Tag Archives: British Museum

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.

3

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.

6

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!

Curatorial Fellowship in Old Master Drawings

British Museum, London
Application deadline: Jun 20, 2018

The British Museum Dürer_rhino_fullis looking to recruit a Getty Foundation Prints and Drawings Curatorial Fellow with a specialist interest in pre-1900 European drawings. The Fellowship funded by the Getty Foundation will enable the Fellow to work with a curatorial mentor to develop and expand their knowledge and research skills in their specialist geographical or period field of pre-1900 European drawings, as well as to broaden their wider experience of the graphic arts, and curatorship in general, through the experience of being part of a curatorial team looking after one of the world’s largest works on paper collections. During their time in the Museum the Getty Foundation Fellow will be expected to research and improve the cataloguing and provenance history of a part of the Museum’s outstanding collection of c. 60,000 pre-1900 British and European drawings, as well as playing their part in wider curatorial activities and duties of the Department and of the Museum.

Applications due 20 June 2018, please see link for application details:

http://www.museumjobs.com/jobdetails.php?JobID=11226
https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/jobs.aspx

British Museum Handling Session: The Trinity

GodwinOn Wednesday 24 January 2018 Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman once again welcomed a group of staff and students from The Courtauld and elsewhere, as well as Sophie Kelly, PhD student from the University of Kent. The focus of our session was objects in the British Museum collection with links to the Trinity.

We looked at eleven objects with Trinitarian iconography, the earliest of which was the walrus ivory seal die of Godwin the Thane, dating from the early eleventh century. Beautifully carved with iconography inspired by Psalm 109 (110), ‘The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand and I will make thine enemies thy footstool’. The decoration on the handle consists of God the Father and Son in relief, enthroned over a prostrate human figure. We were very interested to investigate the evidence of damage above the two figures which, we agreed, was likely to have once included a symbol of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove.

The Trinity also features on a fourteenth-century circular bronze seal-matrix (with wax impression) with a loop at top. Here the Trinity is depicted as three near-identical figures with an inscription ‘SCA TRINITAS.VHVS.DEVS’. The third seal which we saw was the fifteenth-century circular bronze seal-matrix (with wax impression) of the Friars of the Holy Trinity, Hounslow. Under a Gothic canopy with side-tabernacles the Trinity is depicted in a manner which allowed us to discuss different ways of representing the Trinity in the Middle Ages. Here, the iconography known as the Throne of Grace (Gnadenstuhl), is used. In these depictions of the Trinity, God the Father is seated and holds the cross upon which Jesus Christ is crucified in front of his lap, with the dove of the Holy Spirit alongside. This iconography became popular from the thirteenth century and is seen across a wide range of artistic media, including manuscripts, stained glass and stone carving. The Trinity depicted as the Throne of Grace also appeared on a late Medieval gold finger ring. With the help of a magnifying glass we were able to appreciate the detailed depiction of the Trinity on the oval bezel of the ring, which included the dove which is shown between Christ’s right arm and God the Father.

 

Black Prince badgeWe discussed Plantagenet devotion to the Trinity evidenced through the lead Badge of the Black Prince of c.1376 which shows the Black Prince kneeling before Trinity (although the dove is missing). The Black Prince wears a tabard with Arms of England and has thrown down his gauntlet before him; above him is an angel in clouds holding his shield. We also looked at two Anglo-Saxon ivory plaques depicting the Crucifixion. Above the head of Christ, the Hand of God is depicted, thereby alerting us to the presence of two persons of the Trinity. This led to discussion related to how we might understand images where one of the member of the Trinity is ‘missing’; can the presence of the other person be implied?

