Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Neanderthals made jewelry from eagle talons 130,000 years ago

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

A set of white-tailed eagle talons recovered from the 130,000-year-old Krapina Neanderthal site in Croatia have multiple cut marks, notches and polished facets that indicate the talons were once mounted in a piece of jewelry. Individual talons thought to have been used as pendants have been found at Neanderthal sites before, but this group of eight talons collected from at least three eagles was used for a more elaborate ornament that likely held symbolic meaning. Crafted early in the Middle Paleolithic era long before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago, the talons are evidence that Neanderthals created complex ornaments with symbolic significance independently of any later interactions with Homo sapiens sapiens.

The eight talons and one pedal phalanx (the toe bone associated with one of the talons) were found in the same level of a rock shelter on Hušnjak hill, near the Croatian town of Krapina, that was excavated by Croatian paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger from 1899 to 1905. They were in the uppermost level which Gorjanović-Kramberger called the “Ursus spelaeus zone” because of its many cave bear bones. Although most of the Neanderthal bones were found more than halfway down site (level 4 on the diagram, labeled “Homo sapiens” because when it was drawn they hadn’t figured out yet that the bones belonged to another species of human), stone tools and one hearth were also found on the bear level confirming its use by Neanderthals. The entire site from top to bottom has a relatively short date span of about 10,000 years.

Only the cliff face is left today, but Gorjanović-Kramberger extensively documented and published the site and its contents — hundreds of Neanderthal bones and teeth, 2800 faunal remains, more than 800 stone tools — have been preserved at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb where he was head of the Geological-Paleontological Department. Davorka Radovcic was reviewing the Natural History Museum’s Krapina Neanderthal collection in late 2013 after she was appointed its curator when she noticed the cut marks on the phalanx bone from the eagle talon set. Radovcic realized that the marks were made by humans. An international study of the talons ensued, the results of which were published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study examined each bone in microscopic detail and found that four of the talons and the phalanx have multiple cut marks whose edges have been smoothed, eight talons have been polished and/or abraded and three have notches in approximately the same area. Those smooth edges are how we know the cuts weren’t the result of butchering. Other fauna in the rock shelter bears the sharp cut marks of the butchering process and none of them have smoothed edges. This was done deliberately, probably by wrapping the talon in a fiber of some kind. The shiny polished areas look like what happens when bone rubs against bone. The research team believes these are the tell-tale signs of the claws having been mounted in a necklace or bracelet.

At Krapina, cut marks on the pedal phalanx and talons are not related to feather removal or subsistence, so these must be the result of severing tendons for talon acquisition. Further evidence for combining these in jewelry is edge smoothing of the cut marks, the small polished facets, medial/lateral sheen and nicks on some specimens. All are a likely manifestation of the separating the bones from the foot and the attachment of the talons to a string or sinew. Cut marks on many aspects, but not the plantar surfaces, illustrate the numerous approaches the Neandertals had for severing the bones and mounting them into a piece of jewelry.

As in ethnohistoric-present societies, the Neandertals’ practice of catching eagles very likely involved planning and ceremony. We cannot know the way they were captured, but if collected from carcasses it must have taken keen eyes to locate the dead birds as rare as they were in the prehistoric avifauna. We suspect that the collection of talons from at least three different white-tailed eagles mitigates against recovering carcasses in the field, but more likely represents evidence for live capture. In any case, these talons provide multiple new lines of evidence for Neandertals’ abilities and cultural sophistication. They are the earliest evidence for jewelry in the European fossil record and demonstrate that Neandertals possessed a symbolic culture long before more modern human forms arrived in Europe.

Share

Rubens’ Three Magi reunited after 130 years

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Individual portraits of the Three Wise Men painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1618 are back together for the first time in 130 years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The three works, uniquely intimate bust views of the Biblical personages, are normally separated by many miles and one large ocean. Melchior, also known as the Assyrian King, is part of the permanent collection of the NGA while Gaspar, also known as the Oldest King, belongs to the Museo de Arte de Ponce near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Balthasar, the Moorish or Young King, is owned by the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. Melchior cannot leave the NGA by the terms of a bequest, so this is a unique opportunity to see all three of the original paintings together.

Rubens created the Three Magi on commission from Antwerp printing magnate Balthasar I Moretus after having painted the Adoration of the Magi the year before for the Church of St. John in Mechelen. Indeed there are marked similarities in the depictions of the Three Kings in the Adoration and in the ones he made for Moretus, but the individual portraits take a much more personal approach, starting with the fact that they’re in separate paintings at all when they whole point of them in terms of Christian iconography is for them to be together. There’s a reason for this.

Balthasar Moretus was head of the Officina Plantiniana (Plantin Press), a printing company founded by his grandfather Christophe Plantin which was the largest publisher in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. He had been close friends with Rubens since they were schoolkids and once he and his brother became heads of the company after their father’s death in 1610, Moretus regularly commissioned Rubens to make illustrations and title pages for Officina publications. He also commissioned 19 portraits of friends and family including ones of his deceased father and grandfather.

The Three Magi were an extension of those family portraits. Balthasar’s father Jan I Moretus had started at Plantin Press as an assistant when he was 15 years old and worked his way up the ladder to become Christophe Plantin’s indispensable right hand man. After his marriage to Plantin’s second daughter Martina, who ran a successful lace and linen business of her own, he became Plantin’s son-in-law and presumptive successor too. In a letter to his father, Jan explained that Moretus was the Latinized version of his last name Moerentorf and that he had chosen it as a reference to “Morus,” the Moorish king who was one of the Three Magi. He placed the king and the Star of Bethlehem on his insignia along with the motto “ratione recta” (“right reason”) because he held the star to be a symbol of reason.

He carried that theme into the family nomenclature when he and Martina named three of their 10 children after the Magi. Balthasar, obviously, was one of the three. When he became head of the Platin Press he took a page out of his father’s book, no pun intended, put the Star of Bethlehem into the company’s golden compass printer’s device and adopted the motto “stella duce” (“with the star as guide”). The Three Magi Rubens painted for him, therefore, were avatars of the brothers, the family and its vocation on top of their religious meaning.

Many of the portraits Rubens painted for the publishing dynasty still hang on the wall of the main gallery of Plantin-Moretus Museum, a museum dedicated to the Plantin Press and Plantin-Moretus families that is located in the Renaissance-style palace that housed both the family and the business from the 16th century through the late 19th. The lavishly decorated building and its extraordinary contents — Flemish Baroque Old Master paintings, rare books, the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world (from around 1600), complete sets of punches, dies, matrices, type in multiple languages and an almost unbroken archive of the Plantin Press business records from 1555 to 1876 — are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The Moretus family thankfully kept most everything that crossed the transom and, after Balthasar I expanded the house and annexed the printing shop to it, made few changes to the property until Edward Moretus sold the company to the city of Antwerp in 1876. Within a year it was a museum for the public to enjoy the gorgeousness of the home (never mind the priceless art on the wall, the woodwork is INSANE) and the utilitarian beauty of the printing offices. The Three Magi were long gone by then, however. The family had sold the Three Kings to Graaf Van de Werve de Vosselaer of Antwerp in 1781. They were still together until they were dispersed at the Paris auction of the John William Wilson collection in 1881.

The old king (Gaspar) and the middle-aged king (Melchior) went to the United States. Gaspar returned to Europe in 1962 where it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London. The Museo de Arte de Ponce was the buyer. Melchior was donated to the National Gallery of Art in 1943 by collector Chester Dale who bequeathed almost his entire art collection to the museum in 1962. Balthasar had a more troubling road. Somehow he found his way into the collection Hermann Goering amassed from the confiscation, coercive sale and outright theft of Jewish property and looting of occupied territories during the war. After that ugly spell, Balthasar became part of a private collection in Brussels before eventually being reacquired by the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

The Three Kings will be together again at the National Gallery of Art from March 17th through July 5th, 2015.

Share

Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

The construction of the high-speed Crossrail train line in London has generated the UK’s largest archaeological project. So far more than 10,000 artifacts spanning 55 million years of history have been unearthed at more than 40 worksites over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the city. This week, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) began to excavate the burial ground of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, next to the Liverpool Street railway station. While the hospital building began life as a priory in 1247, it was seized by the crown in the 1370s and by the early 1400s was detached from its religious roots and administered by the City of London as a hospital for the mentally ill.

This burial ground, known as the New Churchyard, was built in 1569 and was in use until at least 1738, spanning some prime years for death in London: the English Civil War, the Great Plague of 1665 (and three other major outbreaks of Bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666. Unaffiliated with any parish church, it was London’s first municipal burial ground. When the hospital itself moved to a new facility in Moorfields in 1676, the New Churchyard continued to be used as an overflow cemetery during mass death events, by people who could not afford or did not want (for religious or political reasons) a church burial.

A single trial pit dug in 2011 found more than 100 skeletons, and preliminary surveys in 2013 and 2014 found more than 400. Archaeologists predict there are at least 3,000 individuals buried on this site and they plan to unearth them all over the next few weeks. The excavation is going on while the eastern entrance of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station is being built, so surrounded with the noise and vibration of heavy construction, the MOLA team of 60 archaeologists will work in two shifts six days a week to dig through layer upon layer of skeletal remains. Right now they’ve dug down about a meter into the topmost layer and they’re finding individual burials were stacked on top of previous ones. When the wooden coffins decayed, the human remains pancaked downwards. Separating these bones pressed into each other over centuries is an arduous task, and they haven’t even gotten to the plague pits and mass graves in the lower layers.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks. The remains will be moved the MOLA laboratory for osteological examination and tests that will hopefully determine diet, work, demographics, geographic origin, sex, medical history and more of the thousands of people interred at Bedlam. Archaeologists hope that tests on plague victims will provide a new understanding of how the plague pathogen moved through the early modern population.

Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist said: “This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period City into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. The Bedlam burial ground was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the City.”

Identification of any of the remains is unlikely, to dramatically understate the case. Since the Bedlam burial ground didn’t keep its own records of who was buried there, 16 volunteers enlisted to scour the records of parish churches who made a note when parishioners were buried at “Bedlam” or “New Churchyard.” Archaeologists also appealed to the public for any family records, lore or anecdotes that might illuminate the history of the cemetery.

Here’s a video of researchers digging through the church registers at the London Metropolitan Archives. Keep your eye open for the “New Churchyard” annotations on the records.

When that video was shot, Jay Carver said they expected to find about 1,000 relevant burial records which would be used to help interpret the archaeological data from the dig and be compiled in a single database and made available to the public for genealogical or other research. Well, they left that already lofty goal in the dust. The final tally of names and histories of individuals buried at Bedlam cemetery was more than 5,000, an incredible accomplishment that testifies loudly to the dedication of the volunteers and the phenomenal record-keeping of 16th and 17th century churches and the London Metropolitan Archives.

According to the research Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and advisor to the First Duke of Buckingham, is among those buried at the site. Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques,’ noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

Plague was the most common listed form of death, followed by infant mortality and consumption. The burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which peaked that year.

The Bedlam Burial Ground Register can be searched on the Crossrail website.

Once the skeletons are fully excavated, the MOLA team will continue to dig down through the medieval marsh and lost Walbrook River to the Roman layer. Tunnelers installing utility cables 20 feet below the surface in 2013 encountered Roman artifacts and human remains. The Liverpool Street excavation is scheduled to finish in September after which construction on the station will begin on the site. The human remains will be reburied after they are studied.

Share

Dürer’s Arch of Maximilian I restored, on display

Monday, March 9th, 2015

The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I was created in 1515 by master printmaker Albrecht Dürer. It was one of three monumental works inspired by Roman imperial triumphs commissioned by the emperor to emphasize his family’s illustrious lineage, his political and military victories, his piety, strength and overall greatness. Two of them, the Arch and the Great Triumphal Chariot were designed by Dürer. For the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I alone, his workshop carved a total of 195 wood blocks, 171 of which survive at the Albertina in Vienna, which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper. (Dürer didn’t do any of the carving or printing himself. He did the drawing; Hieronymus Andreae of Nuremberg was Dürer’s blockcutter.) When placed together as a single artwork, the Arch is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″. It’s the largest woodcut created in the Renaissance and one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art has two complete sets of the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I prints. They were both stored in loose leaf form initially, until the 1860s when folklorist and art historian Just Matthias Thiele, director of the Royal Collection, had one of the two glued onto canvas so the masterpiece could be display in one huge billboard-sized artwork the way Dürer and the emperor had intended for it to be seen as part of what art historian Hyatt Mayor has called “Maximilian’s program of paper grandeur.” The canvas version was on display in the Prinsens Palæ (the Prince’s Mansion) in Copenhagen, then home to the Royal Collection of Graphic Art, and remained on display there when the Prinsens Palæ became the official home of the National Museum of Denmark in 1892.

After decades exposed to direct sunlight and unstable climactic conditions, the paper had discolored, darkened and deteriorated to the point where curators decided it was no longer fit for public display. It was taken down and placed in storage. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, now a department of the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), last year set SMK conservators to the arduous task of restoring the Arch in time for a major exhibition this spring.

Conservators analyzed the paper (flax and hemp fibers which means it was made of pulped clothes) and adhesives (boiled wheat paste, likely used in the mounting of the paper on the canvas, and animal skin glue likely used in the 16th century during the paper production process), examined the surface using raking light photography to reveal extensive damage to the paper (they found folds, tears, bulges, cracks) and ink. Transmitted-light photography found a watermark on the paper: a dual-headed eagle wearing the imperial crown, the Holy Roman Emperor’s coat of arms, which underscores how personally connected Maximilian I was to the project.

Once the analysis and documentation were done, the SMK conservators worked assiduously to clean the yellowed surface and stabilize the leaves. They used enzymes specifically targeted to break down the wheat paste adhesive without harming the original paper glue. Once the pages were removed from the canvas backing, conservators mended the myriad tears and folds that had developed over the centuries. They did this in public in an exhibition called Dürer under the Knife! which ran from September to December 2014 so visitors to the SMK could observe the marvels of conservation science in action on a massive piece of equally massive artistic and historical significance.

The restored Arch of Honour of Maximilian I is now on display at the Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service exhibition which runs from March 5th through June 21st of this year. If you can’t make it to Copenhagen by then, you can explore the cleaned and restored Arch in this huge zoomable image on the SMK website. There are a few annotations explaining the complex imagery, enough to make you wish there were about a thousand more of them. Also, it’s not as large or as sharp as the new one, but in case you, like me, can never get enough before-and-after pictures, here’s a zoomable image of the print before it was cleaned. It looks like it was soaked in black tea compared to the clean version.

Share

25th anniversary Gardner Museum theft virtual tour

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.

Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:

  1. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
  2. A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
  3. Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
  4. The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
  5. Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
  6. Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
  7. La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
  8. Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
  9. Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
  10. Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
  11. Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
  12. Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
  13. Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.

The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.

The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.

Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.

Share

Dallas Museum of Art acquires Mayan effigy vase sold by St. Louis Society

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the artifacts that was controversially put up for auction by the St. Louis Society of the American Institute for Archaeology last year has been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s the effigy vase from the Late Classic Era (700-900 A.D.) excavated at Quiriguá, Guatemala, in 1911. According to a December press release from the St. Louis Society, the vase was bought by a university museum, but the DMA is not affiliated with a university so either it passed through another set of hands over the last three months or the release was mistaken.

“We are delighted that the Maya effigy vase, a beautiful work of ancient American art, has found a new home in our institution,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA. “Given the art historical importance of this pre-Columbian vessel, its clearly documented provenance, and its cultural heritage in the Americas, the DMA deemed it important to maintain this historical vase within a public collection, one which offers free access to visitors interested in seeing it and to scholars for research and publication.”

“The vase is a stunning example of Late Classic Maya modeled ceramic art. Its acquisition both advances the DMA’s ancient Americas collection and offers a striking object for appreciating the diversity and refinement of Maya visual representation,” added Kimberly L. Jones, the Museum’s Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas.

Quiriguá was first explored by Europeans in 1840 when artist Frederick Catherwood, partner of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, sought out the rumored ruins on the banks of the Motagua River in southeastern Guatemala in 1840. They found monoliths, altars and a number of obelisk-like stelae elaborately carved on all four sides that remain to this day the tallest ever discovered in the Mayan world. Stela E, dedicated in 771 A.D. by the city-state’s greatest hero, King K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (meaning Cauac, or Rain/Storm, Sky), is almost 35 feet high and weighs 65 tons. It is the largest stone ever quarried by the Maya and is believed to be the largest free-standing carved monolith in the Americas.

The carving on Stela E celebrated K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat greatest victory, the defeat, capture and beheading of King Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit) of Copán. For centuries before then Quiriguá had been a vassal state of Copán, so when Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit in 738 A.D., he won his kingdom’s independence. The victory had larger political implications for the power balance of the region. Copán was allied to the Mayan superpower state of Tikal. Historians believe that Cauac Sky’s rebellion was fomented by Calakmul, Tikal’s rival superpower to the north. After Copán’s defeat, Quiriguá controlled the trade of precious stones and other goods on the lower Montagua River, the main trade route linking the Caribbean and Mayan central America.

