Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

14th c. hoard found in clay pot in Bulgaria

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

An excavation of the Kaliakra Fortress on the coast of the Black Sea in northern Bulgaria has unearthed a small clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables hidden under a floor in the Middle Ages. A team of archaeologists headed by Bonnie Petrunova, director of the National History Museum (NHM) in Sofia, discovered the pot on August 17th, 2018, in a room that was burned in the 14th century, conveniently providing the outside date range for the burial of the hoard.

The pot, filled with soil as well as treasure, was moved to the NHM to be excavated in laboratory conditions. After painstaking removal of the soil, archaeologists found a total of 957 objects: 873 gold and silver coins, 11 fittings and buckles, 28 silver and bronze buttons, 11 gold earrings, one gold ring, a second metal ring and four gold beads studded with gems.

The coins include both Ottoman and Bulgarian silver issues. A majority of them, about 60% of them are Ottoman. Most of that 60% date to the reign of Sultan Bayazid Yildirum (1389-1402). A fraction of them are older, dating to the reign of his predecessor Murad I (1362-1389). Of the Bulgarian coins, 25% were minted under the reign of Ivan Alexander (1331-1371). They are very small, a symptom of the economic crisis in Bulgaria at the time. There are nine coins minted in Vidin by governor John Sratsimir. A few Byzantine silver pieces are also in the mix, including several very rare hyperpyroni.

The gold coins, much fewer in number, include 20 gold hyperpyroni of the Byzantine Empire, one the last gold coins issued of the empire. They are so debased and flimsy that it’s hard to identify them. Experts have been able to spot John V Palaiologos and his mother Anna of Savoy (regent during the minority of her son from 1341 until 1347), John VII Palaiologos, Andronikos II Palaiologos and Andronikos III Palaiologos on the obverse of some of them. There are also eight high quality Venetian gold coins, the classic Zecchino d’Oro, each made of 3.5 grams of 24-carat gold. Most of them were issued by Doges Marco Cornaro (1365-1368) and Andrea Dandolo (1343-1354).

The date range of the coins coincides with the evidence of the torching of the space to confirm the treasure pot was hidden under the floorboards at the end of the 14th century, a turbulent period in the history of the fortress who political fortunes are reflected in the coinage. The area was part of the Despotate of Dobruja, an autonomous principality in the fractured Bulgarian Empire. Under the control of Dobrotitsa, who gave himself the title “Despot,” the principality achieved its greatest power and territorial extent. Dobrotitsa made Kaliakra his capital and deployed his navy on the Black Sea in alliance with Venice against Genoa. He fought Murad I, who by the end of his reign would conquer much of modern-day Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s son Ivanko changed his father’s policy as soon as he ascended the throne in 1386, signing a peace agreement with the Ottoman sultan, another with Genoa and moving the capital from Kaliakra to Varna. The changes did not lead to stability and in 1388 Ivanko was killed fighting the Ottomans at Varna. Mircea I of Wallachia stepped into the vacuum of power and Wallachia, former vassal state of Dobruja, ruled the principality off and on until the Byzantine Empire took over in 1413.

To all this political instability and conflict, the Tartar invasions added yet more. A chronicler of the late 14th century records how the Tartars invaded Varna in 1399. Other Black Sea coastal towns also suffered their wroth, Kaliakra among them. It’s possible that the hoard was actually buried by a Tartar, in fact. The objects appear to have been collected from different people in one event rather than accumulated by a single individual over time. The Tartars of Aktav held the fortress in 1401 when they were defeated and dispatched. As the house in which the treasure was buried is a high-end one, it’s conceivable that a Tartar commander sequestered it for himself and was living there when the 1401 attack drove him out and burned down his dwelling.

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Buddha statue returned to India 57 years after theft

Friday, August 17th, 2018

A 12th century statue of the Buddha that was stolen from a museum in India 57 years ago has been found in London and is on its way back to India. The bronze statue with silver inlay was stolen from the Nalanda Archaeological Museum in eastern India in 1961, one of 14 important Buddha statues stolen in a single burglary.

