Thursday, May 23, 2019

The War of Troy tapestry

I just think that this tapestry is marvellous. I could leave that as my only comment on this post and it really would be enough. When it comes to assessing the quality of tapestries, you really only need to know two things. Firstly, the best ones were made in Belgium and, secondly, the high-water mark for production was the 15th century. This example, taking as its subject the Trojan War, sits exactly in that Venn diagram intersection. It was made in the Belgian town of Tournai in the period from 1475 to 1490. In every way, it is the physical manifestation of tapestry making’s ‘sweet spot’.

Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen, kneels before Priam, offering her forces to fight against the Greek army.
Although we don’t know who this piece was commissioned by, it was in the possession of Charles VIII of France by 1494, when he paid to have work done to it to cover over the heraldic devices of the original owner with his own symbol based around a rayed sun. As (in every sense) majestic as this tapestry is, it was only ninth in an original series of eleven – what a scene that must have been!

Although the story of the tapestry series is that of the Trojan War, the interest wasn’t solely historical or literary. Part of its appeal was that nobles of the period saw the tales as containing important lessons and morals for their own behaviour. This aspect of the piece is brought to the fore when we consider that the costumes are not authentic to ancient Greece and Troy, but are instead a curious muddle of the classical, the exotic, and the contemporary. As the V&A’s online catalogue notes, this is ‘all very typical for the late Medieval period when depicting Classical scenes – in particular the lionheaded shoulder armour and tabbed skirts.’ Game of Thrones may have finished (for now!) but I find it difficult to look on those soldiers with lion heads on their shoulders and not immediately imagine that they're Lannisters, not Trojans ... and immediately support the other guy!

Penthesilea’s army in action against the Greeks outside one of the gates of Troy
For me, one of the chief attractions of this piece are the lively and realistic faces of so many of the characters depicted here – both the central players and the ‘extras’. They have a feeling to them (to me, at least) that they were based on real people, possibly well known to the original artist. While the identity of the artist may have been lost, it is known that the Tournai merchant, Pasquier Grenier, owned the cartoons for the set and supplied versions of the design to a number of different patrons. I still look at this series and wonder if one of the faces staring back at me may be either our artist or even Grenier himself … a well-to-do merchant that made it into the presence of Royalty. We may never know for sure, but the speculation is too much fun to ignore.

Priam being armed ahead of battle 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Co Wicklow: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds nine items identified as coming from Co Wicklow. The majority of these (4) are assigned to the Neolithic/Bronze Age, followed by the Bronze Age (2). The most common object type represented are axes (2). Only three material types are represented in this assemblage: Stone (5), Metal (3), and Pottery (1).

Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone items
Stone macehead, partly perforated on both sides, round disk shape, damage on one edge, rough surface, brown in colour.

Polished stone axe with slightly damaged rounded butt, rounded sides and uneven blade.

Stone chisel, pecked.

Fragment of perforated stone pebble, broken across perforation, rough surface, light brown in colour, round edges.

Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age: Metal item
The Blessington lunula. Gold lunula. Flat sheet crescent of beaten gold with quadrangular terminals. It is decorated with a finely-incised and complex geometric pattern.
2400BC-2000BC (circa)

Neolithic (?)/Bronze Age (?)/Iron Age (?): Stone item
polisher (?); disc
Stone disc, possibly used as polisher; stone of fine grit and upper and lower faces are very smooth; sides are convex and angled in centre; mottled tan.

Bronze Age: Metal item
Copper alloy short-flanged axe; cast.

Bronze Age: Pottery item
Ballybeg House
Pottery tripartite vase with a conical body and an asymmetrical, roughly oval mouth.

Iron Age: Metal item
horse bridle-bit
Copper alloy bridle-bit. Irish type with rings of flattened, sub-triangular section and stop-studs cast in one with the rings.
100 BC - AD 100 (circa)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Headless Deity

This fragment of a temple relief from Armant is carved in sandstone and dates to the Ptolemaic period (305 BC to 30 BC). Unfortunately, as the figure is lacking his head it is not possible to identify exactly which deity is represented. Instead, I’m just taken by the fact that this wonderful blue paint has survived so well for over 2000 years.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Co Kildare: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds eight items identified as coming from Co Kildare. The majority of these (3) are assigned to the Bronze Age, followed by the Late Medieval period (2). The most common object type represented are floors (2). Only three material types are represented in this assemblage: Metal (5), Pottery (2), and Stone (1).

Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone item
Polished stone axe with flat butt; slight damage at butt end of face.

Bronze Age: Metal items
socketed axe
Copper alloy socketed axe; cast. Body cross-section octagonal. Unusual axe as it has a band of five ridges around the lower part of the neck.

Copper alloy sword. The tang has been cast on. It has one rivet-hole and there are three rivet-holes in the rounded butt; the repair may have filled up another.

Copper alloy disc headed pin with pimple in centre of head.

Middle Bronze Age: Metal item
Copper alloy palstave, damaged.

Early Medieval: Metal item
Ballitore (near)
penannular brooch
Leaded bronze penannular brooch with grooved hoop; expanded zoomorphic terminals with triangular enamel and millefiori settings.

Late Medieval: Pottery items
Newbridge Abbey, abbey
Earthenware floor tile, lead-glazed.

Newbridge Abbey, abbey
Earthenware floor tile, lead-glazed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Jousting Armour

I’ve written previously about some rather fine 17th century English jousting armour at the V&A. To provide contrast, the jousting armour in this post is about a century earlier (1520-40) and German. Although all of the pieces that make up this display are from different sets, bequeathed to and bought by the museum at different times, they are unified in their use of decorative fluting. This technique was particularly popular during the reign of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. As a decorative device, fluting was intended to imitate contemporary pleated doublets, but it also, essentially produces a corrugating effect, strengthening the metal and providing greater protection.

This style of helmet (M.2705-1931), known as an armet, first became popular at the end of the 15th century. The hinged visor reduced much of a nobleman’s vision to reduce the risk of facial injury. This was not seen as a particular impediment as, unlike actual battle armour, the jouster only needed to see in one direction. The gorget (M.62-1953) protected the neck and shoulders. This example has the same fluting as before, but has an added element in that the neck-edge is in the form of a twisted rope or torse. Unfortunately, the way that these items are exhibited, with the armet over the top of the gorget, means that this detail can only be glimpsed from the back. The breastplate (M.197-1951) was made in the Bavarian town of Landshut by Wolf Grossschedel, and bears his mark. The odd-looking, semi-circular piece of metal attached at the right pectoral area is a lance rest, indicating that this was for sports jousting rather than battle. The final piece in this ensemble is the backplate (M.116-1953). Unlike the heavy breastplate that faced the full force of any potential injury, this was a much lighter as it wasn’t a target area. While the fluted decoration is present here again, the absence of the rope-like edging seen on the gorget and breastplate would again suggest that it is the work of a different maker and from a different set.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Three Graces

The Graces are, by tradition, the three daughters of Jupiter/Zeus: Thalia (youth and beauty), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Aglaia (elegance). This group was commissioned by John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, when he visited the studios of Antonio Canova in Rome in 1814. There Russell saw and was, justifiably, taken with a version of The Three Graces (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg) commissioned for Empress Josephine, the former wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. As she had died earlier that year, the Duke made an offer on the piece, but was thwarted by her son, who claimed ownership. Not to be done out of a sculpture, Russell commissioned Canova to produce a second version which was completed in 1817 and installed at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire in 1819.

One of the reasons I love this piece is the sheer skill demonstrated by Canova. His working technique was to dictate the design and then allow his workers to carve out the broad shapes, saving the final level of detailing for himself. This is what set him apart from his contemporaries and led to comparisons with the finest sculptors of antiquity – Canova could make solid, cold marble look as though it was as warm and responsive as human flesh. I’ve spent so much time with this piece, looking at how an individual figure balances within the group or how the artist renders the touch of fingers on a face. It is truly spectacular and never fails to take my breath away.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ

I’ve spoken before of my love of the work of Andrea della Robbia and his mindbendingly garish colour choices. This terracotta group, entitled The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, dates to about 1510-1515 and comes from his workshop, if not from the hand of the master himself. As the work incorporates the Virgin Mary cradling the figure of the dead Christ, it may be classed as a Pietà. In this arrangement, Mary is at the centre, with St John the Evangelist to the left and Mary Magdalene on the right.