K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat ruled from 724 to 785 A.D. In the 37 years between Quiriguá’s independence and the death of the king, he commissioned many of the stelae, zoomorphs, altars, etc. that make the site such a spectacular example of Mayan stonework. He probably got the stonecutters from Copán, in fact, since there is an absence of carved inscriptions in Copán for 20 years after the city’s defeat.

Catherwood’s drawings of the stelae with their hieroglyphs, zoomorphs, kings and Mayan calendar dates coupled with Stephens’ account of their travels introduced the wider public to Mayan art and architecture when they were published the next year in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. British Diplomat and archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay explored Quiriguá on repeated trips in 1881, 1882, 1883 and 1894. He and his team cleared some of the jungle brush to reveal more works and used techniques like making plaster casts of the stone monuments and taking pictures with dry-plate photography (only introduced to the market in 1878). There’s a selection of pictures from Maudslay’s excavations in the Alfred P. Maudslay collection of the Brooklyn Museum. You can also leaf through his pictures, maps and drawings of Quiriguá in volume 2 of Maudslay’s five-volume compendium Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the knowledge of the fauna and flora of Mexico and Central America published in 1889.

In 1909, the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America funded three seasons of fieldwork at Quiriguá by Edgar Hewett, director of the newly-founded School of American Archaeology (SAA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and SAA archaeologist Sylvanus Morley. Hewett and Morley’s excavations cleared even more of the jungle and unearthed two major structures Hewett termed the First and Second Temples. Temple 1 is far more significant architecturally, with complex carvings on the inside and outside walls. Temple 2 is small and sparsley decorated, but it’s the earliest of the structures in the Quiriguá Acropolis and was found to contain artifacts distinctly superior to those found in Temple 1 both in quantity and quality.

According to Morley’s publication of the finds in the March 1913 issue of National Geographic, the most exceptional find from all three seasons of excavations was the effigy vase found in Temple 2 during the 1911-2 season. Discovered broken in more than a dozen pieces, once the object was put back together its quality made it the stand-out piece and for decades it regularly made an appearance in published studies of Mayan art. Hewett and Morley gave the effigy along with a Zapotec figural urn excavated at Monte Albán, Mexico, to the St. Louis Society in gratitude for their funding.

The Maya effigy vase was on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum until 1980 when it was removed to make way for a donation of Mesoamerican artifacts by Morton D. May. The effigy was then put in storage at Washington University until the St. Louis Society decided to sell it at a Bonhams auction in November of last year.

Share

Two uknown Cézanne sketches found on back of watercolors

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Unfinished sketches have been discovered on the back of watercolors by Paul Cézanne in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The watercolors, previously on display in room 20 of the Collection Gallery, had been out of their frames before, but the backs were hidden behind brown paper. It was that brown paper backing, ironically, that spurred the discovery of what it had been hiding for a century a so.

Brown paper is highly acidic. Over time the acid migrates from the backing into the original paper medium causing it to darken and become brittle. The Barnes Foundation knew that five Cézanne watercolor landscapes needed to have the brown paper backing removed and in January of 2014, all five of them were sent as part of a group of 22 works to the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), also in Philadelphia, for treatment.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

CCAHA paper conservator Gwenanne Edwards was painstakingly removing the backing from the 1885-1886 watercolor entitled The Chaîne de l’Etoile Mountains with a microspatula when she saw swirls of blue and green and some pencil lines. Once the backing was entirely removed, an unfinished sketch of trees done in pencil and then accented with watercolors was revealed. It’s hard to determine exactly what the subject is since the sketch is so incomplete, possibly a path winding through trees with a square well in the center. The bottom right corner has a pencil note on it, an “X” and the word “Non” with what appears to be a question mark after it. This is not the work of the artist; it’s probably a notation from a dealer on whether its saleable.

