Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Getty and Armenian Church reach agreement over stolen Bible pages

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Five years ago, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum was wrongfully in possession of seven pages ripped out of the 13th century Bible that belongs to the Church. Now the parties have come to an agreement: the Getty acknowledges that the Armenian Apostolic Church owns the pages; the Church donates the pages to the Getty. This way nothing has to actually move or change hands, but the Getty, which in its initial response to the suit insisted that it had “legal ownership” of the pages and that the lawsuit was “groundless and should be dismissed,” has to admit the Armenian Apostolic Church is the true owner.

The Zeyt’un Gospels were commissioned in 1256 by the Catholikos, the leader of the Armenian Church, Constantine I. This Bible is the first signed works of T’oros Roslin, scribe and the greatest Armenian illuminator of the Middle Ages. The pages (there are actually eight of them; the Church didn’t know about the last one when it filed) are canon tables, concordances listing passages in the Gospels that describe the same event. The text is therefore sparse, just chapter and verse references.

In the Middle Ages, canon tables were often depicted in an architectural setting, the columns of numbers placed between drawings of literal columns. What makes these pages exceptional is the illumination by T’oros Roslin who decorated each page in a riot of brilliant colors and gold paint. The tables are divided by columns and topped with intricately detailed geometric panels. Birds, vines, trees, vases line the borders and stand proudly atop the header panels. No two pages are the same.

This Bible, in addition to being an irreplaceable Armenian national treasure, is held to be sacred and miraculous. The Zeyt’un Gospels were venerated as having protective powers which is why in 1915 when the Ottoman government began massacring Armenians, the book was carried through every street of Zeyt’un in an attempt to ensure the entire city would be under its divine protection.

Later that year, church officials gave the Bible to a member of the Armenian royal Sourenian family. The Sourenians had connections in the upper echelons of the Ottoman government, so the hope was they wouldn’t be killed or deported and could keep the Gospels safe. They lasted a year before they were deported to Marash in 1916, but they did receive special treatment that allowed them to survive transportation instead of starving to death like so many of their compatriots.

The Sourenian pater familias loaned the Bible to his friend Dr. H. Der Ghazarian for what was supposed to be a few days. At the perfectly wrong time, the Sourenians were unexpectedly deported and lost track of the Zeyt’un Gospels. It seems the book remained in Marash for the duration of World War I. It surfaced there in 1928 but various obstacles kept it out of the Church’s hands until 1948 when the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul took possession of it and gave it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, for safekeeping and display. The Bible remains there to this day.

The missing pages were spotted in 1948 when the Bible returned from Aleppo after it was authenticated by the same Dr. Ghazarian who had it for a while during the war. Although the Church investigated, it was never able to discover who stole the pages and when. At some point the pages ended up in an anonymous private collection in Watertown, Massachusetts. They were seen in public for the first time since the Genocide when the collector loaned the pages to the Morgan Library for a 1994 exhibition. After that exhibition, the Getty acquired the pages. Thirteen years later, Armenian attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan who has often represented victims of the Armenian Genocide discovered the pages were at the Getty and alerted the Church. The Getty refused all requests to repatriate the unquestionably stolen pages and the lawsuit ensued.

It seems to me the Church is conceding a great deal for the sake of a statement of historical ownership. There really is no question that the pages were stolen, so why shouldn’t they be reunited with the rest of the Bible?

The following statement from Getty director Timothy Potts irks me:

“That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations.”

The removal of the pages was the destruction. They weren’t “saved.” They were ripped out and sold on the black market, bought by unscrupulous collectors and the Getty. The Bible itself survived a genocide and two world wars and has been conserved in a museum for 67 years. The Getty having taken care of blatantly stolen pages for a decade hardly makes it the heritage-preserving hero of the piece.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys seem happy, at any rate.

“This is a momentous occasion for the Armenian people, coming at a historic time, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. I want to thank the Getty for joining in a solution that recognizes the historical suffering of the Armenian people and that will also allow this Armenian treasure to remain in the museum which has cared for it and made it available to the Armenian and larger community in Los Angeles. We are pleased that both sides arrived at an amicable solution,” said Lee Crawford Boyd, the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder representing the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. “The sacred Canon Tables are now being recognized as having belonged to the Armenian Church. Together with the Church and the Armenian people, we are thrilled with this outcome.”

