Tag Archives: seals

Publication – Ambre Vilain, « Imago urbis. Les sceaux de villes au Moyen Âge »

sealsAmbre Vilain, Imago urbis. Les sceaux de villes au Moyen Âge, Paris, Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2018 (L’Art et l’essai, 18). 360 p. | 16,5 × 22 cm | ill. | br. ISBN : ISBN 978-2-7355-0860-0. Prix : 38 euros.

Lorsque, dans la seconde moitié du XIIe siècle, les villes d’Europe septentrionale acquièrent un statut juridique, elles se dotent d’un sceau et doivent choisir une image pour définir leur identité. Parmi les nombreuses représentations auxquelles les villes ont recours, l’architecture tient une place majeure. Le vocabulaire formel utilisé remonte parfois à l’Antiquité, mais dans certains cas les graveurs sont capables de mettre au point des portraits urbains singuliers répondant efficacement à un programme. Ce dernier met en images des concepts comme l’identité collective, les rapports d’autorité ou même la liberté communale. L’auteur entreprend ici de replacer le sceau de ville dans le contexte de sa création, qu’il soit politique, artistique ou sociologique.

CTHS – Imago urbis

Lecture: ‘The Seal Makes the Man – or Woman: London in the Thirteenth Century ’ 23rd May 2016

SealLondon Record Society

‘The Seal Makes the Man – or Woman: London in the Thirteenth Century ’

a talk by Dr John McEwan, Centre for Digital Humanities, Saint Louis University, Missouri

Monday 23 May 2016 at 6.30pm at

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great

West Smithfield London EC1A 9DS

Free lecture   All welcome

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.


British Museum Handling Session: Becket and Pilgrimage

In January 2016 Courtauld staff and students enjoyed another chance to see some of the BM’s hidden treasures thanks to the kind help of Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman of the BM. This time the theme was the cult of Thomas Becket and other objects associated with pilgrimage

Becket 2 (1)

The BM has dozens of Becket pilgrims’ badges, produced in astonishing variety and throughout the Middle Ages. Most of these examples were dredged up from the river Thames:

13c badge showing Becket’s shrine

14c badge with a bell, inscribed with Thomas’ name

Best of all, the collection includes a number of moulds that are closely linked to badges, such as this one:

Late medieval badge showing Thomas on horseback

Mould for a badge

Or this one:

Becket gloves

Mould for gloves badge

Becket 2 (2)

We also looked at representations of Becket’s murder, from this early 13c Limoges reliquary chasse to this late medieval alabaster, as well as this 15c seal matrix showing Thomas in a in ship and this magnificent 13c seal from Langdon Priory. To finish off the session we also looked at a couple of late medieval prints promoting the shrine of the Beautiful Virgin at Regensburg: one showing the original church, the other the church planned (but never built) for the site.

This was partly an exploratory session for a series of workshops and conferences planned by Lloyd de Beer (UEA/British Museum), Tom Nickson (Courtauld Institute of Art) and Emily Guerry (University of Kent) in the lead up to the anniversary of Becket’s death and translation in 2020.

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

Sarah Blick, ‘Votives, Images, Interaction and Pilgrimage to the Tomb and Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral’, In: Sarah Blick and Laura Deborah Gelfand, eds, Push me, pull you. Imaginative, emotional, physical, and spatial interaction in late medieval and Renaissance art, Leiden, 2011, 21-58
Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann and James Robinson, eds, Treasures of heaven: saints, relics, and devotion in medieval Europe, Cleveland, Ohio, 2010, pp. 148-61 and catalogue nos 97-102
William D. Wixom, ‘In quinto scrinio de Cupro. A Copper Reliquary Chest Attributed to Canterbury: Style, Iconography, and Patronage’, In: Elizabeth C. Parker and Mary B. Shepard, eds, The Cloisters: studies in honor of the fiftieth anniversary, New York, 1992, 195-228
Jennifer Lee, ‘Searching for Signs: Pilgrims’ Identity and Experience made visible in the Miracula Sancti Thomae Cantuariensis’, In: Sarah Blick and Laura Deborah Gelfand, eds, Push me, pull you. Imaginative, emotional, physical, and spatial interaction in late medieval and Renaissance art, Leiden, 2011, 473-491.


