Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Sir Paul Pindar’s house

Sir Paul Pindar (c.1565-1650) was a merchant and was James I’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1611-1620. He was eventually Knighted for his service in 1623. As a wealthy merchant-nobleman he appears to have owned a rather fine house, built around 1600. Although subdivided after his death, the portion of the façade on display here is particularly rare for being a timber-framed building in London that survived the Great Fire of 1666. It remained in position until 1890, when it was removed as part of the expansion of Liverpool Street station. I am just in awe of this huge piece and a museum that has the foresight to preserve such a big piece and the audacity to display it in a way that allows it to ‘breathe’ in a gallery. It’s just gorgeous.

Sir Paul Pindar's House before being moved to the V&A

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Battle Armour

The two collections of armour that have piqued my interest enough to write about [here | here] are both jousting sets, intended for the nobleman at sport. This, however, is an altogether different beast. It is German-made battle armour from around 1570. Intended to be worn in combat, it sought to strike a balance between protection and ease of movement. Although not as ornate as the jousting armour, battle armour could still bear decoration and be quite fashionable and fashion conscious. This particular example is etched with bands of vine scroll, an influence from Islamic art as well as having a narrow waist, mimicking contemporary clothing styles. I can only think that in the heat of battle (and the back plate does appear to have a noticeable ‘ding’) the wearer of this set may have regretted such restrictive fashion choices. As much as I appreciate the quality of the armour, it is the pose that particularly strikes me. There is (to me, at least) something quite contemporary about the stance – as though I’d spotted a friend dancing at a fancy-dress party, head to one side, giving me a ‘thumbs up’.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Hand Reliquary

For many reasons, I was probably not destined for the religious life. Not the least of these is that on hearing of the passing of a pious and respected elder, my first response isn’t ‘Where did I put that saw?’ However, there is a long tradition in Christianity of chopping off bits of departed clerics to preserve as relics. And when it comes to reliquaries, you’ve just got to hand it to this example!

The saintly bits and bobs are long gone, but the reliquary itself survives in amazing condition, even if it was originally intended to be a full arm, rather than just the hand. It was made in the second half of the 13th century, possibly in Belgium. The relics would have been visible through the little ‘windows’ on the fingers. Initially, I thought that these were intended to simulate large, ornamental bezels and stones of finger rings, but their hoops are not continued on the palm side of the hand. This is in contrast to the delicate ring encircling the ring finger at the first knuckle.

Every time I’ve visited this piece I’ve been fascinated with the quality of its manufacture. However, it has only recently struck me that – quite apart from its initial role as an object of devotion – the original form of the piece (possibly with a further window to observe the radius and ulna) would have doubled as and effective memento mori, reminding the faithful that no matter how beautiful and adorned the exterior, death comes for us all. By the same token, I find it interesting that the sanctified contents are now long gone, but we still preserve and revere the gorgeous casing … and maybe there is an insight into our true natures in that observation too …

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Three Saints

This portion of a relief depicts Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew. It was made around 1150 to adorn the western face of the Cathedral of St Peter in Vic, in Catalonia. The first number of times I saw this piece, I merely noted three identical individuals – barefooted, big-handed, and haloed. It was only after some closer attention I realised that each of the three are subtly different, with individualised hair, beards, and clothing. So the viewer (and presumably the apostles themselves) can tell them apart, their names are visible on the books they hold.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Co Donegal: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds 18 items identified as coming from Co Donegal, along with one further item identified as coming from either Antrim or Donegal. The majority of these (6) are assigned to the Neolithic/Bronze Age, followed by the Early Medieval (5), and Bronze Age (4) periods. The most common object types are axes, bell-shrines, knives, knives(?)/blades(?), and pins (2 each). Only two material types are represented in this assemblage: Metal (12) and Stone (7).

Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone items
Polished stone axe, large

Polished stone axe with slightly damaged rounded butt.

knife (?); blade (?)
Flint knife or backed blade.

knife (?); blade (?)
Flint knife or backed blade.

Flint knife.

Flint knife.

Bronze Age: Metal items
socketed axe
Copper alloy socketed axe; cast

Copper alloy sunflower headed pin.

Raphoe (near)
Copper alloy spear-head.

Middle Bronze Age/Iron Age: Metal items
Inishowen (Inishowen Hoard)
torc (?)
Beaten fragment of twisted gold alloy, probably from a ribbon torc

Inishowen (Inishowen Hoard)
Gold alloy ribbon torc.

Late Bronze Age: Metal item
Pollen Shore, Presumably the beach at Pollen Bay
penannular bracelet
Gold penannular bracelet with solid body of rounded cross-section. The expanded terminals are solid and conical shaped.

Early Medieval: Metal items
ringed pin
Copper alloy crutch-headed ringed pin; ring has raised inner rim, outer edge diagonally hatched and bears traces of enamel.
9thC-10thC (?)

pseudo-penannular brooch
Silver pseudo-penannular brooch; plain hoop; expanded terminals linked by a bar, collared setting on each; animals back and front.

Iron bell of Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel; pyramidal; traces of bronze sheeting; T-shaped bronze mount at top on one side (22A).

Bronze plate, T-shaped, on side of bell no.22; central incised cross, square at crossing; interlace animals & ring-chain in fields.

Aran Island
Gun metal pin with brambled, mushroom-shaped head and square-sectioned shank.

Late Medieval: Metal item
Bell-shrine; bronze and silver parcel-gilt; made for the bell of St Conall Cael; decorated with silver plates

The following item is listed in the museum catalogue as coming from either Donegal or Antrim:
Bronze Age: Stone item
Donegal, Glenhead (?); Glenhead, near Bathynure (?)
Schistose stone bracer: polished, with four perforations, two at wide end across long axis and two at opposite narrower end obliquely set, irregularly pentagonal in shape; grey/brown in colour.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Belt Buckle with beaked snakes

This belt buckle is made of forged iron and inlaid with silver and either brass or gold. It dates to the period from 600 to 700 AD and may have been made in France, but there appears to be no record of exactly where it was discovered and how. All the V&A’s website can say is that it ‘may well have been found in a grave, buried with its owner’.

The decoration is in the form of a series of what I would describe as intertwined serpentine forms. However, the V&A go with ‘fabulous beaked snakes’, a term that is both hilarious and somewhat terrifying. It also reminded me of an actual beaked snake, the rufous beaked snake (Rhamphiophis oxyrhynchus). It is named for its hooked snout, which it uses to dig burrows. In my head, I’ve always associated the snake with the city of Oxyrhynchus, in Middle Egypt, itself famed for the great stash of ancient papyri discovered there by Grenfell and Hunt. In my head, I’d presumed that the snake was in some way named after the city, but the city was actually named Oxyrrhynkhoupolis (Οξυρρύγχου Πόλις), the ‘town of the sharp-snouted fish’ known from the local waters. The snake is ‘oxyrhynchus’ in his own right, from his own sharp snouted appearance. It only took a few moments of research to find the truth, but the damage was already done … I’d imagined burrowing, Merovingian beaked snakes, sitting Smaug-like on their hoards of texts and the image wasn’t going to leave with any ease … and now you have it too! You’re welcome!

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.