 

An object which we all found challenging was a wood-carved relief representing the Trinity (also in the Throne of Mercy composition) dated 1450-1500 and including depictions of the Annunciation, St Francis of Assisi, St Bernardino and St Sebastian. The largest object encountered was a late Medieval alabaster Coronation of the Virgin which still shows traces of painting and gilding. Here the Virgin is surrounded by the persons of the Trinity represented as three crowned figures.

close looking

In preparation for the handling session we read the following texts and discussed them at a reading group the night before:

 

Bernard McGinn, ‘Theologians as Trinitarian Iconographers’, In: Jeffrey Hamburger and Anne-Marie Bouché The Mind’s Eye. Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 2006, 186-207

André Grabar, ‘Dogmas Expressed in a Single Image’, In: Christian Iconography. A Study of its Origins, London, 1969, 112-127

Jacobus De Voragine, ‘The Holy Spirit’, In: The Golden Legend, Princeton, 1993, 299-306

We looked at the definition of the Trinity in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1997), and were interested to explore the tension between theology and iconography. In particular, how can dogma such as the Trinity be represented? Grabar and McGinn have contrasting views on what constitutes ‘successful’ iconography; McGinn sees artistic experimentation and lack of iconographic stability as positives, whereas Grabar suggests that the fact an image appears in limited or isolated circumstances makes it a failure. To aid our discussions, we looked at some manuscript images of the Trinity. These included: British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C vi (Tiberius Psalter); British Library, MS Cotton Titus D. xxvii (Ælfwine’s Prayerbook); British Library, MS Add. 34890 (Grimbald Gospels); British Library MS Cotton B IV (Aelfric’s Hexateuch); British Library, MS Harley 603 (Harley Psalter); MS Lansdowne 383 (the Shaftesbury Psalter); Winchester Bible, Winchester Cathedral; and St John’s College, Cambridge, MS K 26 (St John’s Psalter). We discussed the experimental nature of Trinitarian iconography and how this might help us understand the chancel wall painting of the Throne of Grace at the Church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk which is unique, and the earliest known appearance of this motif.

Exclusively Medieval, Online & Open Access: 2017 special issue of British Art Studies

The latest issue of British Art Studies (an open access, online Art History journal published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art), is entirely devoted to Medieval Britain. The content is derived from a conference held at the British Museum in 2014: Invention and Imagination in British Art & Architecture, 600-1500.

It opens with an editorial by guest editors Sandy Heslop and Jessica Berenbeim, followed by twelve articles in traditional format: 

Thanks to the digital platform, it is possible to reference the articles to the nearest paragraph using the DOI link. The platform’s scope is further tested through the Conversation Piece and Handling Digital Objects portions of this special issue: 

Another innovative feature is a virtual simulation of the object sessions held at the 2014 conference. In actuality, these took the form of guided sessions with objects in the seminar rooms at the conference venue. In the journal, they are recreated via four interactive 3D models of objects, each accompanied by a short essay: 

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

Conference Sicily: Heritage of the World British Museum 24-25th June 2016

PalermoThis two-day conference accompanies the exhibition Sicily: culture and conquest.   It will focus on two periods of enlightenment that stand out in Sicily’s history – Greek settlement from the 8th to 3rd centuries BC, and Norman rule in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. There will be papers on recent research, new excavations, and the economy and architecture of the island, as well as highlighting the importance of the island’s UNESCO sites.

A full programme is attached.  Booking is essential through the British Museum website.

Tickets £50
Members/Concessions £35

The event will be held in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre.  Registration begins at 09.30 with the first presentation at 10.00.
Organised by the British Museum in collaboration with the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.
Sicily conference programme 24-25 June 2016

Talk: The Making of the British Museum’s ‘Sicily’ Exhibition 1st June 2016

sicily_lead_624The Making of the British Museum’s Sicily Exhibition

Dr Dirk Booms, Department of Greek and Roman, British Museum, in conversation with Dr Caroline Goodson.

Dr. Booms, the curator of the current landmark exhibtion Sicily: Culture and Conquest, will discuss the process of developing this exhibition, from first concept to final installation.

6 pm, 1 June 2016 Room G16, Main Building (Malet Street) Birkbeck, University of London Bloomsbury, London WC1E 7HX

This event is free; all are welcome to attend.

For further information, email: c.goodson@bbk.ac.uk