Nalanda was the site of a Buddhist monastery that was a center of learning and pilgrimage from the 5th century until the early 13th when it was sacked by Mamluk armies. Monks came from all over Asia, as far east as Korea, to study the rigorous Vedic tradition of learning taught at the Nalanda monastery. After its sacking, the site fell into disuse and was gradually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 19th century by the Archaeological Survey of India and subsequent excavations in the early 1900s revealed multiple monasteries, temples and artifacts, including the 14 sculptures of Buddha that would be stolen from the museum.

What happened to the statue between 1961 and 2018 is unknown. It reemerged from the penumbra this March at an antiquities trade fair in London. Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) and Vijay Kumar from the India Pride Project recognized it as one of the 14 looted Nalanda pieces and called the Metropolitan Police. The Met’s Art and Antique Unit investigated and confirmed its identity. The dealer and owner do not appear to have realized they were fencing stolen goods — the statue has passed through many hands over the six decades since the theft — and they cooperated with the investigation and returned the object willingly so there will be no charges pressed against them.

On Wednesday, August 15th, India’s Independence Day, the statue was returned to Indian High Commissioner YK Sinha in London in an official ceremony.

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Octagonal tomb from Mongol era found in China

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an octagonal tomb from the 14th century with murals in excellent condition in Yangquan, east central China. Seven of the eight walls of the tomb are painted with murals while the eighth is taken up by the entrance. There were no human remains found inside, nor were there any grave goods that might identify who was buried there. One of the murals, however, depicts a husband and wife who are believed to have been the tomb’s occupants.

Some of the murals show scenes of life in Mongol-ruled China. These include a band of musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels transporting people and goods, according to the paper.

Some of the people in the murals are shown wearing Mongol, rather than Chinese, fashion styles, the archaeologists noted. For instance, in one mural, a camel is being led by a man who “is wearing a soft hat with four edges, which was the traditional hat of northern nomadic tribes from ancient times,” the archaeologists wrote in the journal article.

“Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges,” they wrote.

Two of the murals illustrated famous stories of filial piety, an important ethical precept in Confucianism of respect, care and deep empathic feeling for parents, elders and ancestors. These kinds of tales were collected in literary anthologies like The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. One of the murals depicts one of those 24 examples, the story of Guo Ju who decided to bury his own son alive so that their meager food supply would be sufficient to feed his mother. Guo Ju’s son was spared a terrible death when the father discovered a gold treasure in the hole he was digging for the grave.

The other filial piety-themed mural in the tomb takes the opposite approach to the same concept. Yuan Jue is the young son of a poverty-stricken family whose father decides to sacrifice Jue’s grandfather so that the rest of them will have enough food to survive a famine. Jue protests his father’s plan to leave his own father to die in the wilderness, insisting that should he go through with this cruel abandonment, Jue will do the same to him when the time comes. The father backs down and all of the family manages to pull through the famine.

The paintings are in very fine condition, with only architectural interruptions like a massive standing lamp built in to one of the walls. The pyramidal roof, painted with stars in the interior, has also made it from the Mongol era to the present in excellent fettle.

The tomb was first discovered in 2012 and published in Chinese four years later. That 2016 article has now been translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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Remains of sacrificed child found at Templo Mayor

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed the remains of a child sacrificed by the Aztecs at the foot of the Templo Mayor in the center of Mexico City. This is the second child burial found at the Templo Mayor. The first was discovered in 2005.

The child was a boy between eight and 10 years of age at the time of his death. INAH experts believe he was sacrificed to the god of war Huitzilopochtli sometime around the late 15th century during the reign of emperor Ahuízotl (1486-1502). Osteological examination by physical anthropologist Jacqueline Castro found that his teeth were heavily worn and he had suffered from multiple infections in his mouth.

