British Museum Handling Session: Medieval Light

candlestock-bmOn 23rd November 2016 Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman from the British Museum once again kindly allowed staff and students from The Courtauld to look at objects from the museum’s store rooms, focused on the theme of light.

We looked at a number of objects associated with the production of light, including a Byzantine brass lamp and polycandelon. This led to a long discussion about the kinds of shadows such objects would produce, and the use of olive oil for lamps across the Mediterranean. How would other objects on the altar be affected by the light from candles or lamps, we wondered, especially in relation to transparent reliquaries such as this late 13th- or early 14th-century example.

We then examined a number of candlesticks, including this bronze base for a candestick, probably made in 13th-century England; a Limoges pricket candlestick, of a kind found across medieval Europe; and a 15th-century silver candlestick, one of a set of altar implements from the church of Vera Cruz in Medina del Pomar (Spain). We wondered about the relative costs of olive oil vs wax, and the potential for collection and reuse of dripped wax.

We also discussed the custom of lighting candles around cult images, as implied by this 13th-century seal from York, and the story of St Blaise and the two wax candles, as shown in this 16th-century French seal. Finally, we spent a long time puzzling over the BM’s extraordinary candle-stock. This is one of a pair (the other is in Jesus College, Cambridge), but is otherwise a unique survival. It is made of wax and is tapered like a candle, but is richly decorated and completely hollow, so could never function like a candle. Instead it seems to have been a kind of disguised support for a candle, one that would give the impression that very large (and expensive) candles were being burnt.

We were accompanied in this handling session by Dr Mikkel Bille, an anthropologist from the University of Roskilde, who gave a lecture the previous evening as part of The Courtauld’s 2016 Frank Davies Lecture Series on Light and Darkness, organised by Tom Nickson and Stefania Gerevini. We were also joined by two artists from Lumen Studios. This was the latest in a series of workshops organised through the ‘Medieval Touch‘ research group.

light-handling-session

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