The Constitutions of Clarendon blog also has a useful collection of images of Becket chasse reliquaries and manuscripts

Conference Review: Seals and Status 800-1700 (British Museum)

robert fitzwalter

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, 1213-1219 AD, British Museum 1841,0624.1

From December 4-6, the British Museum was host to Seals and Status 800-1700. Though most topics were centered on the European Middle Ages, the program included speakers on Byzantium who broadened the European context and one each on Southeast Asia and China who provided global breadth. Likewise, the central focus temporally was medieval, but the early modern period was well represented with talks on sixteenth century Brussels, and the seals of female patrons in Renaissance Italy, among others. I was invited to attend on behalf of Medieval Art Research, and though unable to be present for the duration of the conference, was able to join for some exciting highlights (and still make time for plenty of jokes about the aquatic marine mammals of the same name—by the way, if that’s more your bag, here are some places they’ve been spotted in London.)

I joined the conference on Friday a complete novice to the field of seals. Fortunately the morning began with an enthusiastic introduction from Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum, who stressed the historical centrality of seals in the BM’s collections. He noted that matrices were some of the first objects in the collections thanks to Soane, and that records show strong interest in them: in the 18th century, one needed to apply weeks in advance to study the seals. This historical introduction the study of seals was incredibly useful for setting the scene about how these objects have been viewed and studied within the academy.

The conference officially began with a keynote delivered by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak of New York University, who provided an introduction to seals as status symbols, arguing that the processes of producing seals were imbued with potency and significance. She discussed the agency of seals, the ways that a victor might incorporate part of his opponent’s seal in his, and the lives of seal matrices after the death of their owner, since the device is capable of outliving their possessor. Bedos-Rezak also considered the forgery and theft of matrices, their use by people other than their owners, and the complexity of detecting this sort of replication. Finally, she addressed the concept of a person’s presence within a seal— in fingerprints found on the wax, but also more ephemerally in the heat given to wax by the human hand, and as a proxy for the individual, putting them comfortably within conversations about portraiture and representations of humans. While the majority of papers that followed examined a particular case study, Bedos-Rezak’s talk opened up some of the larger questions that would be discussed throughout the three days. Her talk was instrumental in aiding the non-specialist author to understand the wider applicability of these objects and practices, and relate them to territories more known.


Markus Späth with examples of city seals from the Upper Rhine region

Following Bedos-Rezak were papers that dealt with particular temporal, geographical, or iconographical cases, like Simon Keynes’ contribution on which examined style and use of Anglo-Saxon seal matrices, picked up on some of the themes of the first keynote. For examine, Keynes identified the personal seal of Adelphe, daughter of Edgar, as it was used in her lifetime, and how it was coopted after her death as the conventual seal of Wilton Abbey. There are many questions about these objects that haven’t yet been answered, including how prevalent they were; though there must have been many at one time, only about five survive. They were clearly significant, since Keynes cites an example of a king sending his seal matrix as a proxy for himself at a shire meeting. Laura Whatley considered seals in their capacities of transmitting visual information over long distances between the Latin Kingdom and Western Europe. Annabel Gallop picked up on the theme of transmission, arguing that the shape of Islamic seals in the Malay world in the 16th century come from the form of European heraldic shields. Markus Späth’s paper brought us to the Upper Rhine to compare city seals, and Jonathan Shea discussed seals in the context of Middle Byzantine government administration.

The final session of the day began with Mei Xin Wang’s fascinating talk about seals on Chinese paintings, where each successive owner of a work of art would stamp his personal seal on the painting itself, often in prominent places within the image field, and frequently many times. Tim Pestell discussed papal bullae found in Norfolk, and finally Marc Libert delivered a paper on 16th century matrix production in Brussels.

On the second day, I dropped in for TA Heslop’s evening keynote address, “English Medieval Seals as Works of Art.” Heslop’s publications on English art and architecture are amazingly diverse, making him an ideal candidate to discuss the art of these objects specifically, looking at questions of form and style, as opposed to many of the previous talks which focused on diplomatic sources, use, and archaeology. Woven into his discussion of the objects themselves was an interesting commentary on historiography and changing approaches to this material. In particular, he discussed his struggles with traditional stylistic analysis, which, as he showed, was unable to be used to date matrices in the way that the same techniques have been effective for other types of objects.