His body was adorned with a ring-shaped wooden breastplate called an anahuatl, a mark associated with Huitzilopochtli as well as a few other deities. He also wore two rectangular wooden ear decorations, a pyrite piece and a necklace with five green stone beads thought to be Guatemalan jadeite and some blue beads made of an unknown stone. He had copper bells, shells from the Caribbean Sea and green stone beads on his ankles. The discovery of bones from two bird wings is another indicator that he was offered to Huitzilopochtli because a previous child sacrifice found at the site included the wings of a forest hawk, an animal linked to the war god due to its ocher and blue coloring.

The excavation that revealed this burial was spurred by the discovery of a gravestone bearing the relief of a golden eagle that predates the child’s death by decades. The tombstone is from the reign of Moctezuma I (1440-1469), so was not related to the sacrifice. It was just a coincidence that so significant an artifact was found that the team explored the area further and found the remains of the child.

The location of the burial, dubbed Offering 176, at the foot of the steps of the sixth stage of the Templo Mayor built during the reign of Ahuízotl is highly significant. It is within the Cuauhxicalco, a circular building which Spanish chroniclers recorded was the site where the remains of Mexica rulers were deposited. Perhaps in connection with its location, the tomb itself is unusual in shape and construction. The pit is cylindrical, lined with volcanic rocks mortared together with stucco. Of the 204 tombs discovered at the Templo Mayor, this is the only one with these particular features. Building the tomb required raising stone slabs, filling the square with soil and building another stone square on top of it.

The remains of the child sacrifice found in 2005, Offering 111, showed evidence of his heart having been removed during the ceremony. Whether this child too suffered the same fate is not known at this time.

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Rare seal of Byzantine empress found in Bulgaria

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the medieval fortress of Lyutitsa near the town of Ivaylovgrad in southeastern Bulgaria have discovered a rare lead seal of Byzantine Empress Irene, consort of Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282–1328). Only two other seals of Empress Irene are known to survive, both of them now in the British Museum. This is the only one of three to be found in Bulgaria.

The seal depicts Irene, born Yolande of Montferrat, on one side in her full regalia as Byzantine Empress. The other side is an image of the Virgin Mary seated with the Christ child on her lap. Irene’s name is stamped on both sides.

“The find is extremely valuable and shows that Lyutitsa was an important [medieval] Bulgarian city, whose governors had correspondence even with the rulers of the largest medieval states,” Bulgaria’s National Museum of History says.

Assoc. Prof. Vladimir Penchev, numismatist at the Museum, has pointed out that Yolande of Montferrat was Empress of Byzantium in 1284 – 1317.

Yolande of Montferrat was born in 1274 in the March of Montferrat (also known as Margraviate or Marquisate of Montferrat) in Northern Italy, a state of the Holy Roman Empire which became the Duchy of Montferrat in 1576.

Yolande was the daughter of William VII, Marquess of Montferrat, (1240 – 1292) and Beatrice of Castile (1254 – 1286), who was his second wife.

On her mother’s side, Yolande of Montferrat was the granddaughter of King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile (1221 – 1284) and Violante (Yolanda) of Aragon (1236 – 1301), after whom she was named. Alfonso X was the King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia in 1252 – 1284.

In 1284, the 10-year-old Yolande of Montferrat was married to the widowed Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, upon which she converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and adopted the name “Irene” meaning “peace”.

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Medieval grammar proves to be dilly of a pickle

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

Three mislabeled leaves from medieval manuscripts in Stanford University’s Green Library have been discovered to be more intriguing than expected. Instead of a lesson on Hebrew grammar, they explore the medicinal properties of pickles and other fermented foods.

Historian Rowan Dorin discovered the anomalous fragments while looking through the library’s collection of medieval texts. The three parchment leaves had been catalogued as fragments from two copies of a grammar and dictionary of the Hebrew language written by eminent lexicographer Jonah ibn Janah in the 11th century. Born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Rabbi Jonah wrote his seminal study of Hebrew in Arabic. It was only translated into Hebrew in the 14th century by Judah ibn Tibbon. Kitab al-Tanqih (“Book of exact investigation”) is the earliest complete text on the study of Hebrew to survive.