Such a piece would have been intended as a focus for religious devotion in a church, and terracotta was a particularly popular medium at this period in Tuscany and the area around Bologna. The V&A’s information card notes that groups like this were particularly difficult to make and it seems that Mary Magdalene shattered during the first (biscuit) firing. This meant that the figure was unsuitable for further firing to add the glaze and instead she was painted. The other figures are all partially glazed and, while I do mock the palette, I’m still taken aback at how vibrant and vivid the colours are some 500 years after it was first made.

There’s so much to like about this piece, from the obvious skill in its manufacture, to the ‘make do & mend’ approach to the misfired Magdalene. There’s even something incredibly charming (if wholly blasphemous) in Christ’s exceptionally chilled position and facial expression, like a terracotta Snoop Dogg. For me, the greatest charm of the piece is the contrast between the front and the back. The front is exquisite and must have provided a point of concentration for generations of worshipers. But the back is so strange, almost alien in appearance. As the piece was never intended to be seen in the round, there was no need to waste unnecessary effort and clay on detail – just enough to keep it structurally stable remains. Whichever way you look at this sculpture, it remains a visually arresting and thought provoking piece.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Palaeolithic Egypt

When we think of the archaeology of Egypt we – almost invariably, but with good reason – get mental images of the Pharaonic period. King Tut, Abu Simbel, Karnak, maybe even Hatshepsut. It’s totally understandable – there are some amazing treasures and buildings from these periods. However, it is still good to remember that – as this case of hand axes reminds us – Egypt had a Palaeolithic past too! 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Basilewsky Situla

This little carved ivory bucket (or situla) was intended as a holder for holy water and is thought to have been carved around 980 or 981 AD in Milan and associated with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II's visit to the city. Situlae in ivory were particularly rare and only three are known to survive. This example is particularly fine and is decorated with twelve scenes from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, in two rows of six. The situla bears three rows of text: at the rim, the centre line, and the basal edge. The upper two rows are lines from Coelius Sedulius' Hexameter version of the New Testament, while the lowest line may be translated as ‘May the Father who added thrice five to the years of Hezekiah, grant many lustres to the august Otto. Reverently, Caesar, the anointing-vessel wishes to be remembered for its art.’

The piece appears to have passed into a private collection in 1856, before being sold and resold several times – including to one Mr Basilewsky in 1874 after whom it is now named. He, in turn sold it to Tsar Alexander III, which is how it ended up in the Hermitage Museum in 1885. By the 1930s the museum found itself in financial difficulties and put it up for sale. With generous support from the Art Fund, the V&A bought it in 1933 for £7,900.

There are so many wonderful things about this piece that I just adore, from the physical object itself, to what it meant at the time of its manufacture, and even the complicated tale of its life in various private collections. But, most of all, I really do just love being able to use the words ‘situla’ and ‘situlae’ in conversation – so much nicer than a plain old ‘bucket’!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Half-armour for the tilt

I’m afraid that I always imagine armour and jousting as being a medieval ‘thing’, rarely realising that even into the early 17th century it was still a popular pastime for the nobility. This rather gorgeous armour was made at the Royal Workshops, Greenwich, when one William Pickering was the Master Workman there, dating it neatly to the period from 1607 to 1618. Rather than being a full suit of armour, this was only intended to cover the upper portion of the rider (thus: ‘Half-armour’). Here the breastplate has an additional mount to allow for the attachment of a lance-rest.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Head of Narmer

This limestone head was thought by Petrie to be a representation of Narmer, a king of the 1st Dynasty, considered by many to be the person who first unified Egypt. It’s a gorgeous piece in its own right, with Narmer in his flat-topped headdress, and (from some angles) a somewhat ‘pouty’ look about him.

I like it for a whole host of reasons, but one thing that stands out for me is that the museum’s information card (and the Petrie’s online database) note that the piece was purchased in Cairo. It is likely that the piece was originally sourced by ‘treasure hunters’ without regard for its provenance, or any other information that a skilled archaeologist could add to its recovery. On one side is the acknowledgement that purchasing a piece such as this ensured that it was well curated and cared for, but with it must come the realisation that (although acceptable at the time), this created a market that only ensured that further sites were robbed and denuded without sufficient record.

