28 August 2008

Zenobia Survives!

Collateral Damage takes out Queen of Sweden instead.

British readers of this blog may well have already heard the news but, for those located elsewhere, the casualties in the Royal Academy of Art might come as a shock.

Last month, a ceramic sculpture -- one of five by Costa Rican artist Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez on display at the “Summer Exhibition 2008″ (left) -- collided with an unsteady visitor. The 9-foot/3 m.-tall piece named Christina toppled over and smashed into hundreds of pieces.

Before the fall, there were five little Frauleins Christina, Panthea, Zenobia, Semiramis and Guinevere.

We'll come back to these names in a moment, but first an eye-witness report.

Claire San Martin watched it happen and tells us, "It was an enormous crash, like pottery smashing.

"Everyone was just standing around not knowing what to do at all, and one woman in a white top, who I assume had knocked it over, was standing with her hand on her head."

The lady in white thus joins the friendly-fire brigade along with an Englishman who, in 2006, tripped over his shoelaces at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge and smashed a hefty 99lb (45kg) Qing dynasty vase. The 113 pieces of the Chinese porcelain vase have been reassembled. Christina's future fate remains unknown.

But the best (or worst) is yet to come.

The staff reacted with the stiffest of upper lips in the expected, unhurried manner: "After a while," says our star witness, "a person who was in charge of the room ran off to get help and someone came in with a dustpan and brush to clean it up."

Meanwhile, while the dust was still settling, other patrons -- who had heard the loud crash and saw the scattering pieces -- thought it was all part of the show: "They were taking pictures, " Claire continues. " I think they thought it was meant to be like that. It was quite funny."

Well, yes. This was a contemporary art exhibition. How would one know?

The Five Queens

It took me a little while to find the common denominator between Christina, Panthea, Zenobia, Semiramis and Guinevere because I think of Panthea as the beautiful mistress of Lucius Verus (about whom I've written in the 'All-Divine' Girl and Emperor Lucius Verus, I, and a second part as well). But no, the artist didn't have in mind the emperor's mistress; when the penny finally dropped, it had to be the 'Other Panthea', wife of Abradates, king of Susa.

Thus, Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez had created five ceramic totems of queens: three ancient (Panthea, Zenobia, and Semiramis), one medieval (Guinevere) and one early modern (Christina of Sweden).

But not five Frauleins.

Frauleins in German means 'young ladies' or 'unmarried women' -- and that wasn't the case.

What then was the connecting thread?

Faithfulness and Chastity?

Certainly the 'Other Panthea' gets top marks in the Chastity stakes.

"Reportedly the most beautiful woman in Asia" (Xenophon, Cyropaedia 4.6), Panthea had been taken prisoner by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great. Despite attempted pimping by his vassal, Araspas, whom she virtuously rebuffed, Cyrus respected her honour and kept her inviolate. That's Cyrus in blue on the left, telling Arapas that he won't be tempted by lust but will keep his mind on his army. Hence, he's pointing to his soldiers and not looking at Panthea's bare breasts.

The great king sends Panthea back to her husband as chaste as ever. In return for this favour, Abradates surrenders himself and his troops to the conqueror. He swears loyalty to Cyrus and goes off to fight against the Egyptians on his behalf (c. 401 B.C.). When he is killed in the very first battle, Panthea stabs herself and mingles her blood with his before she dies. This was so emotional that three of her eunuchs immediately killed themselves over her body.

As dedicated readers of this blog will know, Zenobia , too, was extremely chaste:

Such was her continence, it is said, that she would not know even her own husband save for the purpose of conception. For when once she had lain with him, she would refrain until the time of menstruation to see if she were pregnant; if not, she would again grant him an opportunity of begetting children. [Hist. Aug. TT XXX 12]

However unlikely and stereotypical this story, a statement by five queens in favour of chastity would be a refreshing antidote to postmodern licentiousness; wouldn't it? Especially in a show curated by the artist Tracey Emin. My favourite Emin artwork is Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1995), a tent containing the embroidered names of the various persons within this privileged category. But, hold on. Curator Emin said she was searching for works that would make her feel "excited and feverish". There was even a sign outside the gallery warning visitors that some of the exhibits “may cause offence”. The may is optimistic.

