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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Our Lady of a Propeller 
26th-Dec-2006 03:22 am
Most entries on the invention of helicopter mention a mysterious "1463 European painting" containing a depiction of a flying top. I have no clue what this painting might be, but I do know a remarkable painting ("The Virgin and Child in a Landscape", NG713) showing baby Jesus playing with a cord-spun propeller top dating from the early 16th century. It has been attributed to Jan Provoost (1491-1529). The toy is presumably Chinese in origin (variously attributed to a 320 AD or a 1100 AD invention and claimed to be brought to Europe by Marco Polo). The striking thing about it (that never appeared to me before) is that the propeller is a cross; apparently the toy had devotional value that made it popular at the end of the 15th century.

compare with Memling's http://gallery.euroweb.hu/art/j/juan/virgin_c.jpg
and Massy's http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/m/massys/quentin/3/index.html
also Provoost's http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?recent=Y&object=405816&row=18&detail=magnify

...The object held by the Child is a toy that could be made to rise and fall. Its shape recalls the Cross on which the adult Christ will be crucified.

...The earliest attempts at helicopter design can be traced back to the days of Leonardo da Vinci in 1486, although some people attribute it to the Chinese Flying Top designed by Ko Hung around 320 AD. http://www.flying-bike.demon.co.uk/helistuff/heli.html

...Since 400BC the Chinese had a bamboo flying top that was used as a children's toy. This toy eventually made its way to Europe and is depicted in a 1463 European painting. Pao Phu Tau (???) was a 4th century book in China that described some of the ideas in a rotary wing aircraft.

...In 1100 AD the Chinese invented a helicopterlike flying top.
26th-Dec-2006 11:56 am (UTC)
Paris, Lateinisches Stundenbuch (Livre d'heures), um 1500, Handschrift, Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. brev. 5. Buchausstattung. Christusknabe mit dem Windrad, Miniatur (in der Bordüre).

Марбургский фотоархив считает вертушку игрушечной мельницей. Игрушечные мельницы я видел у детей на голландских гравюрах восемнадцатого века...

26th-Dec-2006 08:31 pm (UTC) - Crosstrees
Thanks a lot! Surely that's our toy -- in the same hands. I despaired to locate the proverbial 1463 painting; it might be lore.

I doubt that this 1500 toy is a model of a windmill, though I cannot exlude that entirely given that the early history of the propeller, the sail, and the mill are so closely related. The toy is always shown with the propeller pointing up, it always includes a cord to spin the propeller rapidly (an odd feature for a windmill that typically rotates very slowly), the propeller is straight so it cannot be moved by wind to imitate the windmill, and it typically has baby Jesus playing with it (which is strange given no obvious connection to milling). The first windmills in China & Persia had the sails pointing up rather than sideways and so were the first European (12th century) windmills, but the vertical design was abandoned in favor of post mills by the early 14th century. It would be rather odd to hold a model of a "windmill" with a propeller pointing up because it would not look at all like the contemporary windmills. Another consideration is that the timing of the toy appearance coincides with the onset of oriental travel. On the other hand, Chinese tops had only two vanes; the crosstree design could have been inspired by the mills. Surprisingly, NG catalog suggests instead that the crosstree is a Christian symbol. I do not know what is their justification, but I do not know of any depictions of six vane "flying tops" while it was a very popular 15th century design. The flying propeller underwent the typical path of an invention, just like yo-yo (http://shkrobius.livejournal.com/30650.html), with many successive changes and recurrences with the oddest motives imaginary; in short, evolution. A lot of tinkering went into it, but what moved the inventors is never quite clear. Baby Jesus - passion - cross - propeller connection would be an interesting twist on the story. Glorification of Christ through flying crosses is not an idea that comes naturally to a modern mind...
26th-Dec-2006 11:30 pm (UTC) - Re: Crosstrees
Я тоже не думаю, что это мельницы: игрушечные мельницы восемнадцатого века выглядели так как их бы нарисовал человек несведующий и сегодня: домик с лопастями. Вот здесь, кстати, утверждается, что горизонтальные пропеллеры с двумя лопастями встречались в Новгороде двенадцатого века.
27th-Dec-2006 01:49 am (UTC) - Re: Crosstrees
Amazing -- but these do not seem to be flying tops. The mill (both the contraption and the board game) came to Novgorod from the Hansa; spinning propellers are Asian. The text says that these "propellers" were used by Norse kids for jousting (!) rather than flying. How did they joust with them is left to our imaginations. A toy typically passes through a stage when it has some military or other use so it grows more sophisticated through such use. Say, a kite was used for fishing, and the first detailed written account of the flying kite is from 200 BC, by General Han Hsin (for trench measurement during a siege). Stabilization of projectiles would be an obvious practical thing to do with a propeller, although I do not know any examples of such a use before modern times. I wonder if that was the use of the propellers for "jousting" in Novgorod.
27th-Dec-2006 03:12 pm (UTC) - Re: Crosstrees
Я попробую спросить, может быть кто-нибудь из специалистов по Новгороду отзовется.
29th-Dec-2006 12:04 am (UTC) - Re: Crosstrees
Asking the adults wouldn't get us anywhere. I'll try it on a bunch of kids.
3rd-Jan-2007 04:57 pm (UTC) - Re: Crosstrees
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