No word on whether this on-paper ownership switcheroo was accompanied by some kind of financial settlement.

To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, including primary sources, maps, eye-witness statements, a timeline of events and a collection of horrifying photographs, please visit the website of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.


7th c. skeletons unearthed at Temple of Concordia

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Palermo have unearthed what they believe are two 7th century skeletons at the feet of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. They have yet to be radiocarbon dated, but if the archaeologists are right, the remains are evidence of an Early Christian cemetery in front of the temple in the period shortly after the temple was converted into a church.

The skeletal remains were found in a single grave. A fully articulated skeleton of what preliminary analysis indicates is an adult male is on top, his skull oriented west and his arms crossed on his chest. Underneath his legs are the bones of the other skeleton; its sex has not yet be determined. No grave goods or artifacts of any kind were found to aid in dating. Excavations are ongoing and the remains will be analyzed to pinpoint their age.

Here’s a video of the excavation shot by tour guide Rosa Maria Montalbano.

The Temple of Concordia was built around 440 B.C. in Archaic Doric style in the ancient Greek city of Akragas. It’s not certain which deity it was dedicated to, possibly the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The name Concordia was assigned to it by 16th century Dominican friar and historian Tommaso Fazello, known as the Father of Sicilian history or the Sicilian Livy. He got it from a 1st century Roman inscription on a marble slab in the city of Agrigento which read: “CONCORDIAE AGRIGENTINORUM SACRUM RESPUBLICA LILIBITANORUM” or “[Erected] by the republic of the Lilybaeans, as sacred to the concord of the Agrigentines.” (The ancient city of Lilybaeum is modern-day Marsala, where the wine comes from.) Fazello translated that as “Temple of Concordia of the Agrigentines, made by the Republic of the Lilybaeans,” deducing from the inscription that the temple was constructed at the expense of the Lilybaeans after a military defeat.

In fact, the inscription doesn’t say what was erected and in any case it was carved 500 years after the temple was built, so it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate even if it were referring to the temple. Lilybaeum wasn’t founded until the late 300s B.C., so the city didn’t even exist when the temple was built. Historians starting with 18th century classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville called out the errors in Fazello’s attribution and now it’s universally acknowledged to be false, but the name stuck anyway.

The Temple of Concordia was converted into a church in 597 A.D. by archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento (559-630) and there’s a wonderfully juicy story behind it. A biography written by the 7th century monk Leonzio, abbot of Saint Saba in Rome, tells the tale. After Gregory was appointed archbishop entirely against his will (he preferred a life of withdrawn contemplation), a priest and presbytery in Agrigento conspired to replace him as archbishop with a certain Leucio who had been exiled for his heretical beliefs on the incarnation. The conspirators bribed the guards and hid a prostitute named Evodia in Gregory’s chambers while he was at church.

The next morning the conspirators “caught” the prostitute and scandal erupted. They had Gregory arrested and imprisoned. The people of Agrigento loved their archbishop who took care of the poor and performed miraculous healings regularly so they didn’t believe the story. They insisted he be freed and caused enough of a stink that the Pope’s deacon had to smuggle Gregory on a ship to Rome for trial. When he got to Rome, he was jailed for two and a half years before his supporters in Agrigento were able to enlist the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Patriarch to finally secure a trial.

There were more than 100 jurors arrayed against Gregory and only a handful, including the imperial delegation, on his side. It seemed Gregory was doomed, but in a shocking Law & Orderesque twist, Evodia recanted her testimony on the stand, naming the conspirators who had coerced her into setting up the saintly cleric. The conspirators were exiled and Gregory returned to Agrigento, his reputation and position restored. Unwilling to preside over his congregation in a church that had been profaned by the usurper Leucio, Gregory turned his back on the city proper and looked to the Valley of the Temples for his new cathedral.

He chose the Temple of Concordia. Planting the signum, the cross of Christ, over its threshold, Gregory exorcised the ancient pagan demons of Eber and Raps who still dwelled in the temple. (The “demons” may be transmutations of an original double dedication, hence the theory that the temple may have been dedicated to Castor and Pollux.) Now consecrated and holy, the temple was converted into the new cathedral.