That's Emin (right) standing between the five queens -- which she called the 'star of the show' . The exhibit, when intactus, must have had, in her eyes, something titillating.

What can that be?

We must look elsewhere for the connecting thread.


The story of the legendary Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, and her love affair with Lancelot is too well known to need retelling. Guinevere, naturally, is also surpassingly beautiful and desirable, but, alas, morally lax. Whether she is forced into or conceives and engineers her extra-marital relationship with Lancelot, her faithlessness triggers the fall of Arthur and the end of the Golden Age of Camelot.

Silly cow.

But at least she didn't murder her husband.


Semiramis, a semi-legendary Assyrian queen, is probably a dim reflection of the historical queen Shammuramat (ruled 811-808 BC), the Babylonian wife of Shamshi-Adad V. After her husband's death, she appears to have served as regent for several years for her son.

In most stories, she is the wife of King Ninus of Babylon. He became captivated by her beauty (of course!) and after her first husband conveniently committed suicide, he married her.

As they say, "Love's a bitch", so that was the first of his two biggest mistakes. The second came when Semiramis, now Queen of Babylon, convinced Ninus to make her "Regent for a Day." He did so - and on that day, she had him executed, and she seized the throne.

Clever, really.

This, of course, is only one small part of her story. On the left, Edgar Degas paints her as she dreamily builds the city of Babylon. She is often remembered as a founder of cities: the characteristic tells in the Near East were even known as 'mounds of Semiramis' and said to cover the ruins of one or another of her mighty works.

There are so many different tales told of her -- and I shall certainly write about Semiramis one day, for she is the archetypal eastern queen; and Zenobia is often compared to her. But little seems relevant to Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez's ceramic totem. Unless the artist is thinking of the inevitable rumours of Semiramis' sexual misconduct -- a long string of one-night-stands with handsome soldiers. To ensure that her power would not be threatened by any man presuming on their relationship, she had each lover killed after a night of passion.

Chastity, if I may say so, is not in the offing here.


When she abdicated the throne of Sweden, Queen Christina explained one of her reasons:*

... it is impossible for me to marry. That is the way it is for me....My temper is a mortal enemy to this horrible yoke [marriage], which I would not accept, even if I thus would become the ruler of the world. Which crime has the female sex committed to be sentenced to the harsh necessity which consists of being locked up all life either as a prisoner or a slave? I call the nuns prisoners and the married women slaves.

Although still only 29 years of age, she had occupied the throne for 23years. She had excuse enough to call it a day. Her heroic father, Gustav Adolph, had died when she was only six. Her mother, Maria Eleonora, consumed by grief, "mourned day and night, relieved only by her troupe of dwarves and hunchbacks, dancing in the candlelight".

When Christina put down her sceptre, she also abandoned the religion of her powerful father, the northern champion of Protestantism, and converted to Catholicism. Her subsequent lax observance of Catholic rituals, however, suggests this was not an overpowering preoccupation. Perhaps she just got bored of her cold and constricted homeland and hankered for the brighter lights and wider cultures of Rome. So, in 1654, disguised as a man, she left Sweden on horseback with several of her male supporters.

Her life in exile, even more than her years on the throne, showed that she was a formidable figure ... extravagant, quarrelsome, petulant, usually indiscreet and sometimes scandalous in her words and behaviour, she was an infernal nuisance to the countries she honoured by her presence. "I love the storm and fear the calm," she told France's Cardinal Mazarin ....

Yet usually she was accepted at her own valuation and fêted lavishly. When she arrived in Paris, 22,000 men paraded to greet her - "130 companies of knights and gentlemen, bedecked with swords and feathers, and mounted on gleaming horses". Two hundred thousand people lined the streets.