These fragments were acquired in 2012 from the Dictionary collection of Thomas Main Rodgers from whence the erroneous cataloging likely springs. Mr. Rodgers must have been unaware that instead of pages from a renown Hebrew dictionary in keeping with the motif of his collection, he had bought three leaves from two unidentified 14th century medical texts written in Judeao-Arabic using Hebrew script.

Two of the leaves were written in Hebrew script in Judaeo-Arabic on a palimpsest parchment whose undertext is 13th or 14th century Hebrew. There are margin notes in Castilian. While the full main text hasn’t been translated yet, it is organized according to illness and their cures and include the headings “On the causes of hiccuping” and “On the treatment for hiccuping.” (I vote hyperventilating.)

The single leaf, written in square Hebrew script with Latin notes in the margin, discusses the medicinal uses of several foods, a salient section of which is titled “On the effect of pickles and sour substances.”

Dorin said the rare parchments showcase the sharing of knowledge that was happening among societies around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages, the historical period between the 5th and the 15th centuries.

“Most people associate the Middle Ages with plague, war and ignorance,” said Dorin, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. “We don’t usually think about the dialogues between different cultures or open exchanges of knowledge that were happening throughout that time. These documents are evidence for the conversations occurring among people from different linguistic backgrounds.”

After more than a year of research, Dorin, with the help of other scholars around the world, determined that the pages came from two different texts. One was first written down in northern Africa sometime in the 14th century and ended up in Spain, where it was recycled as scrap parchment. The other was probably written around the same time on the island of Mallorca, a diverse hub of commerce in the western Mediterranean, Dorin said.

Dorin believes that the knowledge the texts carry was passed down from the ancient Greeks.

Researchers have yet to identify the authors of the two medical texts, or of the Hebrew undertext. However, with the aid of Jewish historian Ezra Blaustein, part of the leaf on pickles has been translated. Items of note: fish jelly “cleanses the stomach of viscous phlegm” but if consumed to excess it “corrupts the blood and causes mange.” So much for mites then. Preserves makes you hungry, thirst and horny. Pickled caper, while “ruinous for the stomach,” is a sure-fire diet aid which “makes thin one who is fat.”

As I am obsessed with pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi, it delights me to see the clear distinction made between true pickles (which are fermented and replete with billions of microorganisms) and vinegar brined foods.

Pickled dill is good for one who wants to prevent ruin if he ate too much food and he urinated as well. All pickles correspond to the thing from which they are made, and acquire from the salt and putridity a second nature, with increased dryness, heat and sharpness. As for vinegarized food, it acquires from everything increased dryness, and it fills up and cools the liver.

Bring on the putridity, man. I can take it.

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There 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

Oxford medieval history professor George Garnett has counted 93 penises, human and equine, on the Bayeux Tapestry. The vast majority of them, 88 to be precise, are horse penises from the central panel where all the historic action takes place. The five human penises (plus one possible one) are only found in the top and bottom borders.

It makes sense that the equine genitalia would be so distinct and prolific. The embroiderers who created the tapestry (a misnomer, by the way, because it’s wool thread embroidered on linen panels, not a woven textile) were far more precise in their depiction of horses than of people. There are about 200 horses on the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered with realistic color, tack, wooden saddles and stirrups. Some are destriers, some palfreys, some packhorses, all of them clearly distinguishable. Even the gaits can be identified in battle scenes.

The penises of the horses convey rather obvious meaning about their riders. The bigger the phallus, the greater the power.

The penises depicted on certain stallions might be thought to demonstrate no more than the designer’s scrupulous anatomical accuracy. But it cannot be simply a coincidence that Earl Harold is first shown mounted on an exceptionally well-endowed steed. And the largest equine penis by far is that protruding from the horse presented by a groom to a figure who must be Duke William, just prior to the battle of Hastings.