Gregory of Agrigento is the patron saint of the conservation of archaeological and architectural patrimony. That’s both ironic and appropriate, because while he destroyed significant parts of the temple to Christianize it, as a church it survived in far better condition than the other temples in Agrigento which were damaged in earthquakes and pillaged for construction material. In the conversion process, all of the temple’s decorative elements and the altar were destroyed. The back wall of the cella (the inner chamber) of the temple was demolished to make a new entrance, the columns walled up and 12 arches cut into the sides of the cella to give the building the nave and two aisles of a classic Christian basilica.

Gregory dedicated the new church to Saints Peter and Paul. In the late Middle Ages the church was rededicated to its builder and excellently renamed San Gregorio delle Rape, or Saint Gregory of the Turnips because the humble, ascetic Gregory was said to have tended to the vegetables of his flock. In 1748, Bourbon king Charles V of Sicily had the church dismantled and the temple restored as much as possible to its original form. Today it is considered the second best preserved Doric temple in the world after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens which was itself converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

There are known Early Christian burials cut inside the temple and in catacombs outside, carved into the rocky outcroppings west of the temple much like Greek catacombs were carved east of the temple hundreds of years earlier. The skeletons unearthed this month are the first indications that there may have been Christian burials in the ground in front of the temple, which in the 7th century would have been the back of the church.


Medieval skeleton pulled out of grave by uprooted tree

Monday, September 14th, 2015

The newly established Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) had a fasinating first commission: to recover skeletal remains torn out of the ground when a tree was uprooted during a storm.

The beech tree had stood outside Collooney, County Sligo, Ireland, for 215 years before a storm blew it down last winter, pulling out the roots and the top half of a skeleton with them. The body was snapped in two when the tree toppled, leaving both femurs broken while the lower legs remained undisturbed in the grave. The National Monuments Service hired SLAS to excavated the remains in the ground and to painstakingly remove the bones embedded in the tree’s root matrix. The found part of the skull and spine in the roots, but other bones were destroyed by the roots as the tree grew.

Preliminary analysis of the bones by osteoarchaeologist Dr Linda Lynch revealed that the deceased was a young man 17-20 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating found he was buried between 1030 and 1200 A.D. While a strapping 5’10″ tall in a time when the average height was 5’5″, the youth suffered mild spinal joint disease likely caused by heavy physical labour from a young age. There is evidence on the bones that he did not die an easy death. Sharp force injuries on the ribs and hand point to his having been cut repeatedly with a knife or sword.

He was given a formal Christian burial. His grave was aligned east-west and he was placed in the grave with his hands folded over his pelvic region. There are records from the 19th century that describe a church and graveyard nearby, but no other human remains or archaeological evidence of a church were found during the excavation. Also, the tree was planted in 1800, so any graveyard in the environs of the medieval body probably wasn’t in its immediate surroundings. He may have been an isolated burial rather than one of many buried in a cemetery.

The skeletal remains will studied in more depth and post-excavation work on the site continues.


Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

Friday, August 28th, 2015

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.


Settlement Era longhouse found in Reykjavík

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

The ruins of an early Viking longhouse have been discovered under an empty lot on Lækjargata, a street in downtown Reykjavík. The lot was excavated in advance of construction of a four-star hotel because it was known to have been the site of a turf farm built in 1799. Archaeologists did find the remains of the farm as expected soon after excavations began in April, and then completely unexpectedly found the remains of the longhouse in June. All of the Settelement Era (874-930 A.D.) remains found in Reykjavík before this one were further to the west. The discovery of the Lækjargata longhouse indicates that early Viking-era Reykjavík was either larger or more spread out than scholars realized.

The longhouse was at least 20 meters (66 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide — the remains extend into the neighboring property so the full perimeter has not been established — and had a central fire pit 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, one of the longest ever discovered in Iceland. A separate cooking pit was unearthed with the remains of animal bones inside and stones that were heated and used to keep water hot or to cook food over. An area of red earth and blackened material is likely evidence of an uncontrolled, destructive fire. Archaeologists believe the fire occurred just after the abandonment of the home or, more likely, was the impetus for said abandonment.

Early settlement archaeology in Reykjavík relies on layers of volcanic tephra ash deposited around 871 A.D. by an eruption in the Torfajökull volcano complex 250 miles southeast of Reykjavík to help date sites. Based on the ash found in the remains of the turf walls of the longhouse, Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir believes it was built around a century after the 871 tephra fall. Spindle whorls found in the longhouse bracket its age on the other end; they disappear from the Icelandic archaeological record after 1150 A.D.