T.A. Heslop with conference organizer Lloyd de Beer

After Heslop’s keynote, the attendees celebrated recent publications of interest to the seals and sealing community. These are Susan Solway’s Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Brepols 2015), and Art of Documentation: Documents and Visual Culture in Medieval England by Jessica Berenbeim (University of Toronto/PIMS 2015).

The conference, though primarily focused on medieval Europe, encompassed broad enough topics to suggest to its attendees the wide uses and characteristics of seals in diverse temporal and geographic climes. This is a welcome contribution, and is a noteworthy attempt to defy the rampant geographical limitations and periodization within the academy. Additionally, although the impressive program and erudite question and answer sessions made it clear that a great number of specialists were in attendance, there was much to be gained for the author, whose prior ignorance of seals has begun to be eroded.

Click here to access the full conference program.

Conference programme: Seals and Status 800-1700 (British Museum, 4-6 Dec 2015)

Silver seal matrix set with a red jasper Roman intaglio showing the emperor Antoninus Pius. Acquired with the assistance of Dr. John H. Rassweiler.

Silver seal matrix set with a red jasper Roman intaglio showing the emperor Antoninus Pius. Acquired with the assistance of Dr. John H. Rassweiler.

Programme for Seals and Status 800-1700, a major conference at the British Museum, 4-6 December 2015. Book tickets at the official site.

£50 (£25 students and concessions)

Friday 4 December

08.30      Coffee and registration

09.30      Introduction

Jonathan Williams, British Museum

09.45      Keynote 1

Status: an impression
Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, New York University

10.45      Break

11.00      Session 1: Images and cultural history

Chair: Leslie Webster, British Museum

Seal matrices from Anglo-Saxon England
Simon Keynes, University of Cambridge

Sanctity and the impression of place: pilgrimage art and seals in the Latin Kingdom and the West
Laura Whatley, Auburn University at  Montgomery

European heraldic elements in Islamic seals from Southeast Asia
Annabel Gallop, British Library

12.30      Lunch (not provided)

13.30      Session 2: Politics, power and people

Chair: TBC

Image, eikon and authority: the Republican great seal and its visual context, 1649–1660  James Jago, University of York

Negotiating political status: alliance treaties and city seals in the late medieval Upper Rhine region
Markus Späth, Justus Liebig-Universität Gießen

Social structure (judicial) of 11th-century Constantinople
Jonathan Shea, Dumbarton Oaks

15.00      Tea and coffee break

15.30      Session 3: Life cycles of the seal

Chair: Alan Borthwick,
National Records of Scotland

Chinese seals: stamps of status on Chinese paintings and calligraphy
Mei Xin Wang, British Museum

Sealed in lead: archaeological finds of Papal bullae
Tim Pestell, Norwich Castle Museum

La production de matrices de sceaux chez les orfèvres Bruxellois au
XVIème siècle
Marc Libert, Archives générales du Royaume – Algemeen Rijksarchief

18:30       Speakers dinner

Saturday 5 December

10.00      Keynote 2

The seal as status object
David Crouch, University of Hull

11.00      Break

11.15      Session 1: Status and self-representation

Chair: Julian Gardner

The seal(s) of Robert fitz Walter, godfather of Magna Carta
Nicholas Vincent, University of East Anglia

The seals of Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este
Diane Ghirardo,
University of Southern California

Social status as established through familial ties on Byzantine lead seals
Angelina Volkoff, Lomonosov Moscow State University

12.45      Lunch (not provided)

14.00      Session 2: Size, perception and production

Chair: Naomi Speakman, British Museum

Does size matter? Social standing and seal dimensions in medieval Britain
John McEwan, Saint Louis University

Studies in the materiality of royal and governmental seals 1100–1300
Elke Cwiertina & Paul Dryburgh, The National Archives

Beyond the usual suspects: seal motifs as expressions of status in non-elite society
Elizabeth New, Aberystwyth University

