for me. That it looks like a scene taking place in a bar somewhere doesn’t help. I’m very curious to see whether this attempt of marketing a badass!Jesus will come to the point where some elements of the US soldier battling terrorists the stock-in-trade bad guys of the day will sneak in.

(Context: a blog going on about the Old Testament God being a cruel sadist and complete opposite to the jewish, Passover celbrating Jesus, with plenty of bashing of modern Jews in the comments. So, no link.)

One other modern image from here:

Tissot - Satan Tried to Tempt Jesus

Now this I find interesting.

It’s the first, and possibly only image I found, where the personification of evil really scares me. It is also the first where I can find a hint of a Jewish Jesus; that cloth/shawl drawn over his head reminds of images I’ve seen of traditional Jews praying.

Most interesting maybe: this is the first image I’ve seen where Jesus does not appear to be the master of the situation. He’s in physical danger, held child-like by a much larger figure. And he deals with the situation like I would expect a truly spiritual person to do when confronted with some hostile, frightening thing that can’t be fought off with actions: drawn into oneself, pray for strength, remind oneself of one’s believes and hold on to them.  Not an exchange of clever words, which is really something you do for an audience, because the worst enemies won’t listen or give a damn about what you’re saying.

There painting contains more details to explore: the translucent quality of the opponent, the way things look different where they are ssen through his wings, the light which looks very much like break-of-dawn … All in, it has a lot of the classical elements but manages to do something at which the other paintings fail, namely, create an accessible Jesus Christ.

Why is that? Why do angels appear to bland, and even 19th century demons so alive?

That traditional angels and saints don’t have sex-appeal makes sense considering that unrestrained sex was condemned in the Christian church and, for that matter, in most religions. In the same sense, lewd or seductive demons make sense. The idea that the devil isn’t an abhorrent creature but something tempting dates back at the very least to Shakespeare, but I like the Heinrich Heine quote best: :

A man in the prime of his life is the Devil  /  Obliging, a man of the world and civil  / A diplomat too, well-skilled in debate  /   he talks quite glibly of church and state.

So Jesus can’t (and, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t have to and shouldn’t) be sexy, but why so bland?

Well, maybe that’s a bit of value-shift. I guess when the New Testament was written, and really until quite recently, spiritual leaders and their written words, weren’t supposed to be witty or entertaining. Most of the time, there was a strong hierarchy of knowledge – ignorance, student – teacher, authority and followers. And authority doesn’t crack jokes, or entertain.

Also, Jesus has lost his rebel-status and become the establishment – the death-knell of every social or political group! Lucifer of course has that status, and so do his associates. All the advantage of danger, risk and adventure, of protesting and questioning, is theirs.

What I find strange: the idea of a teacher or mentor being patient, listening instead of just lecturing, being witty or self-depreciating or having his own doubts, aren’t all that new. But a lot of followers of Christian ideas seem to cherish the old images of a flawless, clean authority to (politely) lay down the law.

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Winter is … going away, whatever Ned Stark has to say about that.

I’m cycling my way to work and back again, which takes up at least 90 minutes a day, but it’s worth it. It’s not just the exercise, it’s feeling the open landscape around me. I love that strange, wintry beauty of fields and meadows covered in hoar frost. Throw in some fog and it manages to be both magical and mundane. I love the strange effect of having frost on my coat and even gloves, courtesy of fog combined with windchill.

The strange thing: I swear I can feel the first hint of spring beneath it, like the fresh, new skin of a snake about to shed her current coat of scales. It’s like the shrubs and trees are already in grid position, waiting just for a few mild, sunny days to push out the first hint of green and get a head start in that slow, silent race for sunlight. In a few weeks, most shrubs and trees will have that first haze of spring green around them. Another month or two, and they’ll explode in leaves and blossoms.

Living in a small city, I know that anyway; probably a long-term effect of having grown up with gardens and plants. But one hour of cycling through open landscape and I can feel it all around me, under that thin, frost-dusted surface.

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In Love – wonderful!

Not a man, of course. That would be complicated and potentially difficult and intimidating and not even goodness knows how it ends.

No. Book of Kells.

Kind of predictable, but still.

Oh how I love thee.

Not just the luxuriously detailed images, with knotwork and more knotwork and animals and frames and borders … The script itself, round and clear and so evenly written I couldn’t hope to write that well. And the tiny, tiny decorations turning up even in ordinary text, as finely done as the thinnest cut quill point or brush might allow. Like here:

Book of Kells - folo 10 r Detail

Yep, bigger format than I usually use, but just look at it. Smooth lines and fine lines and thick lines and carefully added triangular tops of the b, p, i letters – I’ve blown the high definition pictures up as far as possible, but even then they looks like made in one piece. Which it isn’t – I’ve seen this sort of uncial script written in a different museum, and it’s hypnotic: every letter in several strokes with those little finishes added, and at points the angle of the quill has to change, but the resulting letters look seamless.

