Friday, February 19, 2010

Beauty is Pain, Pain is-OH SWEET MOTHER OF CRAP!

In our current age, women are often criticized for spending too much time, money and attention on their looks. We can buy anti-wrinkle, anti-sagging, pro-plumping products in a frightening number of forms. But if we stop to consider the lengths to which ancient women went in order to stave off the ravages of time, a seventy dollar bottle of Oil of Olay starts looking downright cheery.

For example, consider this sixteenth century advice for maintenance of a good complexion, written by Hugh Platt in his book, Delights of Ladies:
“Wash the face and body of a sucking child with breast milk or cow milk or mixed with water every night and the child’s skin will wax fair and clear and resist sunburn”.

Who knew that cows produced SPF 50?

Platt goes on to show us that Elizabethan women were just as concerned with finding a deal as we are today.

"An excellent hand water or washing water very cheape:
Take a gallon of faire water, one handfull of Lavender flowers, a few Cloves and some Orace powder, and foure ounces of Benjamin: distill the water in an ordinarie leaden Still. You may distill a second water by a new infusion of water upon the seces: a little of this will sweeten a bason of faire water for your table."

This advice is odd to us, but certainly harmless. Not so the layers of mercury and white lead-filled face paint that was fashionable up until the nineteenth century. These caustic ingredients used over a long period of time could cause a lady's face to literally decompose. Charming!

By far the most dangerous beauty advice came from the soothsayers of Erzsébet Báthory, a 16th century Hungarian countess.

After beating a serving maid one evening (as one does), the countess noticed that where the blood had spattered her face there seemed to have been an enhancing effect. Her soothsayers, not wanting to become the subjects of part two of the evening's entertainment, heartily agreed. Erzsébet decided that the blood of young virgins was her ticket to eternal youth. It is estimated that over forty young women were slaughtered over the next decade to serve the countess's beauty regimen.

For my part, I'll trust Sephora to leave the white lead and virgin blood out of my next purchase.

Pictures courtesy of:

Patience is a Virtue! (and also an addictive card game)

Indulge me in this quick disclaimer before I move on to my next post: I know a fair bit about history, but I don't know squat about computers. I applaud those of you who do, but my slight technological deficiency means that this blog will not always be as pretty on-screen as it was in my head.
If you see a picture in a weird place or with text haphazardly placed around it, it's because I genuinely wanted you to see it and decided to brave the vagaries of image uploading. I will make an effort to improve my blog-savvy, thanks for your patience!

Death Takes Up Interior Design

Close your eyes and picture yourself exploring Rome, the Eternal City. You are walking along the quaint Via Veneto enjoying your gelato when you come upon a beautiful church. You decide to go inside to enjoy the stained glass, or maybe to snap a few pictures. Descending a flight of stairs, you come upon a crypt decorated in what appears to be the baroque style. But with a closer look, you can see that the frescoes and gilded ornamentation have been replaced by row upon row of human bones. No, you haven’t stepped into a horror movie.

This is the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione, a church commissioned by Pope Urban XIII in 1626.

The re-location of the capuchin order of monks to this church in the mid-seventeenth century was a major move. Not only were the monks required to bring with them everything they would need to begin a new holy house, the pope’s brother ordered them to bring their deceased brethren along for the ride. These remains were placed on the walls of the lower level of the new church in intricate designs. The most famous depiction is of death himself, complete with bone constructed scythe and scales of justice.

The crypt is multi-chambered, containing a room of leg bones, a room of skulls and a room of pelvises to name just a few. Some of the monks in the skull room even remain dressed in the habits in which they served.

The site has had its share of illustrious visitors over the centuries, including Mark Twain and the Marquis de Sade who wrote: "I have never seen anything more striking"

To be technically accurate, this is not a crypt. It is an ossuary. An ossuary is an above ground cemetery where only skeletal remains are housed. Bodies are put in a sort of storage area after death, where the remains are allowed to rot until only the skeleton is left. Ossuaries are not uncommon in heavily populated areas, since the storage of a skeleton alone takes up far less space than a large coffin.

Far from rare, these kind of decorative ossuaries pop up all over the world, including Monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru, San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan and the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.

The sentiment of these places is captured quite well in the plaque displayed at Maria della Concezione. It reads: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be." The capuchin monks displayed the bones of their predecessors in order to remind them that death is never more than a few steps behind. One must always be prepared to face God.

Photos courtesy of: