Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

University of British Columbia history professor Richard Pollard with the Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

Detail of first line. Image by Don Erhardt. Rota detail and monogram for

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama with humidification chamber used to treat Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

Papal seal obverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

Papal seal reverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

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Samuel Morse the artist

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Before Samuel Morse developed the code that bears his name and patented the electromagnetic telegraph, he was a painter and a successful one at that. His teacher, Washington Allston, known today primarily for his Romantic landscapes, took the 20-year-old Samuel to study painting in England in 1811. In London he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts where instruction was focused on copying the works of the Renaissance Old Masters, drawing casts of ancient sculptures and live figure drawing. Morse’s works from this period were heavily influenced by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael and were often mythological in theme, like 1812′s Dying Hercules.

Morse and Allston spent four years in England as the War of 1812 raged. When Morse returned to the United States in 1815, he made a name for himself as a portrait painter, receiving commissions from wealthy socialites and dignitaries like former President John Adams and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. He hit the road again in 1830, traveling through Italy, Switzerland and France to learn from observing the original works of the Old Masters he had studied copies of in London.

When he was in Paris in September of 1831, Morse conceived a monumental painting of the Salon Carré in the Louvre that would include dozens of the museum’s masterpieces. The works aren’t actually arranged in the one room when he painted them; this was a gallery picture, a fantasy arrangement of art in a single scene. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre is the only major example of a gallery picture in American art history.

He squeezed 38 paintings and two sculptures from the Louvre collection into the six-by-nine-foot canvas, plus additional figures of museum visitors and copyists. Anthony Van Dyck and Titian have the most works on display with four apiece. Other artists represented are Tintoretto, Veronese, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Poussin, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni, Watteau, Correggio and Caravaggio. Click here (pdf) for a complete key to all the works and people in the painting.

He worked assiduously between September of 1831 and August of 1832 to copy the works he wished to include, some of which were positioned high on the walls. He built a moveable scaffold and lugged it around the vast halls of the Louvre so he could be at eye level with his subjects. Morse painting on his scaffold became something of a tourist draw in its own right. He also had to do a fair amount of math in composing this work. He had to calculate the proper scale and to figure out how they should be arranged on the canvas.

Then he had to put shoutouts to his people among the visitors. The trio in the back left corner are Morse’s good friend James Fenimore Cooper (who he hoped would buy the completed work) and Cooper’s wife and daughter. The woman sketching an art work in the center of the composition is Morse’s daughter, Susan Walker Morse. The man behind her giving her pointers is Morse himself. That sweet scene was symbolic of his purpose in creating this piece: to teach American artists and audiences about the important works of European art. He was also underscoring the value of a great public museum of art to artists and regular people, an institution that the United States lacked.

(Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805 by artist and collector Charles Willson Peale, among others, but its collection at the time was casts of ancient sculptures. Coincidentally, the first major acquisition of the museum was a work by none other than Washington Allston: his monumental 1816 work The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha. They had to mortgage the building to buy it.

The first public art museum in the United States was the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, a great patrons of the arts, who seeded the new museum with many works from his personal collection.)

When the Louvre closed its doors for its yearly August vacation, Morse rolled up the canvas and packed it until his return to the United States in late 1832. He applied the finishing touches to the painting in late 1833 and exhibited the finished work in New York and New Haven. Morse hoped it would be a sensation, drawing huge crowds to pay the price of admission and securing him a much-desired commission for a painting in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It was not. The exhibitions lost money, and within a few years Morse had given up painting to focus on the telegraph.

It was purchased for much less than Morse had hoped in 1834 by George Hyde Clarke for his neoclassical mansion Hyde Hall in Ostego County, New York. After Clarke’s death, Gallery of the Louvre was purchased by former mayor of Albany John Townsend. From him it passed to his daughter Julia Townsend Munroe of Syracuse, New York. She loaned it to Syracuse University in 1884 and then donated it to the university in 1892. Ninety years later, Morse’s dream finally came true. Chicago businessman, art collector and founder of the Terra Foundation for American Art museum, Daniel J. Terra, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs, bought Gallery of the Louvre from Syracuse University for $3.25 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a piece of American art. It’s been at the Terra Foundation ever since.