The discovery generated much excitement among archaeologists and the general public. The excavation drew crowds who peppered the archaeologists with questions about the longhouse and the fate of the site. The original plan was to salvage whatever archaeological material was found, removing it from the site to a museum, but that was before they knew there were so significant and ancient remains there. The hotel developers suggested there might be some way to integrate the archaeological site into the hotel, something that has been done successfully before elsewhere.

This week Reykjavík’s environment and planning committee took an important step in ensuring the preservation of the longhouse. It called for the prompt establishment of an advisory committee on how to handle the longhouse site and other recently excavated remains near the harbor.

The resolution from the planning committee says that the new advisory committee should formulate proposals on how best to preserve the sites in question for the future and how best to display them openly to the public.

The committee should set to work quickly and include the city culture, tourism, environment and planning committees in its work; as well as the city council cabinet. It is very important to preserve these sites, the resolution states.


15th c. monster raised from Baltic Sea

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Sweden sees your 17th century gun carriage, England, and raises you a 15th century sea monster. On Tuesday before a crowd of fascinated thousands, divers lifted the wooden figurehead of a late 15th century Danish warship from the Baltic Sea off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden. The figurehead weighs 300 kilos (661 pounds) and is carved out of the last meter of a 3.4-meter-long beam. The design is a fierce toothy monster of indeterminate nature.

“Last time it looked at the world, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus were still living,” Johan Ronnby, professor of marine archaeology at Sodertorn University, said as the ferocious-looking figurehead, which was intended to scare the enemy, was brought to the surface.

“It’s a monster. It’s a sea monster and we have to discuss what kind of animal it is. I think it’s some kind of fantasy animal – a dragon with lion ears and crocodile-like mouth,” Ronnby said.

“I’m amazed, We knew that it should be a fantastic figure, but it was over our expectations when we saw it now. It’s a fantastic figure, unique in the world.”

There’s something in his mouth, too, something or someone being devoured by this fearsome beast. It reminds me of the biscione on the Visconti family coat of arms.

The wreck was first found by sport divers in the 1970s, but archaeologists only learned about it in 2001 when artifacts from the ship surfaced. They took a wood sample from one of the ship’s exposed timbers and dendrochronological analysis revealed the oak tree that made that timber was chopped down in northeastern France during the winter of 1482-83. That means the ship was likely constructed in Flanders or the Netherlands. In collaboration with local divers, archaeologists explored the wreck, retrieving a number of artifacts including nine carriages for iron breech-loading guns which are now on display at the Blekinge Museum. They found that the ship was constructed using carvel planking, with hull planks laid flush next to each other rather than with the slight overlap of earlier clinker-built vessels,

Researchers have identified the ship as the Gribshunden, the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which sank while anchored off Ronneby in 1495. Historical sources report that the ship was on its way to Kalmar, Sweden, where King Hans would meet with the Swedish regent Sten Sture the Elder to discuss Sweden’s increasing withdrawal from the Kalmar Union. For unknown reasons, the ship caught fire and sank, killing many men but not the king, who witnessed the horrific demise of his flagship and its crew from a nearby boat. He cancelled his trip to Kalmar in the wake of the disaster. (Two years later King Hans defeated Sten Sture in battle and secured the Swedish throne.)

The location of the wreck, off the coast of Ronneby near the island of Stora Ekön, matches the historical accounts of the Gribshunden‘s sinking. The ship’s large size (at least 35 meters or 115 feet long), the tree ring dating, the carvel construction all support the identification. Also archaeologists were able to recover some mortar from the hold of the ship and found that the lime came from the Danish island of Saltholmen near Copenhagen.

The Gribshunden is the oldest armed warship ever found in Nordic waters, and while most of the wreck is still buried in the seabed, archaeologists believe it may be the world’s best preserved 15th century ship. The study of the unique wreck is of international significance because it dates to such an important period in the history of navigation and may reveal new information about the construction of Age of Discovery ships.

The figurehead is now at the Blekinge Museum where it will spend the next few months in a bath of sugar water. That will leach the corrosive sea salt out of the wood in preparation for long-term conservation. The water-saturated wood will have to be dried very gradually to ensure it does not crack and warp. Conservators will decide which method to use once the desalination is complete. Freeze-drying is a prime candidate.

People can see the figurehead inside its water bath at the Blekinge Museum when the artifacts laboratory is opened to visitors every Thursday afternoon. On August 30th, Archaeology Day, experts will be on hand to answer questions about the figurehead and the wreck.

For an in depth explanation of the wreck’s history and archaeology, read this exceptional post by Rolf Warming of Combat Archaeology who participated in the salvage operation.

Here’s video of the wreck in situ filmed this June:

This news story shows the raising of the figurehead:


Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

I’m asking for a friend. (The British Library is my friend, right?) On display at the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is a medieval double-edged sword made of steel with an inlaid gold wire inscription on one side. The inscription appears to read:


Experts haven’t been able to decipher this mysterious assortment of letters, so the British Library’s phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog is opening up the floor to the Internet. Some think it was a religious dedication of some kind using the first initials of words. There are inscribed crosses on the other side and an inlaid crescent near the point on both sides which may be the maker’s mark.

The sword was discovered in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July of 1825 by workers widening and deepening the river just below the lock to make room for larger vessels. The Bishop of Lincoln gave the sword to the Royal Archaeological Institute which in 1858 donated it to the British Museum. It dates to around 1250-1330 and has a straight cross guard with a wheel-shaped pommel atop the grip. Weighing 2 lb 10 oz and measuring 38 inches long, the sword was a killer, capable of cleaving a man’s skull in two.

This kind of sword was a classic knightly weapon of the 13th century and is depicted in many an effigy and illustration. Here’s an example from the British Library’s 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in which French knights besiege Rouen in 1203/1204 during King Philip Augustus’ invasion of Normandy.

In fact, the sword was believed to have a very close connection to French knights from that turbulent period. When the sword was first discovered, workers found other armature — swords, daggers, chain mail — in the muck of the riverbed leading to speculation that these were the remains of French knights who had drowned in the river after the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. When the First Barons’ War broke out between King John and his nobles in 1215 after John refused to abide by the terms of Magna Carta, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the throne of England. He accepted and turned up with an army in May of 1216. Louis waltzed into London unopposed and was proclaimed king in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He doesn’t make the official king list because he was never crowned, but for a while in 1216-1217 the Dauphin of France actively occupied half of England.

The tide turned when King John died in October of 1216. Even though John’s son Henry was only nine years old, barons who had sided with Louis switched sides in droves. William Marshal, “the greatest knight that ever lived,” was Henry’s regent and fought at the head of his army, drawing more knights to abandon Louis for Henry. On May 20th, 1217, forces loyal to the nine-year-old King Henry III of England attacked the city of Lincoln, then held by the French. The English held Lincoln Castle, however, so while Marshall’s army took the north gate of the city, Falkes de Breauté deployed his crack crossbowmen along the castle ramparts to rain a hellfire of bolts into the French occupiers. It was a rout, followed by a very thorough pillaging of the city that has gone down in history as the Lincoln Fair. French knights who weren’t killed or captured fled, some of them sailing down the Witham. Some of the ships, laden with men, arms and armour, sank drowning the flower of French chivalry and, ostensibly, leaving their stuff behind for canal diggers to find 600 years later.

Without identifying marks connected to specific knights, this story is impossible to prove. Still, the design and period of the sword make it relevant as a weapon very much like those used during the battles between the English crown and its unruly barons. It’s neat to think that it may even go a step further and be an actually relict of the First Barons’ War.

If you have any ideas about what the inscription might mean, join the party in the comments on the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry where smart people are saying smart things.


Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

An extremely rare early 14th century panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini has been purchased by the National Gallery with funds donated by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. The work is an oil and tempera painting on gilded wood depicting Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints by Giovanni da Rimini, an important artist in turn of the 14th century Rimini. It is the left panel of a diptych and is the only work by Giovanni da Rimini in the UK. In fact, there are only two other easel paintings conclusively attributed to Giovanni da Rimini: the right panel from this diptych in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini) and The Virgin and Child with Five Saints in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Faenza.

Giovanni was the leading artist in a group of artists from the northern Italian city of Rimini whose innovative approach combined the devotional intensity and symbolism of Byzantine iconography with the more naturalistic figural depictions that would follow. The works of the Rimini school are therefore important transitional pieces that bridge the gap between late medieval fresco masters like Giotto and the early Renaissance.

