Monthly Archives: November 2018

Medieval Touch: Handling session at the British Museum on scientific instruments in medieval and Renaissance Europe

On Weds 21st November 2018, Lloyd de Beer, Naomi Speakman, and Oliver Cooke kindly allowed students and staff from the Courtauld Institute of Art and elsewhere into the horological storerooms of the British Museum, the latest in a series of handling sessions organised by Medieval Touch. Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein of the University of York led the group in a joint examination of a series of mostly sixteenth-century scientific instruments, including replicas from her own collection.horology

We began by looking together at an astrolabe. Astrolabes were observational and calculating instruments and allowed users to tell the time through the position of the stars in relation to the astral map on the astrolabe itself, however your ability to do so was contingent upon any number of factors, not least the environmental conditions.

 

As well as explaining their purpose, Jeanne attempted to instruct us all in their use and as each of us tried and frequently failed to grasp the fundamentals of astrolabe reading, it became apparent that astrolabes are not intuitive instruments. Their use implies and demands significant technical experience and knowledge. We questioned whether this knowledge was simply more widespread in the early modern world or whether utility was not their only value. Even when we consider astrolabes purely in practical use, several limiting factors would have dictated how and by whom they were employed. Astrolabes are geographically specific instruments, each backplate designed for a set latitude – the mobile user would have required multiple plates. Moreover, larger instruments were more easily legible and produced more accurate readings.

Certain instruments that survive like this column shaped sundial were too elaborately shaped to be of any functional use. Their design seems to effect other concerns, perhaps commemorative (was this the model of a larger monumental sundial?) or aesthetic.

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However, other instruments were clearly more useable. Ivory diptych sundials like these 16th-century examples from Nuremberg, appear to have been designed for the Early Modern traveller. Handy and conveniently pocket sized, they also offered a range of adjustable settings depending on location.

 

London to Naples, Portugal to Constantinople: the lists of cities on these objects, clustering around the cities of Mitteleuropa and Northern Italy, Bremen, Königsberg, Venice and Genoa, spoke to some of us of a now lost trading geography of Europe. However, made of ivory and not unelaborately decorated, these objects were demonstrably prestige items and must have elicited viewing as much as reading.

A glance at the range of sundials in the cabinets of the horological department reveals the complex interplay of aesthetic and practical motives at work in these objects.

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Here’s what we saw, all visible on the British Museum’s website:

Sundial/horary quadrant, England 14th c., 1972,0104.1
Sundial etc., Hans Dorn 1492, 1894,0615.1
Astrolabe, Georg Hartmann 1532, 1871,1115.3
Crucifix polyhedral sundial, Georg Hartmann 1541, 1894,0722.1
Astronomical compendium/wind-vane, Christopher Schissler c. 1550, 1855,0904.1
Sundial in the form of dividers, Christopher Schissler 1558, 1888,1201.283
Universal equinoctial dial with case, Christopher Schissler c. 1570, 1922,0705.3
Regiomontanus-style sundial, Caspar Vopel 1551, 1895,0319.1
Crucifix sundial, Melchior Reichle 1569, 1874,0727.3
Standing cup in the form of a celestial globe, French, 1569, AF.3060
Pillar dial in the form of a Corinthian column, Germany, 1593, 1888,1201.282
Scaphe sundial, Germany late 16th c., 1922,0705.6
Sundial etc., Netherlands late 16th c.?, 1871,1115.5
European celestial globe from 1659, 1896,0322.1
17c armillary sphere, 1855,1201.221
Diptych dial, Hartmann, 1562, 1900,1017.1

Many thanks again to Jeanne for a fascinating session!

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CFP: ‘Scaling the Middle Ages: Size and Scale in Medieval Art’, Courtauld Institute of Art’s 24th Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium, London, Friday 8 February 2019

image-1024x745The Courtauld Institute of Art’s 24th Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium invites speakers to consider issues and opportunities encountered by medieval artists and viewers in relation to size and scale.

Deadline: 16 November 2018

From micro-architectural reliquaries and minute boxwood prayer beads to colossal sculpture and the built spaces of grand cathedrals and civic structures, size mattered in medieval art. Examples of simple one-upmanship between the castles and palaces of lords and kings and the churches and cathedrals of abbots and bishops are numerous. How big to make it was a principal concern for both patrons and makers of medieval art. Scale could be manipulated to dramatic effect in the manufacture of manuscripts and the relative disposition of elements within their decorative programmes. Divine proportions – of the Temple of Solomon or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – were evoked in the specific measurements and configuration of contemporary buildings and decisions were made based on concern with numbers and number sequences.

Inspired by the ‘Russian doll’ relationship between the Sainte Chapelle in Paris and its micro-architectural miniature in the form of a gilded reliquary in the Musée de Cluny, Scaling the Middle Ages seeks to explore a range of questions surrounding proportion, scale, size, and measurement in relation to medieval art and architecture. The Sainte Chapelle, built by the saint-king of France Louis IX to house the relics of Christ’s Passion, is itself often described as an over-sized reliquary turned inside-out. The Cluny reliquary – made to house relics of Saints Maxien, Lucien, and Julien held within the chapel – both complicates and compliments that comparison, at once shrinking the chapel back down to size through close architectural quotation of its form in miniature and pointing the viewer’s attention back to that same, larger space. The relationship between these two artefacts raises a host of questions, including:

Scale and making

How were ideas about size and scale communicated between patrons, architects, craftspeople, and artists? In an age without universal standardised units of measurement, how did craftsmen negotiate problems of scale and proportion?

How were the measurements of a medieval building determined? What techniques did architects, masons, and artists use to determine the scale of their work?

Scale and meaning

What effects were achieved and what responses evoked by the manipulation of scale, from the minute to the massive, in medieval art?

What was the role of proportion and scale in architectural ‘copies’ or quotations?

What representational problems were encountered by artists approaching out-sized subjects, such as giants?

How was scale manipulated in order to communicate hierarchy or relative importance in medieval art?

How did size and scale function in competition between patrons or communities in their artistic commissions and built environments?

Problems of scale

What, if anything, happened when something was the wrong size? When was something too big, or too small? And how were such problems solved by patrons and makers?

How does the disembodied viewing of medieval art through digital surrogates distort or assist in our perception of scale?

How can modern measuring techniques and digital technology enhance our understanding of medieval objects and buildings?

Applicants to the colloquium are encouraged to explore these and related issues from a diverse range of methodologies, analysing buildings and objects from across the Middle Ages (broadly understood in geographical and chronological terms). The Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium offers an opportunity for research students at all levels from universities across the UK and abroad to present, discuss and promote their research.

To apply, please send a proposal of up to 250 words for a 20-minute paper, together with a CV, to teresa.lane@courtauld.ac.uk and oliver.mitchell@courtauld.ac.uk no later than 16 November 2018.

Organised by Oliver Mitchell and Teresa Lane (The Courtauld Institute of Art)