This, the viewer is meant to infer, was the charger on which the duke fought. The clear implications are that the virility of the two leading protagonists is reflected in that of their respective mounts, and that William was in this respect much the more impressive of the two, as the denouement of what survives of the tapestry showed to be the case. Odo of Bayeux, the duke’s half-brother, plays a very important role in the action, but although he is depicted in the thick of the fray, cockily rallying the Norman forces at a critical juncture, the genitalia of his very large horse are modest indeed by comparison.

That might be thought only appropriate in a senior man of the cloth, sworn to celibacy, but it is also true of all other mounted participants in the battle, who appear to be laymen. Duke William had to be the outstanding individual in every respect, including his horse’s penis

“Cockily rallying,” eh? I see what you did there, Professor Garnett. It’s worth noting that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, is the person who commissioned the tapestry so his horse’s modest endowment compared to his half-brother’s steed’s impressive one could have been a form of genuflection or currying favor.

The exposed human genitals are less obvious and therefore more intriguing in their meaning. There’s a naked man with an erect phallus reaching out towards a nude woman covering her face and crotch with her hands. Emory University professor emeritus of medieval history Stephen White has posited that this could be a scene from Phaedrus’s Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, namely a tale of a father who raped his daughter. It’s at the beginning of the tapestry under the scene where Earl Harold (Edward the Confessor is still alive at this point) is taken prisoner in France and taken to Duke William. The bottom frieze designs from this scene forward feature several animals stories from the fables — the Fox and the Crow, the Wolf and the Lamb, the Bitch and her Puppies, etc. — so it’s reasonable to think the dramatic human postures were inspired the tales as well.

In the top frieze while the main panel is depicting the Normans ride to battle there are two sets of naked figures. One is a man whose penis is obscured by a large axe he’s holding, but his testicles are clearly visible behind him. He’s holding out something unidentifiable to a nude woman. A few inches to the right of them are a naked man and a woman. The first could refer to a fable in which a widow has a sexual relationship with the man guarding the cemetery where her husband’s body is buried. To cover up his negligence after a body is stolen when they’re having sex, the widow gives him her husband’s body to substitute for the stolen one. The second couple might be from a story in which a prostitute claims to be in love with her client and he doesn’t believe her.

The last two naked men are individuals in the bottom border. One is bent over pulling an axe out of a container or off a cloth. The other is squatting and just letting it all hang out. The first could be referring to the fable in which an axe-maker persuades trees to let him use their wood to make a handle and then chops them down once he’s made his axe. The second has no Aesopian explanation.

(The sixth possible penis belongs to a dead soldier, stripped of his mail and clothes after falling on the battlefield of Hastings. It’s sort of a single curved line in the crotchal region that doesn’t connect to anything else, so while it looks like a side view of a flopped over penis, it’s difficult to confirm or deny. Please appreciate that I said “difficult,” not “hard.” Because I’m classy.)

As with all of Aesop’s fables, they come with moral lessons, ones that educated viewers would have recognized. The ones depicted in the borders of the tapestry revolve around betrayal, deceit, untrustworthiness, and were probably meant to be visual allegorical comments on the action in the main panel. With penises.

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Wood knight found in Lincoln Cathedral tower

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

A wooden knight has been discovered secreted away in one of Lincoln Cathedral’s towers. The three-foot statue, found during an audit of the cathedral’s historic artifacts, is a clock Jack, a figure that would strike the clock tower bell so it would chime at regular times. He once must have had a hammer to hit the bell, but that tool is long gone. There are no identifying marks on the carving. His features are worn and it’s not clear which clock he was attached to, one inside the cathedral or in the tower.

Initial research suggested the knight might have struck the hours in the north vestibule clock, parts of which date to around 1380, but further investigation pointed to it being part of a later clock across the south aisle. Fern Dawson, collections and engagement officer at Lincoln Cathedral who found the knight during the audit, discovered a reference in an old cathedral publication to an 18th century sketch of a “Clock Jack or striking man believed to be from a clock in Lincoln Cathedral.”

