Did Michelangelo design the uniforms of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard? In short: no way

swiss guard

It’s a common belief that Michelangelo designed the uniforms of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. But, in fact, they are based on armor common throughout Renaissance Europe.

During the Renaissance, Swiss mercenary soldiers were considered among the best in Europe. When Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503, he asked the Tagsatzung to provide him with a guard. The Tagsatzung — a/k/a the Diet of Switzerland – was the governing body of Switzerland prior to formation of the Swiss federal state in 1848.

150 Swiss mercenaries arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506, considered the official date of the Swiss Guard’s foundation. The soldiers’ uniforms consisted of a doublet or jacket worn over metal armor, with a sleeveless black cape to protect against rain and cold. The jacket was most likely emblazoned with either the Swiss cross or the crossed Papal keys.

The coat of arms of the Holy See, with the crossed keys symbolizing the keys of Heaven entrusted to Saint Peter

The coat of arms of the Holy See, with the crossed keys symbolizing the keys of Heaven entrusted to Saint Peter.

Pope Julius outfitted his new guard in yellow and blue, the Rovere family colors. His successor, Pope Leo X (1513–1521), added red to the uniforms to make red, yellow and blue, the colors of his own family, the Medici of Florence.

Originally the Swiss Guard wore various types of head gear. Wide brimmed hats, as well as padded leather caps and metal helmets, have been depicted in period art. All these were trimmed with brightly colored pheasant or heron feathers. The metal helmet, however, was soon replaced with the morion — a high-crested open helmet with upward-turning front and back edges.

swiss guard morion

Morion of the Swiss Guard, topped with the white plume of a commandant or sargeant major.

Today, most of the Swiss Guard’s function is ceremonial. Their everyday uniform – including the cape (when worn) — is completely blue. Their headgear is a plain, black beret.

swiss guard reg uniform

On special occasions, the Guard wears a ceremonial dress uniform that includes a forged breast plate, a ruff, and white gloves. It consists of 154 pieces and takes nearly 32 hours and 3 fittings to complete. It includes a morion topped with an ostrich-feather plume: white for the commandant and sergeant major, purple for lieutenants, red for halberdiers (privates) and yellow/black (on a black morion) for the drummers.

swiss guards

The current uniforms were first commissioned in 1914. They could not have been designed by Michelangelo. However, they were inspired by frescos of Landesknechte (German mercenary knights) as painted by Michelangelo’s contemporary, Raphael.

But while these colorful outfits may be ceremonial, the Swiss Guard means serious business. Its mission to protect the Pope at all costs was proved during the 1527 sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. On that date, 147 men of the Swiss Guard (more than 80% of their number) died to allow Pope Clement VII to escape the Vatican unharmed.

In keeping with its mission, the soldiers of the Swiss Guard are trained in not only the Guard’s traditional weapons — the halberd (or pike) and sword — but in unarmed combat, crowd control, and the use of small arms. Following the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, their guns have included the Sig Sauer P220 pistol, and whatever rifle is standard-issue with the Swiss Army.

The Sig Sauer P220 pistol.

The Sig Sauer P220 pistol.

To qualify as a Swiss Guard, an applicant must be an unmarried Swiss citizen of the Catholic faith, who is under the age of 30 and at least 5’ 8 ½” tall. The applicant must have satisfactorily completed service with the Swiss Army. For now, at least, applicants must also be men.

During their swearing-in ceremony on May 6th – the anniversary of the sack of Rome – new Swiss Guards must take an oath of loyalty. Much like the U.S. Secret Service is sworn to protect the President, Swiss Guards swear to protect the Pope at all costs… even with their lives.

Suffering and self-promotion: the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, taken in 1868.

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, from 1868.

Mirza Ghalib was a 19th century poet who lived in India during the last years of the Mughal dynasty. He is best known today for his 234 ghazals in Urdu (a language similar to Hindi).