This left panel of the diptych is the greatest of the three known works by Giovanni da Rimini. The right panel is more traditional, divided into six squares of equal size which depict scenes from the life of Christ in chronological order. The left panel takes a more creative approach in composition and subject. The top two thirds is divided into two vertical quadrants with the right quadrant divided into two again. That bottom third is divided into two scenes but the border line between them is further to the right than the centered vertical of the top section. This gives the panel a more dynamic design and allows the artist to introduce variety of composition. The double-height section in the upper left depicts the Apotheosis of Saint Augustine. Since there’s so much space, Giovanni was able to create a temple-like empty tomb for Augustine with a heavenly host of angels above and a crowd of astounded onlookers around it. Augustine is in the middle of the angels wearing the mitre.

The two scenes to the right of the Apotheosis are the Crowning of the Virgin up top and a celebratory crowd of saints and angels beneath, a sort of flipped version of Augustine’s scene. Notice the angel with his back to the viewer in the center of holy crowd. Those wings are an early example of foreshortening in medieval art. The left of the bottom third of the panel is dedicated to the Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, when the Emperor Maxentius deployed 50 of the greatest philosophers in Rome to defeat her in debate. She won and a bunch of the philosophers converted. The last scene on the bottom right shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in front of John the Baptist with a seraph above them.

The panel arrived in England from the collection of 19th century Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Considered one of the greatest academic painters in Rome during his lifetime, Camuccini was showered with portrait commissions, appointments and titles during his lifetime. He spent his fortune collecting the 16th and 17th century Italian masters he used to copy when he was a student, accumulating more than 70 highly praised pieces before his death in 1844. In 1853, his heirs sold the entire Camuccini collection to Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland, who installed the artworks in the family seat of Alnwick Castle.

Giovanni da Rimini’s panel remained on the walls of Alnwick Castle adorning the boudoir of the duchess until July of last year when the current Duke put it up for auction at Sotheby’s London. The pre-sale estimate was £2-3 million ($3,428,000 – 5,142,000) and the hammer price including buyer’s premium was £5,682,500 ($9,739,237). When the anonymous buyer asked for an export license, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the work to give UK institutions a chance to raise the purchase price and keep the one-of-a-kind piece in the country.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the [Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] said:

This jewel-like, exquisitely preserved, seven hundred-year old panel is by a good margin the most important example in the UK of the seminal Riminese school of painting. Although this country can boast impressive collections of early Italian art, there is nothing comparable to this in any British public collection.

With the clock ticking, Ronald S. Lauder, son of beauty industry mogul Estée Lauder, struck an unusual deal with the National Gallery: he’d donate the £4.919 million necessary to for them to buy the painting as long as the museum agreed to loan him the panel for his lifetime. He would then loan it back to the museum for display, first in 2017, then up to once every three years after that. After Lauder’s death (he’s 71 years old), the painting would physically join the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The NG took the deal with alacrity.

This isn’t the first time one of the Camuccini paintings from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection was saved for the nation after a sale that would have taken it out of the country. In 2003 the National Gallery had to scramble to raise a crazy £34.88 million ($54 million) to acquire Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks after the Duke accepted an exorbitant purchase offer from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A temporary export bar that was extended several times gave the museum a year to raise the huge sale price from grants and private donations. The hard-won masterpiece has been on loan to the Minneapolis of Arts from the National Gallery since March. The exhibition ends on August 16th, so if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis you should hustle to catch the $50 million Raphael before it returns to London.


Gilded Late Viking sword found in Norway

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo unearthed a unique sword from the late Viking era in a grave in the town of Langeid, southern Norway. The grave was unusually large, the largest of the 20 graves found in the burial ground, with postholes in the corners indicating that it had once had a roof. So prominent a tomb must have belonged to a person of high status who would likely have been interred with valuable objects for the afterlife, but when the coffin was excavated archaeologists found no grave goods except for the remains of two silver coins. When the team dug outside of the coffin, they found two metal objects on either side. One was a sword, the other a large battle-axe.

The sword is just over a three feet (94 centimeters) long, and while the iron blade of the sword is heavily corroded, the hilt is in excellent condition and of exquisite quality. The guard and pommel are silver engraved with swirls, crosses and what appear to be letters, all filled in with gold and edged with copper alloy thread. The grip is tightly wrapped with silver thread in a herringbone pattern. Conservators found fragments of wood and leather on the blade, likely all that remains of the sheath.