In 2010 Gallery of the Louvre underwent a six-month conservation by experts in American painting restoration Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. They discovered that Morse was as inventive in his painting as he was in communication technology, sometimes to their chagrin. He mixed varnish and oil paint together instead of painting with oils and then sealing the canvas with varnish. This was problematic for the conservators because varnish discolors. When it’s a layer on top of the paint, it can be removed with appropriate solvents that won’t damage the oil paint beneath. When conservators did a solvent test on Gallery of the Louvre, they found that all of them damaged the combined varnish and paint.

The Terra Foundation documented the conservation with a video, A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre”, which is not available online in its entirety but there are six clips from it below.

The conservation was successful, bringing out details that had become obscured over time. After it was complete, the painting was subject of three symposia — at the Yale University Art Gallery in April of 2011, the National Gallery in April of 2012 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in April of 2013 — which generated scholarly essays on the work by art historians, professors, curators and conservators. Those essays have been published in a book that is a companion piece to a new traveling exhibition of the painting, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention.

The exhibition opened Saturday at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It will be there until April before moving on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (May 23rd, 2015 – September 7th, 2015), the Seattle Art Museum (September 22nd, 2015 – January 10th, 2016), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (January 2016 – April 2016), the Detroit Institute of Arts (June 2016 – September 2016), the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (October 2016 – January 2017), the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (February 2017 – June 2017), the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut (June 2017 – October 2017), and finally the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Stanford, California (November 2017 – January 2018).

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Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Tutankhamun funerary mask before beard glue debacleThe AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

Detail of epoxy layer used to reattach beard, image courtesy Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

Jacqueline Rodriguez's photograph of man gluing the beard on Tut's funerary mask on August 12th, 2014The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

Photograph of the funerary mask taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-Shahed“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Twitter abounds with satirical memes on the beard; this is a "Conservation Manual"Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

Front view of glued-on beard, taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-ShahedSo that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

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132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Eva Jensen, Cultural Resource Program Manager at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada’s Snake mountain range, was exploring the park with the archaeology team looking for Native American artifacts on November 6th, 2014, when she spotted an object leaning against a Juniper tree. Upon closer examination, she saw that it was a rifle so cracked and weathered that it was perfectly camouflaged by the cracked and weathered tree behind it.

The grayed wood stock was embedded in the dirt, leaves and rocks at the base of the tree. Eva Jensen had to carefully dig away the debris in order to liberate the rifle. Once able to examine the whole thing, the team spied “Model 1873″ engraved on the iron gun body, the classic imprimatur of the Winchester ’73, “the gun that won the West.” Its characteristic crescent-shaped buttstock identified it as the lever-action repeating rifle form (Winchester also made carbine and musket forms of the Model 1873). The octagonal barrel is chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the original caliber that was manufactured from 1873 until production stopped on the model in 1916, but the rifle was found uncharged.

The team then wrapped the stock in non-adhesive orange flagging to keep it from falling apart. They then placed the rifle on a clean white cloth and in a gun case and transported it to the park’s museum storage. Jensen began researching the weapon starting with looking up the serial number on the lower tang. She turned to the Cody Firearms Museum‘s records office in Cody, Wyoming, which has original factory data for select Winchester serial numbers. The Great Basin Winchester’s serial number identifies it as having been manufactured and shipped from the Connecticut warehouse in 1882, but there was no further information, nothing about who ordered it or where it was shipped to.

So Jensen consulted newspapers of the day — the Ward Reflex and White Pine County Record — that chronicled the then-thriving mining industry in northern Nevada. She found tantalizing tidbits, including ads from dry goods stores selling Winchester rifles, even the name of a gunsmith in the area.