I do like that the museum are upfront about the rather dodgy provenance of this (and other) pieces in their collection. This approach allows us to see Petrie himself in a more rounded and nuanced way, not just the great excavator and archaeological innovator, but as a man of his time with some practices that would be considered unethical and repugnant today.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Dacre Beasts

The Dacre Beasts are relative newcomers to my personal cultural horizon (read: I’ve only recently encountered them). They are believed to have been crafted between 1509 and 1547, during the reign of Henry VIII, probably for Thomas, Lord Dacre (1467-1525) or his son William, 3rd Baron Dacre (1493-1563). Interestingly, all four figures are believed to have been carved from a single oak tree. These, apparently, unique survivors of English heraldic woodwork were installed in the great hall at Naworth Castle in Cumbria, where they remained until purchased by the V&A in 2000 (in lieu of inheritance tax). The castle was ravaged by fire in 1844 and although the beasts survived unscathed, they were repainted soon after, possibly following the original colour scheme. The banners were added around 1849.

The beasts (each nearly 6ft tall) are intended to represent heraldic supporters of the Dacres and other families related to them through marriage. The beasts may be identified as follows:

The red bull was the heraldic supporter of Thomas, Lord Dacre
The crowned salmon represents Elizabeth de Greystoke (eloped with Dacre in 1488)
The black gryphon signifies Thomas’ ancestor Ralph or Ranulph de Dacres, who built Naworth in 1335
The white ram (even if it does look like a freshly-skinned calf) may be identified with Ranulph's wife, Margaret de Multon

These are simply beautiful pieces, made all the more striking by their rarity. However, my lasting impression of these carvings is that the craftsperson responsible for their creation was a little too fascinated with penises and testicles. I suppose it’s a consequence of attempting to retain some degree of naturalism while standing a quadraped on its hind legs that there will, invariably, be genitalia on display. Although Thomas Dacre’s red bull may be in with a chance of a prize in the ‘largest knackers (asymmetrical) in medieval carving’ category, the black gryphon’s very 3D member and testes is not only slightly unnecessary, but in a whole league of its own.

On the off-chance that archaeological blogs such as this are occasionally perused by those with an interest in statistics, I’ll note that is believed that Francis Galton came up with the concept of correlation at Naworth Castle. Of course, Galton is less heralded for his interest in eugenics. He is noted for actually inventing the term ‘eugenics’ itself as well as coining the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’.

Having obviously spent too long thinking about his red bull, I suddenly can't get the phrase ‘Lord Dacre gives you wiiiiings’ out of my head. You're welcome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Badarian Bowl Burial

In an era where the display of human remains has become a contested issue, the presentation of this individual in his burial bowl is particularly arresting. This is the well-known Burial 59 from the pre-dynastic North Spur site at Hemamieh near Badari. The large red earthenware pot contained the deceased individual wrapped in a linen shroud, without grave goods, and was capped by a second, slightly smaller, bowl. The burial is one of a number that cut into the pre-dynastic domestic refuse mound and is tentatively dated to the Protodynastic/Old Kingdom periods.

I was particularly taken by the sign near the entrance of the museum that noted that there are human remains on display inside. This is contextualised in terms of how the collections are treated with respect and are the subjects of ongoing research ‘in order to return aspects of their individual identities’.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Adoration of the Kings

This altarpiece is made of enamelled terracotta and depicts the adoration of the Magi. It was made by the renowned Italian Renaissance sculptor, Andrea Della Robbia, in Florence and dates to around 1500-1510. The V&A’s database entry for this piece notes that the coat of arms on the lower border indicates that it was commissioned by the Albizzi family. It was most likely intended for an altar at either S Michele or S Andrea at Rovezzano, both of which were patronised by the Albizzi family at that time.

I’m always drawn to this piece for the simple, outlandish gaudiness of the colour scheme. I’m remarkably colour blind and loud colours don’t often resonate, but this thing just screams at me for attention (I can only imagine how gaudy it appears to modern viewers with full colour vision). I also have to admit that I have something of a soft spot for the Magi. Quite apart from the fact that I memorised the extra-Biblical names of the Magi (Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India) when I was quite young (it came in useful in a Table Quiz once, so there!), I felt rather sorry for the ones we had in my family’s Christmas crib. You could set the whole thing up with the rest of the decorations, but not the Magi. They were only supposed to appear on the 5th of January, on the last day of Christmas … and then the whole lot had to be packed away for another year. It seemed rather unfair. I know they turned up late, but a few hours in the spotlight before being put away for another 12 months didn’t sit well with me. Here, on the other hand, the Magi got to be centre stage all year round … no matter how gaudy the choice of colours!