She pursued the lead and found the sketch by engraver Samuel Buck in the archives of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The sketch is a rough drawing of a mechanized clock but does not clearly depict the knight and indeed opens up more questions than it answers. There are three clock Jacks, on top of the clock face left and right and above a representation of the sorrowful Christ. The center panel bears the inscription: “The Glas doth run y’Globe doth goe. Awake from sin. Why sleep you so.” Nobody has of yet determined what that first sentence means exactly. There’s also an unidentified coat of arms in the sketch and a series of symbols along the top that are some kind of code of shorthand that hasn’t been deciphered.

Fern added: “This is an incredibly exciting find. While I originally thought it was possible the clock jack could have been a part of the earlier clock, it has been suggested by the Wallace Collection’s curator of arms and armour, Tobias Capwell that ‘stylistic particulars’ – including the clock jack’s beard, rounded skirt and basic shape of the solid, one-piece back plate – point to a mid-to-late sixteenth-century date.

“Further adding to the mystery are symbols which appear to be a form of short hand on the top right-hand corner of the sketch by Samuel Buck. These markings have yet to be identified.

“The clock jack is an amazing discovery, allowing us, the future generation, a glimpse into a different time.”

Jack the Knight will go on display with out treasures from the Lincoln Cathedral collection in a new visitor’s center scheduled to open in 2020.

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Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

An international team of researchers has studied the bones of 85 individuals from the 12th and 13th centuries afflicted with extremely severe cases of leprosy. Isolated and shunned in life as victims of an infectious disease that causes visible disfigurement and deformity, leprosy sufferers were isolated in death too, buried in a dedicated cemetery. The skeletons were excavated from the leprosarium cemetery of St. George in Odense, Denmark, in the early 1980s and are now stored at the University of Southern Denmark.

Out of the 85 individuals from the Odense cemetery tested, 69 contained sufficient nuclear DNA to yield genotype data and those 69 also tested positive for the presence of the bacterium. The genetic material was compared against 223 skeletons from the same period unearthed in Denmark and Northern Germany that showed no evidence of leprosy infection. That makes this is the first case-control study relying on ancient DNA.

There are no automated systems for analyzing ancient DNA. Researchers had to manually remove any impurities from the Odense DNA and analyze the cleaned samples. They were able to examine 50-100 milligrams of material extracted from the teeth and hard bones of the skull. From that material they extracted up to 5% human DNA and several parts-per-thousand of leprosy DNA. For an ancient DNA study, those are really high yields, possible only because of the excellent state of preservation of the remains.

As a result of the analyses, researchers discovered that one particular variant of the HLA-DRB1 gene, whose job is to recognize bacteria and trigger an immune response, notably fell down on the job when it came to leprosy. Its presence made people more susceptible to it. The isolation that people with leprosy were subjected to had one upside: it made it much less likely that they’d have children to whom they could pass down the HLA-DRB1 variant. This might have contributed to the ultimate demise of the disease in Europe.

Scientists do not know precisely when and how the disease first came to Europe, but the crusades reached their peak between 1200 and 1400 CE, just when Boldsen’s research suggests that half of the population in the worst hit areas were dying with the disease.

Leprosy was almost wiped out in Denmark and large parts of Europe during the 1500s. But why it disappeared is a big question, says Bygbjerg,

“You might assume that the disease disappeared because the bacteria behind leprosy changed and became less dangerous. But the study shows that this is not the case,” he says.

The HLA variant also plays a role in inflammatory and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, so the study of medieval leprosy may prove to have far wider implications, adding to our knowledge of the development of diseases that plague so many people today.