But there were no stories of any gun battle or outlaw search that might have put a history to the gun. She found a picture of a member of a prominent family holding a Winchester, but it was the wrong model.

Jensen and the cultural resource staff will continue to search periodicals and family archives in the likely vain attempt to pinpoint the history of this found rifle, one of the 720,610 the company manufactured during the model’s incredibly successful run. The year this Winchester 73 was made was particularly fruitful thanks to a price drop from $50 to $25 engendered by the decline in the iron and steel industries that ushered in a recession that would last three years; more than 25,000 Winchester Model 1873s were made in 1882.

The rifle will be on display Friday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the Great Basin Visitor Center classroom, and at the Old Sheepherders Gathering at the Border Inn in Baker on Saturday, January 17th, from 2:30 until 5:00 PM. These brief glimpses are all we’ll get for a while. The rifle’s wood needs to be stabilized and conserved for future display. They will not be restoring it, thankfully. The aim of conservation will be to keep it in the condition in which is was found because it’s cool. Once conservation is complete, it will go on display at the Great Basin National Park as part of the celebrations of its 30th anniversary and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

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Museum acquires Anglo-Saxon St. Peter carving used as cat grave marker

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015


The Museum of Somerset in Taunton has acquired a medieval carving of Saint Peter that for years was used as a marker for a pet cat’s grave. The 18 by 17-inch stone is carved with the tonsured and clean-shaved saint with his head turned slightly to the right and two fingers of his right hand raised to his chest in benediction. A partial inscription on the top left — SC (S) (PE)TRVS — identifies the figure as Saint Peter.

The design is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, with a close parallel found in the figure of Peter the Deacon on the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, a richly embroidered vestment made in Winchester between 906 and 916. It is a piece of a larger object, possibly a section of a shaft from a free-standing cross or larger relief panel that was later recycled as a building material. It’s made out of oolitic limestone, a stone that’s native to the south Somerset area where it was discovered. There are several religious institutions nearby that could have been the original source: Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Dowlish Wake, while Glastonbury Abbey is 25 miles away.

Knowing the exact location where it was found might answer some of the questions about its original configuration, but it was only recognized as a rare surviving pre-Conquest carving after the stonemason, Johnny Beeston, who first rediscovered it had died. Beeston brought it home and installed it in his garden rockery in Dowlish Wake where it marked the grave of the dearly departed Winkles, a stray cat he had adopted. The person who recognized it was potter and local historian Chris Brewchorne who had a pottery shop across the road. It caught his eye in 2004. By then Johnny had joined Winkles over the rainbow bridge and Mrs. Beeston was willing to sell the piece.

They offered it to the Museum of Somerset for what would turn out to be a bargain price, but the museum didn’t have the funding at the time and declined the offer. So instead it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2004 to Milwaukee native, timber and oil heir, art collector and all-around eccentric Stanley J. Seeger for £201,600 ($386,628).

Seeger died in 2011. His extensive collection of art was sold at auction, Sotheby’s again, in March of 2014 and the Peter stone sold for a far more modest £68,500 ($114,532) the second time around. That lower price was good news for the museum who could now arrange to buy it for £150,000 thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who chipped in the largest chunk at £78,600), Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Fairfield Trust, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and other donors.

The stone will go on public display in the Museum of Somerset, which occupies the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, starting this Saturday, January 17th.

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42 mastodon bones found in Michigan backyard

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Contractor Daniel LaPoint Jr. was digging a poind with an excavator on his neighbor Eric Witzke’s property in Bellevue Township, southern Michigan, last November when he noticed a large bone jutting out of the pile of displaced soil. He pulled it out of the pile and saw it was a curved bone four feet long. Over the next four days, LaPoint and Witzke dug up the yard and unearthed 41 more large bones which at the time they assumed were dinosaur bones due to their impressive dimensions.

They enlisted the aid of Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, who examined the bones and determined they were from a mastodon, not a dinosaur, and are between 10,000 and 14,000 years old.