The letters are from the Latin alphabet, but they’re not in a legible arrangement and some are backwards or look like two or more letters were combined.

“At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man,” added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in one of the postholes dates the burial to 1030 A.D., a date confirmed by one of the two coins found inside the coffin. It’s an English silver penny minted during the reign of King Ethelred II, aka Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1016), and is the only Anglo-Saxon coin ever found in Langeid.

The battle-axe found next to the coffin also has an association to early 11th century England. The shaft was coated with brass, a very rare find in Norway, but very similar to numerous axes that have been discovered in the Thames in London. The Thames axes date to the same time as the Langeid axe, a period when more than one Scandinavian king — Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, his son Cnut the Great, King Olaf II of Norway — fought to conquer England. London was raided repeatedly. The axes may have been left in the Thames by Norse raiders, lost or sacrificed after a victory.

It’s entirely possible that the man buried with the weapons may have fought under one of those kings. There’s a rune stone in the Setesdal valley just south of Langeid inscribed in Old Norse “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute ‘went after’ England. God is one.” Norway was under Danish sovereignty when Cnut invaded England in 1015. There were Norwegian fighters from noble families in his army who would have been required to arm themselves with the best weapons.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

The sword find is being announced now, four years after it was made, because it’s going on display for the first time. It is part of the Museum of Cultural History’s Take It Personally exhibition which examines the history of adornment, with this sword being an example of how the precious metals and decorative details of women’s jewelry were used on weapons and armour to telegraph the bearer’s wealth and power. The exhibition opened on June 12th and will run until June 1st, 2016.


Original floor of Coventry Cathedral revealed

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

For the first time since Luftwaffe all but destroyed the medieval city of Coventry in the Second World War, the original floor of the Gothic cathedral of St. Michael’s has been revealed.

Coventry, an important industrial center that manufactured everything from bicycles to munitions, was the target of many bombing raids during the Battle of Britain, the most damaging of which struck on November 14th, 1940. German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive devices, intended to destroy infrastructure like water mains and roads, and 36,000 incendiary bombs, intended to burn down industrial targets (and pretty much everything else) in the city center.

St. Michael’s suffered multiple direct hits from incendiary bombs. Volunteer Firefighters were only able to put out the first of the fires before finding themselves overwhelmed by the inferno raging all over the Coventry’s historic center. The Cathedral was soon engulfed in flame. When the dust settled the next morning, St. Michael’s was a smoldering ruin, only the tower, spire and outer wall still standing on the scorched pavement. Thankfully the precious Gothic stained glass windows had been removed in 1939 to spare them from just this fate and have survived to this day.

After the war, a new cathedral was built next to what was left of the old one. Because the ruins of the medieval cathedral were exposed to the elements, the original floor was covered with rubble and concrete and topped with flagstones. Because it had been so pitted and scarred by the bombing and fire, the new pavement varied in depth from 50 centimeters (20 inches) to a meter (3’3″). In 1955 the ruins were added to England’s National Heritage List with a Grade I designation.

Listed structures cannot be altered without special permission, permission that was granted to the ruins of St. Michael’s because the floor is in danger from water damage. A new watertight membrane and drainage system will ensure the original floor doesn’t crumble underneath the mid-century concrete and pavers. The first step in the process was to lift the post-World War II flooring to expose the floor as it was before the bombs fell.

Although the church was built in the 14th century, much of the floor that has been uncovered consists of memorial stones laid down in the 18th century and later. The wooden base of the choir stalls were also found, carbonized by the fires.

Also uncovered is a wall of the 13th century Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the cemetery. While archaeologists expected to find parts of it, they can now confirm that it was a two storey building – the top floor of which was removed as the cathedral was expanded over it.

The cathedral team had hoped to discover a third concealed crypt similar to the Wyley Chapel. Although no crypt was discovered, there was a small space containing rubble from the interior of the ruined cathedral. Most of it was broken down after World War Two and the carved masonry is seen as a ‘time capsule’ of stonework from the time.

If you’d like to see the parts of Coventry Cathedral that have been hidden for 60 years or so, the project’s lead archaeologist will give two half-hour talks in the ruins, the first on Wednesday, July 15th, the second on Friday, July 17th, both from 1:00-1:30 PM. If there’s enough interest from visitors, the Cathedral will host more such events.





November 2015
« Oct    


Add to Technorati Favorites