The bacterial genome sequencing revealed that leprosy victims in medieval Odense were afflicted by more than one strain of bacteria. Researchers have sequenced 10 complete leprosy genomes attesting to how complex leprosy infection was in 12th and 13th century Odense. As leprosy is not native to Denmark, carriers brought multiple strains into the area. This find came as a surprise as researchers previous knew of only one strain of Mycobacterium leprae in the area.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Communications and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

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Ghent Altarpiece Mystic Lamb is mystical again

Monday, June 25th, 2018

The formal name of what has become known as the Ghent Altarpiece is the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The central panel of the massive 18-panel polyptych painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral depicts the Lamb of God on an altar, encircled by kneeling angels. A symbol of the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb has a wound on its chest which gushes a thick stream of blood into a chalice. Adoring the Lamb in four distinct groups are prophets, apostles, saints, popes and assorted church figures, martyrs, the Righteous Judges and Warriors of Christ.
It is the only panel on the altarpiece that is horizontal and at 134.3 x 237.5 cm (4’5″ x 7’10”), it is as wide as the three vertically oriented panels above it.

As with the other panels in the altarpiece, the Adoration of the Lamb was awkwardly overpainted. First some small wanna-be restorations to areas of the panel were done and then, in the middle of the 16th century, just over a hundred years after the masterpiece was completed in 1432, a more ambitious refurbishment was undertaken to correct the earlier interventions and fill in paint loss. The result of this was that 45% of the central panel was overpainted. The Lamb was the primary victim of this well-meaning assault. The background landscape — the sky, the hills and the spires of New Jerusalem — and the altar cloth and draped robes suffered most of the remaining blows.

A 1951 restoration removed some of the overpaint on the head of the Lamb, but again the good intentions wound up as pavers on the road to Hell. When the green overpaint around the head was removed, the original smaller ears of the Lamb were revealed and since restorers didn’t remove the 16th century Dumbo ears, the poor fella looked to have four ears.

Overpaint, faulty restorations, the misfortunes of war, fire, moisture, climate and everything else that can possibly happen to a giant icon of late medieval art had left all of the panels in dire need of thorough conservation. A major conservation and restoration project saw the first eight panels removed to the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts in 2012 where experts from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began the slow, painstaking process of returning the Ghent Altarpiece as close as possible to its original splendor.

That project continues today, and KIK-IRPA conservators are now working on the central panel, the very core of the altarpiece. Thankfully, they found that despite all the interference over the years, almost all of the original Van Eyck paint layers remained intact under the mess. Only 3% was lost. That allowed them to painstakingly remove all of the later overpaint and reveal the panel as the Van Eycks originally created it.

Lamb of God after overpaint removal. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Gent © Lukasweb.be-Art  in Flanders vzw, photo courtesy KIK-IRPA.After intensive research, the restoration team of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) has removed the old overpaint that masked the main figure of the Ghent Altarpiece for nearly five centuries. As such, the well-known Lamb – an impassive and rather neutral figure, with a wide forehead and large ears – has given way to Van Eyck’s original. With its intense gaze this medieval Lamb, characterized by a graphically defined snout and large frontal eyes, draws the viewer into the scene of His ultimate sacrifice.[…]

While removing the overpaint – a delicate operation carried out under the microscope with surgical scalpels – the restorers discovered a subtly shaded sky with streaks of clouds above graceful mountains. The original buildings, overpainted with greyish layers, were painted in a variety of colours, with a beautiful play of light. Even previously hidden buildings are emerging from beneath the much simpler overpaint at the horizon. Solid-coloured garments make place for luminous draperies with complex folds defined by delicate highlights and deep shadows.

The seemingly bizarre choice of making the Lamb of God look like an expressionless animal was a function of the 16th century tastes in painting. The powerful gaze directed straight at the viewer of Van Eyck’s original humanized the Lamb, conveying its identification with Jesus. The more realistically lamb-like overpainted version, its entrancingly human eyes replaced with small prey animal eyes on the sides of its head, was more in keeping with 16th century conventions.

The restoration is ongoing so it’s only on view to the public at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts during the weekends. On weekdays conservators get full custody of the panel. It needs to be laid flat for this stage of the conservation, so it can’t be seen by visitors to the museum.

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