LaPoint and Witzke’s collection includes several rib bones, leg, shoulder and hip bones, the base of a tusk and pieces of the animal’s vertebrae.

Fisher has spent several hours looking through what they found and believes the mastodon was a 37-year-old male.

“Preliminary examination indicates that the animal may have been butchered by humans,” said Fisher. Bones show what look like tool marks, in places.

Only 330 confirmed mastodon bones have been found in Michigan, so the discovery of 42 in one place is exceptional. Fisher believes there may be more bones to be found in Witzke’s yard, but the wet earth was already difficult to excavate in November. It’s probably close to impenetrable in full winter.

The finders could make a few thousand dollars off the bones if they sold them, but they are awesome people so they’ve decided to keep a few bones as mementos and donate the rest to the museum. The bones will go to the museum at the end of the month. Once they’re there, researchers will radiocarbon date them to narrow down the date range to within a few hundred years.

In further evidence of LaPoint and Witzke’s awesomeness, the pair took the bones to the local middle school so the kids could get the hands-on experience before they disappear into the museum’s stores.

“Once these things go to the museum and get crated up, you’re not going to get to touch them again. It’s over with and I was that kid who wanted to touch that thing on the other side of the glass,” said LaPoint. “All the kids got to pick them up and hold them. Some kids, it was life-changing for them. To change one kid’s life because they got to touch it, I think, is an incredible opportunity.”

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The Mauritshuis at a movie theater near you

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

When the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, closed for two years so the 17th century palace that houses the exceptional collection of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces could be restored and expanded, a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces went on tour. The Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis exhibition kicked off in Japan with 48 works and it was a smash hit. The show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was the world’s most visited exhibition of 2012 with 758,724 total visitors.

When it moved on to the US in 2013, the traveling exhibition stopped at the de Young in San Francisco, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and The Frick Collection in New York City where hundreds of thousands of people went to see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Paulus Potter’s The Bull and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, among other treasures. Early last year the show moved to Italy for its last stop at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna and then returned home to The Hague. Over the year and a half the exhibition was on the road, more than 2.2 million people in Japan, the US and Italy saw Girl with a Pearl Earring and friends.

On June 27th, 2014, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially reopened the Mauritshuis with much pomp and ceremony, including a living human Girl with a Pearl Earring’s symbolic return to the museum accompanied by six cavalrymen from the Cavalry Escort of Honour. The renovation doubled the museum’s space, thanks to the acquisition of the Sociëteit de Witte building, an Art Deco building across the street, and the construction of an underground tunnel between the old building and the new. The new building, unfortunately named the Royal Dutch Shell Wing after its sponsor, has a new restaurant, gift shop, educational workshop and will host temporary exhibitions. The original museum, built in 1641 as the residence of count John Maurice of Nassau, was extensively refurbished with new systems installed to secure and conserve the paintings in the collection.

So now the collection of almost 850 objects, mainly paintings, is up and running again after two years when 50 of the most prized pieces were traveling and only 100 of the other works in the collection were on display in a temporary Highlights Mauritshuis exhibition
at the Gemeentemuseum modern art museum. For those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the refurbished museum and its superstar with a pearl earring, the fine folks at Exhibition on Screen have made a movie about Girl with a Pearl Earring and the restored Mauritshuis.

Enjoying unparalleled exclusive access to this historical exhibition, the film takes the audience on a journey as it seeks to answer many of the questions surrounding this enigmatic painting and its mysterious creator, Vermeer. Using the recently completed and highly complex makeover of the museum as its starting point, the film goes on a behind the scenes detective journey to seek out the answers that lie within the other masterpieces housed in the collection.

To find a theater screening the movie near you, check this list. Showings begin on January 13th. Until then, here’s a quick preview. (Keep your eyes peeled at the 42 second mark for a quick glimpse of The Goldfinch, the small 1654 panel painting that became the surprise break-out star of the exhibition’s last American leg at the The Frick thanks to the success of the Donna Tartt novel named after and starring the wee bird portrait.)

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Toledo Museum of Art scores Napoleon’s brother’s spiral chandelier

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art was looking for a Neoclassical chandelier to adorn Gallery 31, a room in which paintings from the period, like Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau made by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1807 and a smaller 1786 version of Jacques-Louis David’s famous Oath of the Horatii, one of the works that launched the Neoclassical movement, feature prominently. They were able to acquire a chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer, Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, that fit the bill most perfectly because not only is it inspired by classical architecture, it was made for Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme Bonaparte.

The Spiral Chandelier, made by Berlin luxury craftsmen Werner & Mieth, has a skeleton of gilded bronze hung with glass pendants. It is about five-and-a-half feet tall by three feet wide and is in exceptional condition, with the metal armature and almost all of the pendants original to the piece. The white glass pieces are replacements created from a photograph of another Werner & Mieth chandelier ordered by Jérôme Bonaparte for one of his palaces that was sadly destroyed by bombs during World War II.

Werner & Mieth spiral chandelier now in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art
Werner & Mieth (maker), Berlin, active 1792–1819. Spiral Chandelier for Jérôme Bonaparte, 1810–1811. Cast, chased and fire-gilded bronze (ormolu); cut and polished glass (H. 175 cm; W. 101 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Purchase with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott. 2014. Photo courtesy of Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, Hamburg, Germany.

The Werner & Mieth company, founded in 1792 by Christian Gottlob Werner, Gottfried Mieth and Friedrich Luckau the Younger, was for more than four decades the most important Berlin manufacturer of handcrafted luxury decorative items in gilded bronze, including chandeliers, table centerpieces and candelabras. Their specialty was ormolu, a gilding technique that applied a finely ground mixture of gold and mercury to mercury-treated bronze, copper or brass and then fired the object at a temperature high enough to evaporate mercury, leaving only the gold bonded to the metal. The result was a shiny, bright gilded surface and, importantly for mantel clocks, fireplace tools and chandeliers, non-oxidizing even when exposed to high heat.

The company was immediately successful. In 1794, just two years after opening their doors, Werner & Mieth were given a Royal Appointment. Their chandeliers appeared in all the Hohenzollerns’ great palaces — the Monbijou Palace and Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin, the Japanese Palace in Dresden, Sans-Souci in Potsdam. King Frederick William II of Prussia, grandson of Frederick William I, nephew and heir to the childless Frederick the Great, in 1797 had 12 Werner & Mieth chandeliers installed in the east wing of Charlottenburg Palace, six in his winter chamber upstairs and six in his summer apartments on the ground floor.

The nobility and aristocracy of other countries followed suit. Even during the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars (Frederick William III was defeated by Napoleon’s armies at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, after which Prussia was carved up and occupied by French troops; its territories and autonomy were fully restored after Waterloo), Werner & Mieth thrived. France, long culturally dominant in the ormolu crafts, imported the Prussian company’s luxury goods. Various members of the Bonaparte family were clients, among them the Empress Josephine herself. In 1810, Werner & Mieth exported chandeliers to capitals of Europe — Paris, London, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen — and as far as Constantinople.

Portrait of Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, and Queen Catharina, by Sebastian Weygandt, 1810Jérôme Bonaparte got on the chandelier bandwagon that year too. Napoleon had made his youngest brother King of Westphalia, a conglomeration of a bunch of northwestern German states, in 1807. One of those statelets was the principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel whose seat was Brunswick Palace in the city of Brunswick. In 1810, Jérôme Bonaparte ordered a Werner & Mieth chandelier inspired by the volutes of the Greek Ionic order of columns (see the swirls on the capital). The company thought this particular model, designed by artist and self-taught architect and archaeologist Hans Christian Genelli, was the most beautiful in their catalogue. Genelli wrote notes on Vitruvius’s De Architectura and drew sections of the Ionic volutes from a much-studied passage in which the great Roman architectural theorist discusses the design of the spirals.