Ghazals originated in seventh-century Arabia. Originally, they celebrated wine, women and music, or anguish over lost love. By the eleventh century, however, the theme of lost love had acquired philosophical overtones. In Ghalib’s ghazals, separation and suffering are indistinguishable from life, and the beloved is often a metaphor for God.

Ghalib himself understood suffering all too well. He was born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan to an aristocratic family descended from Seljuk Turks. His father died when he was a child. At the age of 13, he wed an 11-year old in an arranged marriage.

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Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

saint denis notre dame

Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

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Mansa Musa – the “Black Moses”

Musa

From a 14th century Catalan atlas, Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold.

 

In the 14th century, Mansa Musa of Mali (c. 1280 – c. 1337) ruled a kingdom stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to beyond the bend of the Niger River in the East. And according to a 2012 analysis, Mansa Musa was the richest person ever.

Musa’s wealth came from Mali’s extensive production of salt and gold. In the north, slaves worked the Taghaza salt mines, while in the south the legendary Wangara gold mines provided more than half the world’s gold.

Mansa Musa is often referred to as the “Lion of Mali.” But in the Mandinka (Mandigo) language, Musa means “Moses.” This has led some historians to call Mansa Musa the “black Moses.” And it’s an appropriate nickname, given that Musa’s real fame came from his 1324 Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

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Hagar and the Well of Zamzam: how a woman discovered one of the holiest sites in Islam

 

hagar

Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert by François Joseph Navez (Belgian, 1787–1869)

 

The Well of Zamzam is located near the Kaaba (Cube), the holiest place in Islam. Both the Kaaba and the Zamzam Well are inside the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba. During the Hajj, pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well. To understand why Zamzam water is so important to Muslims, a bit of religious history is in order.

It begins with the story of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. Slightly differing versions of the story appear in the Bible and the Koran (Quran). But the essentials are:

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The French Wars of Religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Francois_Dubois_001

Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. The body of the Admiral Coligny’s body hangs from a window at the right rear. Catherine de’ Medici is shown at the left rear emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre began on August 24, 1562 in Paris, France. Over a five-day period, Catholic mobs slaughtered some 3,000 French Huguenots (Protestants) who had come to Paris for the marriage of the king’s sister to Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Although Catherine de Medici, the mother of the French King, has long been blamed for inciting the massacre, it is unlikely that she did so.

The massacre was one of the earliest events in the French Wars of Religion, a series of armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place throughout France during the second half of the 16th century.

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Chocolate – the food of the Gods

pods

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree or, as it’s botanically known, Theobroma cacao. The word theobroma comes from Greek θεος (theos), “god,” + βρῶμα (broma), “food.” So chocolate is literally the food of the gods.

Theobroma cacao is native to the American tropical rain forest. It is a delicate tree that can survive only in a narrow band extending 20 degrees either side of the Equator.

trees

Cacao trees are small and delicate, usually no more than 20-40 feet high. They need taller trees (such as hardwoods) to shelter them from the elements. Continue reading

An eye for an eye: the Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash (relief on the upper portion of the stele of Hammurabi's Code, the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash. (relief on the stele of Hammurabi’s Code, in the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First (Amorite) Dynasty of Babylon. He reigned for 43 years — from 1792–1750 BCE – over most of ancient Mesopotamia. He is best known for the Code of Hammurabi — 282 laws covering everything from medical malpractice to a minimum wage.

Contrary to popular belief, the Code of Hammurabi is not the oldest known written code of laws. That honor belongs to the Code of Ur-Nammu, written in the Sumerian language in Mesopotamia during the 21st century BCE.

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The Ig Nobel Prizes for science: first you laugh, THEN you think

It’s that time of year, when actual Nobel Laureates award other scientists prizes for research that seems unnecessary, questionable, or downright absurd.

Does the world really need artificial replacement testicles for dogs? In three difference sizes and degrees of firmness, no less?  Should there really be a U.S. patent for the combover?

The Ig Nobel Prizes – the brainchild of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research – are handed out every September in a ceremony co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 3 of 3: whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

hommage to voltaire

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

— Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville

In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.

But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.

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