Typically, she rejected the elaborate dais on which she was supposed to be carried and elected to enter Paris on horseback. When she moved on to Rome, even though her reputation had been badly tarnished by the brutal execution of her erring servant, Monaldeschi, 24 cardinals assembled to greet her and the Pope sent a mountain of flowers to show his pleasure at her arrival.**

Christina entered Rome through the Porta del Popolo on horseback and dressed in the costume of an Amazon to boot. Needless to say, her arrival created a sensation. She spent most of the remaining 34 years of her life in the Eternal City occupied with court intrigues and the cultivation of mathematics and the sciences, as well as literature and the fine arts, for all of which her unisex education had given her a taste. She gathered poets, essayists, and philosophers of both sexes in her salon for "scientific discourse on all useful and agreeable, erudite and celestial subjects."

If you've got it, flaunt it

She undoubtedly had a taste for cross-dressing. When still sovereign of Sweden, she had Justus van Egmont paint her clad in full armour (1654). A champagne glass commemorating her visit to the Low Countries with two engravings cut by a diamond shows two busts of Christina, one dressed as a woman, the other as a man. The Duc de Guise described her thus:
She wears men's shoes and her voice and nearly all her actions are masculine. She loves to show off her mastery of horses, and she glories in it....
And Madame de Motteville:
She's completely extraordinary....Nearly all her action are in some way extravagant...in no way does she resemble a woman, she hasn't even the necessary modesty. She seems rough, brusque...and libertine in all she says.

This might just be one of the reasons (mightn't it?) that she remained a Fraulein -- the only Fraulein, in fact, among the Five Queens. So, what holds this diverse group of royal ladies together? Not much, I'm afraid. Artists are always doing this, mixing their periods, and picking and choosing subjects by whim, or the sound of their names.

At least, I'm sure of one thing: goodness had nothing to do it with it.

But it isn't really surprising that it was Christina that got smashed.

* A wonderful website on the life of Queen Christina is kept by Tracy Marks at Windweaver; quotations about and by Christina are from the same source, including, in her own words: the wise observation, "The soul has no gender."

** From Philip Ziegler's review of Christina, Queen of Sweden by Veronica Buckley.


Top Photograph RA: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty.

Emin among the Fernandez sculptures, Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Guinevere and Lancelot Together for the Last Time [book illustration of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, 1911, by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, (1872-1945)

Panthea, Cyrus and Araspas, [painting by Laurent de la Hyre (1606-1656), Art Institute of Chicago]

Semiramis Building Babylon [painting by Edgar Degas, 1861; Paris, Musée d'Orsay, © photo RMN, Hervé Lewandowski]

Bottom right: Greta Garbo as Christina in the 1933 MGM film, Queen Christina (adapted from Faith Compton MacKenzie's Sybil of the North).


  1. Anonymous28/8/08 19:29

    I almost exclaimed "My goodness!" at these stories but stopped myself for fear of having to stop and self-analyze.

    One really does not know whether to laugh or to cry at these tales.

    Admittedly mostly I laughed. One might even say guffawed.

    Great post. :)

  2. Artists are always doing this, mixing their periods, and picking and choosing subjects by whim, or the sound of their names.

    Who knows what the artist's frame of reference is, or whether they're even referring to the "original" 5 queens? Barthes' deah of the author was greeted with massive enthusiasm by the art world, I think because it can be used to add mystique while sidestepping questions of authorial intention.
    As for the curator, maybe it was the physical form of the pieces that got her all flushed: the verticality, the horns; the delicate intimation that there might be something to figure out.

  3. In my experience, artists make whatever they want to make ... and thrash about looking for 'sexy' titles just before the exhibition.

    Then some critic writes that they have "transcended the superficial 'actuality' of the object" (or the subject) so we know that it's art.

    Richard, I wouldn't dream of describing the totems as phallic. :-)

  4. "her troupe of dwarves and hunchbacks, dancing in the candlelight" - wow. Just... wow.

  5. Anonymous27/8/10 22:00

    pretty cool stuff here thank you!!!!!!!


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