The top ring of the object has six spirals evenly spaced around its perimeter, densely hung with glass drops, which terminate in small suspended rings with glass drops. Curtains of faceted circular beads obscure the central spine, terminating in an opaque white glass receiver bowl. Each of six downward spiraling loops has a candle arm with a pair of candle sockets. [...]

“The design is based on a logarithmic spiral that is moving downwards. The concept of an upside-down, hanging column is a remarkable one — the curling forms of the chandelier are particularly noticeable from below,” [Toledo Museum of Art curator of glass and decorative arts Jutta-Annette] Page said.

Werner & Mieth spiral chandelier seen from the bottom
Werner & Mieth (maker), Berlin, active 1792–1819. Spiral Chandelier for Jérôme Bonaparte, 1810–1811. Cast, chased and fire-gilded bronze (ormolu); cut and polished glass (H. 175 cm; W. 101 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Purchase with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott. 2014. Photo courtesy of Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, Hamburg, Germany.

Unfortunately for him, Jérôme Bonaparte would never get the chance to enjoy his beautiful spiral chandelier. It was delivered to Brunswick Castle but never installed because he was off fighting with his brother in Russia in 1812, and in 1813 allied Prussian and Russian troops took Kassel, the capital, and dissolved the cobbled-together Kingdom of Westphalia. Jérôme and his wife fled to France. The chandelier became property of the city, along with everything else in the castle, and was sold in the mid-1930s to a Hamburg family. That family has now sold it to the Toledo Museum of Art.

Spiral chandelier hanging in Gallery 31, seen from below with gallery lights shining through it
Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

 

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Digitized Freer|Sackler collections up and running

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

As promised, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s digitized collections went live on January 1st, 2015. The new website is called Open F|S and is populated with high resolution images of the museums’ 40,000 works of Asian art. You can search by keyword or browse by object type, topic, name, culture, place, date and whether it’s currently on display.

Just to take the database for a quick spin, I did a keyword search for “peacock” because I am thoroughly obsessed by the Peacock Room, originally a dining/Chinese porcelain display room in the London home of shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland that was lavishly decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-7. The entire room was purchased in 1904 by future museum founder Charles Lang Freer who had it installed in his Detroit home. It was moved to the new Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Freer’s death in 1919. All that moving wasn’t good for the room. Attempts to repair structural damage in the late 1940s neglected much of Whistler’s work, leaving colors darkened and patterns obscured. The room was returned to its early splendour by a punctilious cleaning and conservation in 1993 and is now on display in all its glory.

The Peacock Room exhibition page has a nice image gallery, but the photographs are too small to feast upon the details to my satisfaction. Those dark days are over now. The Open F|S entry on the Peacock Room has four huge pictures that you can click on to zoom in or that you can download.

The peacock search results pointed me to a wealth of other beautiful objects. The textiles are particularly fantastic to view in high resolution because you can see the details of the stitching and fabric, like in this late 18th century painting on silk by Mori Sosen. I also love seeing ceramics, like this gazelle vessel made in 12th-14th century Syria that is part of Freer’s ceramic collection on display in the Peacock Room, in extreme close-up because the cracks and flakes give you a whole new perspective on the glazing and design.

If you plan to enjoy this resource for browsing or to make art work of your own using the Freer and Sackler collection images, consider signing up as a beta tester. They are looking people willing and eager to go down the rabbit holes of this vast digital wonderland and report back on any issues. So far I’ve encountered a couple of minor weirdnesses — the zoom feature cutting the picture in half, difficulty clicking between the different Peacock Room images — but they were quickly resolved by refreshing. The only actual feature that I reported as questionable is that you can zoom past the native resolution which gives you a close-up view of a lot of pixellated, blurry edges. I think the zoom should max out at the highest res. Beta testers will also be given early access to future closed test versions of Open F|S which sounds like good clean fun to me.

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224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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