15.30      Tea and coffee break

16.00      Keynote 3

English medieval seals as works of art
T A Heslop, University of East Anglia

17:00       Conference Reception and Book  Launch

Sunday 6 December

10.00      Keynote 4

Managing the message: royal and governmental seals 1100–1700
Adrian Ailes, The National Archives

11.00      Break

11.15      Session 1: Person and personality

Chair: James Robinson, The Burrell Collection

Sealing ‘on behalf’
Jessica Berenbeim, University of Oxford

Ancient and medieval intaglios in medieval seals: their nature, meaning and social status
John Cherry, British Museum & Martin Henig, University of Oxford

Du sceau au monument funéraire: la pratique de la commandite des prélats français à la fin du Moyen Âge, le cas de Tristan de Salazar
Ambre Vilain, Institut national d’histoire de l’art

12.45      Lunch (not provided)

14.00      Session 2: Ownership, authority and function

Chair: Elizabeth Danbury, University College London

Illustrious ladies: Seals and female authority in Sweden, c. 1300–1430
Louise Berglund, Örebro University

Baronial seals before 1125: how rare a phenomenon?
Jean-François Nieus, University of Namur

Héraldique sigillaire des femmes au Moyen Âge: usage et function
Marie Gregoire, École Pratique des Hautes Études de Paris

15.30      Tea and coffee

16.00      Session 3: Category and corpus
Chair: P D A Harvey

Seals of English medieval queens: an introduction
Elizabeth Danbury, UCL

Names of occupation or office on medieval seal matrices recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme
Helen Geake, British Museum/University of Cambridge

Administrer le comté de Champagne au XIIIe siècle:le statut social et institutionnel des ‘petits officiers’ à travers leurs sceaux
Arnaud Baudin, LAMOP, UMR 8589

17.15      Closing remarks
P D A Harvey

Programme subject to change

Call for Papers: Seals and Status 800 – 1700 (British Museum 4-6 Dec 2015)

Silver seal matrix set with a red jasper Roman intaglio showing the emperor Antoninus Pius. Acquired with the assistance of Dr. John H. Rassweiler.

Silver seal matrix set with a red jasper Roman intaglio showing the emperor Antoninus Pius. Acquired with the assistance of Dr. John H. Rassweiler.

Quo asserente se sigillum habere, subridens vir illustris, ‘Moris’, inquit, ‘antiquitus non erat quemlibet militulum sigillum habere, quod regibus et precipuis tantum competit personis…’

He answered that he had a seal. The great man smiled. ‘It was not the custom in the past’, he said, ‘for every petty knight to have a seal. They are appropriate for kings and great men only’.

Chronicle of Battle Abbey, 1180s or 1190s, ed. and trans. Eleanor Searle (1980)


The aim of this conference is to foster discussions about seals and status, concentrating on three principal themes:
I. Seals and social status
II. Seals and institutional status
III. The status of seals as objects
The famous exchange quoted on the left captures in a few biting words the close and significant connections between seals and status. It evokes the perception that sealing related to social status, that this relationship changed over time, and that such historical developments were both recognized and highly charged. Finally—and perhaps one reason why the Battle anecdote has been so often quoted—these words suggest an important status for seals themselves within the medieval world of objects. If anything, this importance increased with their proliferation: seals eventually belonged to all kinds of people and institutions, and many individuals, corporations, and chanceries had several. Ultimately, seals’ forms and functions came both to articulate and to construct social as well as institutional and administrative hierarchies.
Possible topics for papers include: Seals and heraldry; seals and inequality; seals and villeinage; seals of institutional office; seals and gender; non-heraldic personal seals; seals and status as represented in medieval and early modern texts; corporate seals and the status of institutions; the historiography of seals; the organization of chanceries; the development of sealing practices within and across social groups; relationships of seals to other works of art.
Proposals are welcomed from a wide range of perspectives, such as: archaeology, history, art history, archival studies, literature. Submissions will be accepted in English, French, and German and should be no more than 300 words in length. Send to Lloyd de Beer (ldebeer@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk) by 30th January 2015.
The conference will be held at the British Museum from the 4th – 6th December 2015.
This conference is co-organised with John Cherry and Jessica Berenbeim in collaboration with Sigillvm, a network for the study of medieval European seals and sealing practices.