Written by angels? That would have been easy; angels are reputed to be free of human failings and flaws like impatience, haste, and possibly substance abuse. The men who created this had to overcome all their weaknesses and get into a near-meditative state to write like this, letter after letter, line after line, page and page.

And if that sounds easy, keep in mind that a scriptorium needs as much light as it can get, clear glass window panes are a SciFi luxury for an 8th century monk, and candles or fire in a scriptorium? Are you kidding? Just dress warmly, because as lovely as Ireland is, it’s climate can’t even be called warm today, and that’s after humans busily trying to heat up their planet for a century now.

That’s the thing about an ancient hand-writing: you are looking at, of if you’re lucky, holding a piece of paper and you know that a hundred years ago, or 1000 years ago, someone slowly filled it with words. You don’t know his name or life or birth or death, but the piece of paper (or vellum) is like a thin line between you, bridging centuries.

One of My Enemies Cut Me

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Equinox and Harvest Home

Time, as per usual, flies by and suddenly it’s Equinox again. Either Monday around 10 pm or, hopefully, around 2 am Tuesday morning – I could be awake at that time! This is one of the points of the year which always have a certain weight: a short moment of balance between day and night, and then night has the upper hand for 6 months. Seems bad at first – it means cold and sleet and getting up when it’s still dark outside, except of course on those days where it’s still dark and rainy outside, and all that. But we are never aware of how precious daylight is than now, we never enjoy the flowers and green leaves as much as now, with months of barren vegetation up ahead. Summer is coming to a close, gather as much as you can for the coming darkness and hope that you worked enough to make it count. A very tiny Harvest Home after a few days at my mothers, with garden work and harvesting and cooking and baking: IMAG3050IMAG3051 What have we here … raisin bread (low on added sugar, most of the sweet comes from the raisins), tomatoes (those are the tiny orange ones, my mother has a small forest of tomato plants the ripe fruits of which range from yellow to near-black), apple-nut bread, acorns (I love gathering them and have in the past even used them for flour; lots of work) and my current favorite vegetable: stinging nettle. IMAG3046 All the rage this fall: greenish toe nails. Only real when the weird tint (and the grime under the nail) is from walking over freshly cut lawn; accept no substitutes!

Not quite. Stinging Nettle swill, a sort of magical elixier for plants if gardeners are to be believed.

Green Beer?          Not quite. Stinging Nettle swill, a sort of magical elixir for plants if gardeners are to be believed.

Okay, so sadly it’s not beer. But doesn’t it have a lovely head of foam to it? Which is also slightly greenish. Unless sanity strikes unexpectedly, I’ll probably attempt to brew some legitimately green beer during the next week or so. Which may turn out drinkable beer, or a dreadful goo, or a green monster from the Abyss which will slime it’s way out onto the street seeking whom it may devour. You never know, that’s the whole fun of cooking stuff yourself!

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Pond Scum II or: How Healthy can Halloween Food Get?


Right, I have an ongoing fascination with foraged foods: elder berries, stinging nettles, all sorts of nuts… so in this season, I’m somewhere between giddy from all the exuberant excess produced by the plant life, and shocked how it’s all squashed and then cleaned away.

Being a bluestocking with a degree in history doesn’t help, either: I _know_ that all those acorns which are covering some parks, lawns or paths are perfect food for pigs. Only there are no pigs and chances are that resident squirrels, jays and pigeons have switched to living of the left-overs in fast food wrappers, so 99% of it go to waste. 

But at least I can collect some of the nuts and berries and of course there’s always Stinging Nettle. This time round in soup form:

Stinging Nettle Soup All Green

The other influence right now was an unexpected visit in my bedroom when I was staying over night with a friend. No, the friend was perfectly well behaved. The visitors quite literally dropped in from the garden:

Green Smoothies Are Awesome

There are actually three of them, the smallest one at the bottom and possibly just being used as a foothold by the largest one. And after taking a few pictures I did of course deposit them in the garden, as close to the nearest pond as possible.


Now, here’s the Halloween idea:

Ingredients –

  • vegetable or potato soup, bought if neccessary
  • bunch full of stinging nettles
  • rubber toads/frogs

The nettles should of course be picked from some site where there’s little pollution, so no transit traffic, and it’s a good idea to pick only the tops from 3 feet high or above – that minimizes the chances of animal wee or, at least as problematic, some small parasites from animals on the leaves. And obviously: wash thoroughly, as with any vegetables.

Now: heat the soup, maybe add some bacon for taste. Coarsly chop the nettles, chuck in, blend or food process the whole thing until it’s a nice, even, dark-green mass.

Serve garnished with a fresh rubber toad (on top or immersed, according to personal taste).

Use a tablecloth that washes well.


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Tasty Pond Scum!

Well, potentially tasty.

Basically, and old fascination of mine (stinging nettle) had met a new one (smoothies) and the result is what I like to lovingly call “pond scum”. Mostly because of the look of it, as for the taste I don’t have all the needed information for a reliable comparison and I plan to keep it that way. (Until the day there’s hard evidence for pond scum having anti-aging effects; then all bets are off. Continue reading

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