Tag Archives: British Museum

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.

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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

British Museum Handling Session: Micro-architecture

In February 2015 Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman kindly permitted Courtauld staff and students to examine micro-architectural objects in the British Museum.

We saw two wonderful ivories with fairly generic Gothic baldachins, along with this extraordinary 10c (?) ivory cylinder with Passion narratives. This 12c censer cover is an especially wonderful example of dozens of similar objects, and later metalwork objects included this 15c Swiss shrine and this early 14c casket with French and English heraldry. Then there was a whole group of seals, including this from Langdon Priory, this remarkable 1322 seal impression from Cottingham Abbey, and this 13c double-sided seal matrix from Scotland. Finally we looked at this very curious lead object showing the Annunciation in an  elaborate architectural setting:

badge

Amongst others, we asked the following questions in relation to these objects:

1) does the object relate to ‘real’ buildings (if so, are these necessarily contemporary, and has this assumption been used to date the object?)
2) Does the architecture carry any specific symbolic/iconographic/representational meaning?
3) Is there evidence for setting out of the architecture (compass points, lines etc), which might reveal the setting out process (and, potentially, the role of drawing)
4) Is scale especially relevant to the object?
5) Might the object feasibly transmit architectural designs (and was it produced in quantity?)?
6) Does the object shed light on relations between masons/metalworkers etc?

In preparation for the session we held a Reading Group focused on the following texts:

  • Achim Timmerman, ‘Multum in parvo: Microarchitecture in the Medieval West, c. 800-1550’, In: Richard Etlin, ed, The Cambridge History of Religious Architecture of the World (forthcoming)
  • Paul Binski, Gothic Wonder. Art, Artifice and the Decorated Style, 1290-1350 (Yale UP, 2014), 121-60.
  • Sarah M. Guérin, ‘Meaningful Spectacles: Gothic Ivories Staging the Divine’, The Art Bulletin, 95: 1, 53-77.
  • François Bucher, ‘Micro-Architecture As the ‘Idea’ of Gothic Theory and Style’, Gesta, 15: 1-2, 71-89.

British Museum Handling Session: Agnus Dei

In November 2015 Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman of the British Museum treated Courtauld staff and students to another handling session, this time of a diverse range of objects with the iconography of the Agnus Dei. The session was kindly led by Irene Galandra Cooper, who is studying the Agnus Dei as part of her PhD, which forms part of the Domestic Devotions project at Cambridge: Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home, 1400-1600.

Agnus Dei 1

Throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period the Agnus Dei iconography was closely associated with the wax discs made from the remains of the Paschal candles at St Peter’s, stamped with the Lamb of God, and distributed by the Papacy as gifts. This 16c print gives a sense of the near-industrial scale of this operation, while a number of Agnus Dei medallions and pendants testify to the apotropaic associations these objects soon acquired. We also looked at this niello plate medallion inscribed with the YHS, a late medieval pilgrim badge, an Agnus Dei seal impression, a reliquary case and 14c signet ring. As ever, it was the moulds that provoked particular discussion:

Agnus Dei 2

The lower of these two, apparently cast in bronze, appears to have a number of low relief moulds in which soft lead could be pressed, presumably to make brooches and badges to be pinned to clothes and hats. This record of the kinds of ephemeral objects that rarely survive raised lots of questions: who would use a mould like this, and what market does it attest to? Did these badges signal political and social affiliations, religious beliefs, or something more superficial? The wonderful fragment of a Wheel of Fortune was thought particularly intriguing.

In preparation for this session we read the following texts:

Lightbown, Chapter 22, ‘Pendants: II’, Medieval European Jewellery, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992

Cherry, ‘Containers for Agnus Dei’, Through a Glass Brightly: Studies in Byzantine and Medieval Art and Archaeology Presented to David Buckton, ed. C. Entwistle, Oxford, 2003, 171-84

S. Bertelli, Chapter 1, The King’s body : the sacred rituals of power in medieval and early modern Europe; translated by R. Burr Litchfield, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.