Behind the backing of the second watercolor, Trees, conservators found a much more detailed graphite-only sketch of a manor house and farmhouse with a mountain in the background. Denis Coutagne, president of the Société Paul Cezanne in Provence, researched the drawing and identified the location as the Pilon du Roi peak in the same Massif de l’Etoile mountain range in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, depicted in the first watercolor. This was one of Cézanne’s favorite locations which he painted and drew many times over.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

It was not uncommon for Cézanne to work on both sides of the paper in his sketchbooks and on larger, individual sheets such as these, and over the course of his career he produced thousands of drawings, some of which were done in preparation for oil paintings, but most often they were a place to experiment with line and color. “These sketches offer a window into Cezanne’s artistic process, which is truly invaluable,” said Barbara Buckley, Senior Director of Conservation and Chief Conservator of Paintings at the Barnes Foundation.

The five brown paper-backed watercolors were acquired by millionaire chemist and eccentric art collector Albert Barnes in 1921. The seller was Leo Stein, author Gertrude Stein‘s brother, who between 1904 and 1914 had built with his sister an exceptional collection of modernist works in their shared apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. Leo Stein was a particular devotee of Cézanne, so much so that when they dissolved their household and split up the collection in 1914, Leo let Gertrude have all the Picassos and most of the Matisses but insisted on keeping Cézanne’s small 4 3⁄4 by 10-inch oil painting Five Apples (now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw).

Leo Stein and Albert Barnes had been friends for years at the time of the sale, bonded by their shared love of art. When financial difficulties forced Stein to sell some of his collection, he asked Barnes to arrange the sale of some pieces in the United States. Barnes wrote to Stein that he had been unable to find buyers for the five watercolor landscapes because nobody he had contacted “seems to think they are sufficiently important to want to own them.” We can’t be sure whether that was in fact the case or if Barnes was being economical with the truth in order to score a bargain, but the final result was Barnes acquiring all five for $100 each.

There is no evidence in the correspondence that either Stein or Barnes had any idea there were sketches on the back of two of them. Given the probable dealer pencil markings on one of the sketches, it’s likely that the backs of the watercolors had already been covered with paper before Stein bought them.

The newly discovered sketches will be on display in double-sided frames in the second floor classroom of the Barnes Foundation from April 10th through May 18th, after which they will return to their former one-sided display in Room 20. This is an extremely rare opportunity to see anything at all from the Barnes collection not in its assigned location. Barnes left very strict, very specific instructions on the management of the art in Foundation’s charter. One of the rules is all the works have to be displayed exactly where Barnes chose to display them, never moved, never removed, never sold, never loaned. Even taking down works for conservation purposes requires the permission of the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Barnes arranged his art the way he liked it, a configuration he felt most in keeping with his Deweyite educational principles. The Foundation was to be an educational institution for students of art, not a museum for the general public.

Those rules have since been challenged by the foundation’s board, most notably in the controversial decision to break Albert Barnes’ will and move the entire collection from Barnes’ home in Merion, five miles outside of Philadelphia, to a new, larger facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in metro Philly. The excellent but agonizing 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal (available on Netflix streaming or for rent on Amazon Instant) covered the shenanigans involved. You can read the Barnes Foundation’s rebuttal to the documentary here.

Share

CT scan reveals mummy inside Buddha statue

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

A 11th or 12th century statue of a meditating Buddha with a perfectly posed mummy inside received a revelatory CT scan last September at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, central Netherlands.

The statue arrived in the country as part of the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, northeastern Netherlands. This was the first time the reliquary was allowed to leave China and it’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has ever been made available for scientific research in the West.

The exhibition ran from May to August, after which the statue was taken to the medical center for CT scanning by Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin. Under the careful supervision of Brujin, radiologist Ben Heggelman ran the statue on its back through the CT scanner and took samples of bone tissue for DNA analysis. Gastrointestinal and liver disease specialist Raynald Vermeijden used an endoscope to sample material of an unknown nature from the mummy’s thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Several news stories have incorrectly described the mummy as a shocking discovery, but it was known to be inside the statue all along. Not to state the obvious, but that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition. The research team did make one surprise find: the cavities where the organs once resided are stuffed with pieces of paper that have ancient Chinese characters written on them.

The mummy is believed to be that of the Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, or Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan) Buddhism. He died around 1100 A.D., which is the source of the date for the statue. The Drents Museum exhibited the statue as an example of self-mummification, a grueling, torturous, years-long process in which Buddhist monks gradually starved, dehydrated and poisoned themselves in the hope of attaining enlightenment and leaving an incorruptible corpse. It required an almost inconceivable degree of self-abnegation. For the first 1,000 days they ate only nuts and seeds gleaned from the area around the temple. The next 1,000 days the diet was whittled down to small portions of pine bark and roots until the end of the period when they began to drink a tea made from the sap of urushi tree. This sap is what lacquer is made of; it is toxic to humans. The tea induced the release of fluids and made the body unappetizing to insects and microorganisms that would otherwise be inclined feast on the corpse.

With no body fat or fluids left and poison in his tissues, the monk would then be walled alive in a room that gave him just enough space to sit lotus style. A tube let air into the tight space and the monk would ring a bell to let people know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the space sealed for another three years. When the 1,000 days were up, the tomb would be opened to see if the body was in fact mummified. If it wasn’t, and most of them weren’t, it was buried with due respect for the unbelievable toughness and devotion of the priest who made the attempt. If it was, the deceased would no longer be considered dead but in a state of eternal meditation, removed from the cycle of Samsara. He was elevated to the rank of Buddha, his mummy dressed and decorated and placed on an altar.

The practice as described above was codified by Kuukai of Mount Koya, Japan, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He is thought to have learned it while studying esoteric Buddhist practices in the T’ang region of China. Most examples of self-mummification have been found in the Yamagata Prefecture in Japan, but there are instances in China and India as well. The thing is, there is no removal of organs in this procedure. If the mummy in the Buddha statue did indeed self-mummify, his organs must have been removed after death, and I can’t see how it could have been done three years later. There’s a different process at work in the Buddha statue mummy.

I hope the scan and tests will get some answers about how he died and was mummified. The results of the research will be published in a monograph at an unscheduled future date. The exhibition is now in the Hungarian Natural History Museum where it will remain until May. After that it will travel to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden concluding in Wales in 2018.

Share

Ohio museum returns 16th c. astrolabe to Germany

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. Last month the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) announced it had acquired Napoleon’s brother’s exquisite spiral chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer. Two days ago the museum announced it would voluntarily return an exquisite 16th century astronomical instrument to the Gotha Museum in Germany after being presented with evidence that the object had been stolen from the museum after World War II.

The instrument is a multi-use device known as an astrological compendium made by Augsburg craftsman Christopher Schissler in 1567.
Schissler was considered the greatest of Augsburg’s instrument makers, crafting pieces of the highest quality from precious materials for the likes of August I, the Elector of Saxony, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. Only around 100 instruments made by Christopher Schissler are known to have survived. This particular one was made for the Kunstkammer of Rudolf’s court in Prague. Rudolf was fascinated by mechanical devices and gave Schissler, along with other top instrument makers, access to court astronomers so they could be apprised of the latest research. He supported them financially and encouraged them to develop new designs and mechanisms.

This device is very much a show-off piece, a showcase for its owner’s wealth and scientific knowledge. Made from gilded bronze and enamel, it’s an astrolabe, but it also has a variety of other functions. The outside cover is a sun dial, the inside cover a map of the world from which a plumb-bob can be hung to calculate angle of inclination. Interior compartments include a wind rose, a compass, a lunary (a device to calculate the time based on the moon), a perpetual calendar and a zodiac showing which signs govern which days. It is inscribed along its octagonal edges “CHRISTOPHORUS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AUGUSTAE VINDELICORUM – ANNO DOMINI 1567″ (Christopher Schissler made this, Augsburg ― Anno Domini 1567).

Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Schissler Compendium remained in Prague Castle until 1620 when it was taken as plunder by the forces of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, after their victory against Frederick I, King of Bohemia, at the Battle of the White Mountain, one of the early clashes of the Thirty Years’ War. It was taken to Munich. Twelve years later, it was plundered again, this time by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who invaded Bavaria and in May of 1632, took Munich. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle later that year and after his ally Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar died in 1639, the spoils from Bavaria were divided among the survivors. The Schissler Compendium went to Bernhard’s brother Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who installed it in his collection at Gotha.

Inventory records from the 19th century indicate the instrument stayed put in the collection of the Dukes of Gotha at Friedenstein Castle for 300 years. When the palace was converted to a museum, the compendium went on display alongside a larger astrolabe by Schissler. Much of the collection was moved during World War II for safekeeping and returned after the war was over. Thuringia was occupied by American forces for a few months after the end of the war, and then the Soviets took over. They took many of the Gotha Museum treasures to the Soviet Union only to return them after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. We know that the Schissler Compendium was not among the art and artifacts returned to the museum by the Soviets.

So somewhere in the chaos of wars world and cold, the instrument made its way to New York art dealers and thence to Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo Museum of Art had no knowledge of its checkered past until May of 2013 when Dr. Martin Eberle, director of the Gotha Museum, wrote them a letter about the astrolabe. He included considerable documentary and photographic evidence that Toledo’s Schissler Compendium and the Gotha Museum’s Schissler Compendium were the same piece. After a couple of months spent reviewing the documentation, TMA Director Dr. Brian Kennedy wrote back to Dr. Eberle acknowledging that it seemed their astrolabe was the one stolen from the German museum.

The institutions negotiated for a year after that, planning the repatriation of the object and the loan of artifacts from the Gotha collection to the Toledo Museum of Art in exchange. They still haven’t decided which pieces will be loaned, but they’ll sort that out in due course. Meanwhile, repatriation is nigh, tentatively scheduled for March or April of this year.

Kudos to the TMA for returning the piece. There’s no legal requirement that they do so. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property does not apply, nor do the protocols regarding Nazi loot. This was entirely an ethical choice they made because they think it’s the right thing to do.

[U]nlike earlier cases, this is one that involves no government bureaucracy or complications raised by potential thieves or distributors awaiting trial. It is, as Mr. Kennedy noted, simply an agreement between two museums to get a historically valuable piece back to its rightful owner.

“We’ve recognized there’s been a cultural shift in how museums conduct themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s much more scrutiny in how museums obtain their objects and transparency now.”

He said the TMA had made it museum policy over the past 10 years to look harder into the ownership history of every piece.

“This was a one-of-a-kind scientific device,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s not ours.”

Share

Rare Roman cremation burial finds go on display

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Last October, John Steele was scanning a field in Whitchurch, north of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, at a Weekend Wanderers metal detecting group rally when he discovered some fragments of iron and copper alloy artifacts. There were also pieces of red Samian ware vessels, an indication that the site may have been an ancient burial. The group alerted Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrell. Buckinghamshire County Council archaeologist Eliza Alqassar realized this could be a significant discovery and commissioned Oxford Archaeology to excavate the find site.

The excavation was challenging. Soil conditions were difficult and the earth had been churned up by heavy farming machinery leaving some artifacts so crushed and dispersed that it was hard to figure out what they were. Oxford Archaeology spent three days excavating and documenting the site. They found iron nails and organic deposits indicating there had once been a wooden burial casket 3’7″ long and 2’4″ wide buried at the site. The wooden structure of the casket has decayed, but it contents survived: a bronze jug with a decorated handle, two Samian ware cups, two Samian ware dishes, a pottery flagon, two glass vessels, a bronze patera (a shallow libation bowl), an iron lamp or lamp holder, two unidentified lead objects and a cremation urn.

The cremation urn was in such bad condition that archaeologists lifted the entire soil block around it for excavation back at the Oxford Archaeology lab. Inside the urn were iron hobnails from a shoe, a red jasper intaglio engraved with the goddess Minerva and a smaller figure, possibly Mercury, holding up a wreath. The cremated bone fragments belonged to an adult, possibly female, buried in the 2nd century.

The wealth and rare combination of artifacts suggest she was someone of high status. Burials from this period containing objects in a variety of metals, glass and ceramics are very rare. There are only a handful of comparable rich cremation burials found to contain glass and bronze artifacts and lamps all unearthed in southeastern England (this burial in Wendover found in 2000 is comparable down to the original discovery by metal detectorists). The Whitchurch find is the westernmost of these burials. The iron lamp or lamp holder is also a rare find. The bronze jug handle, elaborately decorated at the base with a sacro-idyllic scene of figures worshipping at an altar that has no known parallels. It’s a unique piece of national importance, especially since it was properly excavated in a dated and documented context.

In the months since the discovery, three artifacts have been cleaned and conserved: the bronze jug handle, one of the Samian cups and the jasper intaglio. The three of them will be on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury for the next three months in a bid to raise interest and funds for thorough conservation of the rest of the metal artifacts. They need £3,000 to clean and stabilize the objects so they’re suitable for permanent display and for publication.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

March 2015
S M T W T F S
« Feb    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication