Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

16th c. soldier found in Lithuanian lake

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Underwater archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 16th century man and his kit at the bottom of Lake Asvejas in eastern Lithuania. The skeletal remains were found at a depth of 30 feet near Dubingiai Bridge, one of the longest wooden bridges still in use in Lithuania. Marine archaeologists uncovered bones, an iron sword, two knives with wooden handles and a spur. The armaments suggest the individual was a soldier. It is the first discovery of its kind in Lithuania.

This was not a burial. No evidence has been found yet indicating how he died, but whatever caused his demise, his body sank to the bottom of the lake. All of the bones were found in situ. Protected by a layer of clay and sand sediment, some of the young man’s accessories also managed to survive– his leather boots and fragments of a thin leather belt.

The lakebed was being surveyed before structural work replacing the bridge’s rotting wood beams with metal ones. Archaeologists and amateur divers worked together to survey the site. The remains were found during an inspection of the bridge’s supports.

A previous survey in 1998 had revealed that another bridge once stood in the same place, dating to the 16th or 17th century — around the time that the medieval soldier died, [marine archaeologist Elena] Pranckėnaitė added.

“For now, we assume that those discovered human remains could be linked with the former bridge leading to Dubingiai castle, which was situated on the hilltop on the shore of Asveja Lake,” she said.

The human remains have been recovered and now being studied at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University. The archaeological material is being conserved and analyzed by experts at the National Museum of Lithuania.


Llama sacrifices as tools of imperial assimilation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020

Excavations at the Inca city of Tambo Viejo on the south coast of Peru have unearthed natural mummies of llamas that were ritually sacrificed and left as depository offerings. The discovery establishes Tambo Viejo, a new settlement founded in the Acari Valley by the Inca, as a regionally important locus of religious practice, an administrative center created by the Inca as a cultural foothold in a newly conquered area.

The Inca worshiped a diverse pantheon of deities connected to phenomena (thunder, rain), astronomy (sun, moon), the earth, topographical features (rivers, caves) as well as their ancestors. All gods and ancestors received sacrificial offerings and ritual offerings were performed very frequently. The most common sacrificial offerings were llamas and guinea pigs.

The llama was of enormous importance to the Inca economy, from their wool to their feces to their stamina and agility in carrying loads over mountains. The emperor in Cuzco frequently walked around with his white llama and the Inca Empire’s state herds are reported to have numbered in the millions.

They needed a large supply to keep up with demand for sacrifice. The Spanish chronicles described mass sacrifices in which hundreds of llamas were killed and their meat eaten in a community feast. They were sacrificed at planting time, at harvest time, to make it rain, to make it stop raining and in honor of ancestors. When things got really bad and big blood was deemed necessary to appease the gods, llamas were sacrificed by the thousands. There is archaeological evidence of mass animal sacrifices, including at Tambo Viejo.

Excavations in 2018 focused on two structures on the north end of Tambo Viejo. One brown llama was found in the center of the smaller building. It was a single burial. The larger building had four llamas (one brown, three white) buried in the center of the room. All had been buried under the floors with their heads facing the east. The llamas were all very young, neonoates to sub-adults.

The brown llama in the individual burial was missing its head and he was probably moved. The bones of infant camelids were seen on the surface in this area, so the building may have been rifled through by looters. There were more bones in the second building as well, so this was a larger sacrifice than just the mummified individuals.

The llamas were accessorized with long camelid fiber strings. The fibers were brightly died in red, green, yellow and purple and groups of each color were tied to the llamas’ ears at the tip like tassels. The llamas also wore string necklaces around their necks in matching colors. The longest strings (found on one of the white llamas) are 14 inches long; the shortest (found on the brown single burial) are three inches. The white llamas were also painted: a red dot on top of their heads and red lines from eyes to nose. They were buried with decorated guinea pigs, tropical bird feathers and food offerings including maize and black lima beans.

There is no evidence on the remains of how they were killed. Sacrificial llama remains found at other sites have shown signs of sharp cuts through the throat or into the diaphragm to remove the heart and fatal blows to the head. The Tambo Viejo llamas had their legs bent under them and were trussed up, so it’s possible they were buried alive.

Radiocarbon analysis of charcoal samples from the burials date the llamas to between 1432 and 1459. If the dates are accurate, that means the Inca took over the Acari Valley decades before 1476, the year when the conquest of the area was previously believed to have taken place.

As the Inka expanded from their Cuzco heartland, they interacted with groups who were culturally and linguistically diverse, and whose final annexation produced the great cultural fusion that characterised the Inka Empire (Morris & Thompson 1985: 24). The Inka sought to understand the economic potential of the lands and peoples brought into their empire, and to create reciprocal relationships with the newly conquered subjects.

The Inka presence probably disturbed the extant socio-cultural conditions, which the Inka attempted to normalise by befriending the locals and providing gifts and food to the conquered peoples, while also acknowledging the local huacas and gods. The Inka believed that it was not possible to take something without giving something back; this implied that the annexation of peoples and their lands required an exchange to normalise the otherwise abnormal situation. This was especially the case with groups who were annexed peacefully, such as the inhabitants of the Acari Valley. Inka recognition of local deities was a necessary step to guarantee a long-lasting relationship between the conquerors and the conquered. […]

It remains unclear whether the land within which Tambo Viejo was established had any earlier religious significance. It is evident, however, that the Inka either reinforced its religious connotations or transformed the location into one that was ritually important. As the evidence from Tambo Viejo illustrates, Inka rituals performed in the provinces aimed to project and magnify the importance of Inka ideology and religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of brown llamas to Viracocha and white llamas to the Sun. Such rituals conducted at Tambo Viejo therefore epitomised Inka imperial ideology. The llama and guinea pig offerings are the material manifestations of ritual celebrations performed at the site. Ultimately, all of these ritual acts enabled the Inka to legitimise their presence in the Acari Valley.


Refurbished Raphael Cartoon Court reopens

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

The Raphael Court, the V&A gallery dedicated to the seven surviving tapestry cartoons created by Raphael, will reopen in November after a nine-month refurbishment. They’re getting in right under the wire to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death (April 6th, 1520). The upgraded Raphael Court features acoustic paneling, new furniture for more comfortable contemplation of the masterpieces and new LED lighting that reduces glare on the glass and massively improves their visibility.

The cartoons depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1513. He wanted monumental tapestries to decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, but to be worthy of the glorious frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and wall behind the altar, the tapestries had to be designed by the greatest artist of the era instead of the staff designers in the workshop of Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst. Raphael produced 10 elaborate cartoons the full size of the tapestries: 10 feet high and between 10 and 16 feet wide. The designs were rich in character, landscape and architectural detail and Raphael painted them with the same complex palette he used in all his works.

Tapestry cartoons were ephemera, used as weaving templates until they wore out. They were not considered artworks worthy of preservation, and even Raphael’s were only kept because van Aelst used them to make copies of the tapestries for other clients. By the early 1600s, only seven were left. They were acquired by the then-Prince of Wales (future Charles I) for £300, and managed to survive the Civil War, the Cromwellian Commonwealth and the Restoration. In 1865, Queen Victoria lent them to the South Kensington Museum in memory of her late lamented husband. That museum is now named after her and said husband.

In order to display them in a space suited to their original context, the V&A built the Raphael Court is almost identical in proportion to the Sistine Chapel. The gallery was last refurbished in the early 90s.

The work on the infrastructure took place with the cartoons in situ as they are far too fragile to get moved around (as are the tapestries they were used to create, now in the collection of the Vatican but almost never displayed). Researchers were able to take advantage of the nine months to unframe the works, scan their surfaces in high-resolution 3D, use infrared imagining and composite photography to enhance our understanding of this unique group of monumental works by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. The 3D scans are of special interest with the cartoons because they were punctured in order to transfer the image in the tapestry, giving them a unique texture compared to other drawings and paintings.

All of this new data will be invaluable to researchers and conservators in the study and care of the cartoons. They are also being used to create new interactive features for visitors to the museum to access via QR codes or directly from the V&A’s website.

Imagery and a suite of new interactive interpretation will be available online, accessed in the gallery via QR codes, allowing visitors to engage with the interpretation on site using their own devices. Visitors will be able to zoom in and discover the design and making of the Cartoons and Raphael’s extraordinary creative process through detailed imagery and interactive features that highlight the significance and status of the Cartoons in multiple ways. Stories told will include the Cartoons’ function as full-scale tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel, the ingenuity of Raphael and his workshop and their design process, the rescue, life and status of the Cartoons in England from their arrival in the 17th century, and the fascination they have provoked since then up to the present day. A new publication, edited by Dr Ana Debenedetti, will further contextualise the creation and afterlife of the Cartoons, shedding light on Raphael’s artistic practice and the organisation of his large workshop, the fate of the tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel, and the rediscovery and reception of the Cartoons, especially in Britain.

Dr Ana Debenedetti, Lead Curator of the Raphael Project and Curator of Paintings at the V&A said:

“The set of seven surviving tapestry Cartoons by Raphael comprise a unique Renaissance treasure, both in terms of aesthetic value and technical achievement. Cutting-edge technology, provided by Factum Foundation, offered non-invasive methods of studying such canonical works of art by allowing us to look beneath the visible layers of paint and discover Raphael’s creative process. It is a feast for the eye to be able to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of these monumental drawings which are over 500 years old. We look forward to sharing this enhanced experience with our visitors when the gallery reopens in November to mark Raphael’s 500th anniversary.”


Hyper-resolution Night Watch

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

Last year, the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, the Rijksmuseum launched a major project to conserve The Night Watch, crafting a state-of-the-art analysis and treatment program to learn everything possible about Rembrandt’s largest and most famous masterpiece — how it was made, with what materials, how best to repair and maintain it going forward. They built a custom glass enclosure so visitors could see the museum’s most famous masterpiece during the operation.

Operation Night Watch was still in the study phase when the museum was closed in March. Analysis resumed on May 13th with new safety protocols for the team working in the glass enclosure. The restoration process, initially scheduled to begin in the fall of 2020, has been pushed back to early next year.

Meanwhile, the Rijksmuseum has posted regular updates on the study since it began last summer. There are fascinating articles on the discoveries thus far, including the pigments Rembrandt used and the chemical composition of the painting mapped using Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy. (Spoilers: Rembrandt painted over feathers that used to be on the helmets of the watchmen in the background and he used arsenic in the gold embroidery of Willem van Ruytenburch’s yellow doublet. Other Dutch artists used arsenic in still lives. He was the first to introduce it to portraiture.) 

There are also some nifty videos. Here’s a timelapse of how they moved the colossal work to its temporary location:

This is a timelapse of the construction of the glass enclosure:

Most recently, the team created the most detailed photograph of The Night Watch ever taken. They have digitized it so everyone in the world can examine Rembrandt’s brushstrokes down to the tiniest crack.

The Rijksmuseum’s imaging team made this photograph of The Night Watch from a total of 528 exposures. The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks. The final image is made up of 44.8 gigapixels (44,804,687,500 pixels), and the distance between each pixel is 20 micrometres (0.02 mm). This enables the scientists to study the painting in detail remotely. The image will also be used to accurately track any future ageing processes taking place in the painting.

Dive as deep you like into The Night Watch here


Conservators discover Michelangelo’s tool marks on Pietà

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

Conservation of the Bandini Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s last sculptures and one of his most striking (in more ways than one), has revealed previously unknown details from its violent creation. Under centuries of grime, restorers found everything from the artist’s original chisel marks to colors left behind in past work on the white marble.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the organization which manages the works in the collection of the Duomo Museum, began a comprehensive cleaning and conservation program last November. This is the first true restoration of the sculptural group in its nearly 500-year history. Work, rudely interrupted by you-know-what, has resumed. The thorough cleaning of the surface has been completed on the back of the sculpture and is in its initial phases on the front.

Ongoing diagnostic surveys have provided information considered to be fundamental for the knowledge of the work and its restoration: there is no historic patina with the exception of traces found at the base of the sculpture, something that is still being investigated. The presence of elevated quantities of chalk from the cast executed in the 1800s has instead been confirmed. These results have led to cleaning operations first and then to start the intervention at the back. The waxes present on the surface, including those from candles that were used on the main altar of Florence’s cathedral where the sculpture was kept for over 220 years, were removed with a scalpel.

According to his Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo began the sculpture on his own with no commission. It was 1547. He was in his early 70s and painting frescoes had become too strenuous for him. Chiseling four figures out of a hunk of Carrara marble eight feet high, on the other hand, was just a good way to pass the time and stay fit. Unlike his first and most famous Pietà now in St. Peter’s Basilica which features a youthful Virgin Mary with the body of Christ draped across her ample lap, the dominant figure is that of Nicodemus who stands behind the limp, twisted body of Jesus, helping Mary the Mother (right) and Mary Magdalene (left) support the dead Christ. Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb, and purportedly the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait.

Papal and Medici projects for churches, palaces and bridges constantly interrupted his work on the sculpture and the piece itself became an exercise in frustration as he encountered constant flaws in the hard marble that made it impossible to complete as he’d envisioned. Vasari said it was so “full of emery” that the chisel set off sparks. He also said that Michelangelo had by this point in his life become such a terminal perfectionist that he never completed any sculpture to his satisfaction, that all his finished works were done in his youth, and even then if it had been up to him he never would have turned them over to his patrons.

Finally one evening in 1555, Michelangelo’s frustration boiled over. One of the Madonna’s elbows had broken when he was working on it. Michelangelo then deliberately broke of other body parts from the statue. His servant Antonio stopped him from completely smashing it to pieces and asked the master to give it to him as is. Antonio sold all the pieces of the broken group to the Florentine banker Francesco Bandini who enlisted Tiberio Calcagni, a sculptor and a collaborator of Michelangelo’s, to put the Pietà back together again as much as possible and fill in any blanks he could.

Calcagni’s work from around 1565 was the last clearly identifiable intervention on sculpture until the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore’s project. The conservation was performed in public view at the museum before the pandemic shut them down. Starting September 21st, guided tours of no more than five visitors will be allowed to view the work in progress.


Raphael recreated lost Egyptian blue pigment

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

Egyptian blue, the world’s first known synthetic pigment, was used for thousands of years starting around 2600 B.C. The Romans called it caeruleum (the source of the English word cerulean). Vitruvius included a recipe for it in De architectura, Book VII, Chapter 11:

Sand is ground with flowers of sulphur, till the mixture is as fine as flour, to which coarse filings of Cyprian copper are added, so as to make a paste when moistened with water; this is rolled into balls with the hand, and dried. The balls are then put into an earthen vessel, and that is placed in a furnace. Thus the copper and sand heating together by the intensity of the fire, impart to each other their different qualities, and thereby acquire their blue colour.

The knowledge of how to make Egyptian blue was lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vitruvius’ works were rediscovered in a Swiss monastery library in 1414 and first published in Latin in 1486. The lost recipe of Egyptian Blue, however, would not be rediscovered until the early 19th century when chemist Humphry Davy found lumps of it in the ruins of the Baths of Titus in Rome and discovered its chemical formula (calcium copper silicate). Or so we thought.

A new study of Raphael’s fresco The Triumph of Galatea, in Rome’s Villa Farnesina, has found that the Renaissance master recreated Egyptian blue for this work, and as far as we know, this work alone. Using non-invasive macro-X-ray fluorescence (MAXRF), researchers discovered to their surprise that the blue of the sea and sky were calcium copper silicate.

The Villa Farnesina was built for banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II and the richest man in Rome, by architect Baldassare Peruzzi. Construction was completed in 1512 but the frescoing of its interior began as soon as the walls were done in 1511. Chigi commissioned the greatest artists of his time for the job. Besides Raphael,  Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Bazzi, aka Il Sodoma.

Raphael painted The Triumph of Galatea on the wall of the loggia, a grand space that was originally the main entrance hall of the villa. It depicts the Nereid Galatea standing on a seashell drawn by two dolphin steeds while winged Cupids aim their arrows at her. A neighboring panel by del Piombo depicts the Cyclops Polyphemus who kills Galatea’s beloved, the shepherd Acis, in a jealous rage.

Galatea was completed around 1514, seven years before the first Italian edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura was published. In a letter purportedly written by Raphael to his friend Baldassare Castiglione, the artist thanked the courtier for his compliments on Galatea and linked his painted to the forms of antiquity illuminated by Vitruvius. The letter is a copy and of uncertain authenticity, but it is certain that Raphael and other Renaissance artists had read Vitruvius and been hugely influenced by him.

None of the other Raphael frescoes of Villa Farnesina use Egyptian Blue. His Cupid and Psyche fresco cycle on the ceiling of the loggia has a vast blue background, all made out of lapis lazuli pigment. That fresco has been digitized and can be explored here, btw. There are annotations explaining the incredible proliferation of botanical motifs surrounding the scenes from Greek mythology


Rats are excellent historic preservationists

Monday, August 17th, 2020

The moated brick manor house of Oxburgh Hall has been through a myriad cycles of growth, decline, expansion, dereliction and reconstruction since it was first built in 1482 by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld. It came within a hair’s breadth of demolition in 1952 before it was saved at the very last minute by Lady Sybil Bedingfeld who gave it the National Trust. It is currently undergoing a £6million program of repairs to the roof, structural timbers and tiles, 14 dormer windows and its 27 brick chimneys. It is a massive feat of engineering (wrapping a building surrounded by a moat that cannot be drained in full scaffolding is … tricky) and conservation.

The work on the roof is so extensive that temporary roofing was rigged to allow all of the 17,000+ tiles and coverings to be removed for structural work on the timbers. The floorboards were painstakingly lifted, numbered and removed, exposing the underfloor for the first time in centuries. The floorboards date to a Victorian-era renovation, but builders at the time simply laid them over the 16th and 17th century ceilings, leaving the underfloors entirely undisturbed. Archaeologists expected to find some old discarded fragments under the floors — newspapers, candy wrappers, buttons, pins — and their expectations were quickly met when they discovered a box of Terry’s Gold Leaf chocolates, complete with all the packaging and wrappers, missing only the chocs themselves.

A few weeks later they found some old rats’ nests and it turns out the rodents at Oxburgh Hall had excellent taste in bedding. There were fragments of 16th century sheet music and of a 16th century English edition of the King’s Psalms. Next to the nests was a large fragment from a 15th century illuminated Bible, only slightly gnawed. It contains a passage from Psalm 39 from the Vulgate highlighted with blue and gold letters.

Upon closer examination, two of the nests were found to contain more than 200 fragments of luxury textiles including silk, satin, linen, velvet and leather. There are pieces with fine embroidery and ribbons. They date to the late 16th, early 17th century and were probably snippets of larger sections. The rats recognized their high-end qualities and made off with as many remnants as they could get their tiny little hands on.

One of the largest pieces is browny-gold slashed silk, with each of the slashes revealing gold thread. Slashing was very popular for men’s clothing during the 16th century and was used for doublets, jackets and sleeves. It was placed over a textile of a contrasting colour which would be revealed through the slashes. We have the rats to thank for the remarkable condition of these textiles; begin kept below the floorboards for hundreds of years has prevented them from decaying and has allowed us to find out so much more about life at Oxburgh Hall.

That was in May. Two weeks ago, builders hit a motherlode, not in the rats’ nests but it was in a nearby void in the attic. It is a full leatherbound copy of the King’s Psalms published in 1568 and is in exceptional condition, even if was the source for the fragments found in the rats’ nests. There is only one other copy of this book known to exist and it’s in the British Library.

The Kynges Psalmes was originally written by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in the 1st half of the 16th century and first published in England c.1544. Fisher was executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept him as the supreme head of the Church of England and is honoured as a martyr and a saint by the Catholic church. Interestingly, this edition was translated into English from Fisher’s Latin by none other than Katherine Parr, who tweaked the emphasis of some of the text (perhaps in collaboration with her husband) in order to emphasise Henry VIII’s religious authority, obedience to God, and military prowess. The English version of The King’s Psalms, which we have at Oxburgh, was therefore highly regarded by Protestants.

This is of particular significance because the Bedingfeld’s were Catholic, and staunchly so. They were persecuted, fined and harassed for their recusancy. Oxburgh Hall is famous for its priests’ hole, a trapdoor in the floor that is the most popular stop for visitors to the estate.

Russell Clement, general manager,said: “We had hoped to learn more of the history of the house during the reroofing work… but these finds are far beyond anything we expected to see. These objects contain so many clues which confirm the history of the house as the retreat of a devout Catholic family, who retained their faith across the centuries.

“This is a building which is giving up its secrets slowly. We don’t know what else we might come across or what might remain hidden for future generations to reveal.”


Mystery portrait identified as Mary Boleyn

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

A painting in the Royal Collection previously known only as Portrait of a Woman has been identified as a portrait of Mary Boleyn, older sister of Anne Boleyn and mistress of her future husband Henry VIII. The identification was made thanks to researchers with the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project (JVDPPP), a multidisciplinary study based in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels of oak panel paintings by 17th century masters Jacques Jordaens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The portrait is in the style of Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput, so not one of the two artists on the project’s masthead, but Leemput worked in Van Dyck’s studio and he specialized in making copies of the master’s paintings, especially his portraits of the British aristocracy. Not all of the originals have survived, so  van Leemput’s work is of particular interest to the researchers both for comparative purposes and to get as close to lost originals as possible.

The JVDPPP examined it and another 13 portraits of women, collectively known as the Beauties, by van Leemput that are in the Royal Collection. The other 13 are contemporary portraits, however, aristocratic 17th century women garbed and coiffed in styles of their time. The unnamed woman in Portrait of a Woman is the only one in 16th century clothing and hairstyle.

They examined it in September of 2019. Dendrochronological analysis on the oak support found that it was cut from the same Baltic tree around 1629 as the only other portrait of the 14 whose sitter was previously unknown. Archival research revealed a key clue tying the two portraits together: photographs of two paintings in private collections with inscriptions identifying the 16th century woman as Mary Boleyn and the 17th century one as Lady Herbert, ie, Margaret Smith, wife of Thomas Carey who was Mary Boleyn’s great-grandson. A few years after her portrait was painted, her husband died and she married Sir Edward Herbert.

Sir Oliver Millar, then Surveyor of H. M. The Queen’s Pictures, wrote in his 1963 book The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen that in the 19th century the painting was believed to be one of several copies of a Hans Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn. By 1861 it was listed in the catalogue as a “portrait of a lady” and the sitter has been anonymous for nearly 160 years until this discovery.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, told the Sunday Telegraph: “It’s absolutely fascinating. We don’t have the resources to apply technical examination like dendrochronology to the whole collection, which is 7,000 paintings, so it’s wonderful to collaborate with the JVDPPP to help us in that way. One of the things that I’m endlessly trying to do is to group the paintings properly to sort out their history and their relationship to each other.

“When a stray is reunited with the family, there’s joy in heaven. It disproportionately increases the value and understanding of the whole group.”

Describing the paintings as “absolutely beautiful”, he said that the set could now be reunited.

Justin Davies, a British art historian and JVDPPP co-founder, said of the research: “It’s been a voyage of discovery. The results were remarkable and unexpected. Six of the 14 panels had been made from the same oak tree. The tree had started growing in south-west Germany before 1393 and was cut down between 1651 and 1671. In itself, this result constitutes a world record – six panel paintings from the same tree had not been recorded before.”

He added: “The remaining eight pictures are four pairs of two in terms of their trees of origin. “

The newly-identified Mary Boleyn portrait now hangs in the bedchamber of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.


Cromwell’s cut-and-paste in the Great Bible

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s favorite and chief minister until he met a sharp end, played an outsized role in the English Reformation’s violent severing of relations with the Catholic Church. He led the charge on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, ordered destruction of all artwork, church decoration, relics and books he deemed idolatrous/superstitious/popish (Oxford’s entirely library was destroyed) and chaired the synod that established Church of England doctrine. The Great Bible of 1539, the first authorized edition of the Bible in English, was commissioned by Cromwell who then ordered its distribution. On September 5th, 1538, the crown, ie, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction that every parish in England and Wales buy a copy of the Bible in English and set it up “in sum convenient place” so that all parishioners could read it. The first printed copies of the first national Bible, known as the Great Bible due to its large size, went on sale in April of 1539.

Two luxury presentation copies were printed, one for King Henry VIII and for Thomas Cromwell. These were luxury editions, with parchment pages instead of paper and the illustrations, black-and-white woodcuts in the standard copies, elaborately hand-painted to look like illuminations. Henry’s copy is in the British Library. The Cromwell copy is now in the Old Library of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The frontispiece of the Great Bible was not what you would call subtle about its propagandistic purpose. The dominant figure, larger than everyone else and enthroned above the title is Henry. Jesus is crammed uncomfortably into a small cloud-lined gap above him. He doesn’t even have space to raise his head so it sort of flops on his shoulder. Just below to his right is a much smaller Henry VIII, his imperial crown on the ground, kneeling in the presence of God. Banderoles contain biblical passages from Isaiah and Acts of the Apostles that heavy-handedly replace King David with Henry as the man God has chosen to fulfill his will. Kneeling Henry replies in his banderole with a quote from Psalm 118, speaking as David.

Archbishops, their mitres on the ground, and courtiers, hats in hand, flank the grand enthroned Henry on both sides as if they were apostles or angels to his Christ. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury on Henry’s left and Thomas Cromwell on his right receive the Verbum Dei (Word of God) directly from the king. In the second tier, they, now wearing their chapeaux, pass the Bible to (hatless) parish priests and nobility. They (hats on) then deliver it to the grateful masses at the bottom who cheer “Vivat Rex” and “God Save the Kynge.”

The message is clear: Henry is second only to God in spiritual authority and it is he, through his personal gift, who transmits the word of God to his people. The Byzantine hierarchies and Latin texts of Roman Catholicism hold no sway in Henry’s England. His people can read the Word for themselves.

Cromwell’s high station would soon come crashing down. He backed the wrong horse after the death of Jane Seymour and Henry was disgusted with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of the Cleves for wife #4. He had to go through with the wedding so as not to piss off the Germans, but their marriage was never consummated and was annulled July 9th, 1540. Thomas Cromwell was executed for heresy and treason on July 28th, 1540. His heraldic insignia, originally in a roundel at his feet, were excised from all editions of the Great Bible printed after July 1540.

The frontispiece for Henry’s lavish presentation copy went beyond the mere excision. Both iterations of Cromwell — him receiving the Bible from Henry and then passing it to the lay nobility — were painted over entirely by a grey-haired gent, possibly his successor as Lord Privy Seal John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, and the empty roundel that had held Cromwell’s coat of arms filled in with a floral accent.

Now researchers have discovered that there were alterations made to Cromwell’s copy too. Queen Mary University of London historian Dr. Eyal Poleg and Dr. Paola Ricciardi of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum turned an x-ray spectrometer a high-powered digital microscope to the title page. They discovered the face of Cromwell distributing the Bible was covered with someone else’s visage painted onto vellum and pasted on top of the original.

Dr Poleg believes the change was made to shore up Cromwell’s position with Henry who still had doubts about the move towards Protestantism. He said: “In the original title page, Cromwell is associating himself with the person distributing Bibles. This was a very dangerous position to be in because Henry was not fully supportive of the new Bible. Cromwell realised this so he tweaked the images to place himself receiving a Bible from Henry. He would have employed an artist to add in a portrait of himself receiving the Bible from Henry.

“It’s been done so professionally that a microscope and a good light source are needed to see it. It’s painted on a separate piece of vellum and then glued on. This makes it the last known portrait of Cromwell before his execution. Cromwell is often seen as a reformer who moved the country very ardently in the direction of Anglicanism and here he is shown as someone who understands politics very well, and actually tries to position himself in the right location. He was very much aware of Henry’s hesitation regarding the Bible and he’s very good at playing the political game. This adds to our growing understanding of Cromwell and the uncertain course of English Reformation.”

Researchers also spotted another change likely intended to curry favor with the king. Cromwell had a miniature portrait of Jane Seymour, the queen who had finally given Henry his male heir and died from it, pasted over one of the commoners, a woman with three children at her feet.

Dr Poleg said: “The page was manipulated to present Henry with an image of Jane Seymour. Cromwell was using Jane to persuade the King of the value of the Bible. When the Bible was produced, Jane had recently died, so she was still Henry’s beloved Queen. And because she had given birth to their son Edward, putting her in a scene with children makes a lot of sense.”


Remains of Aztec palace, Cortés’ home found under 18th c. building

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

Remains from the palace of Mexica emperor Axayácatl and the house Hernán Cortés had built on its ruins have been unearthed under a historic building in downtown Mexico City. National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) archaeologists dug under the floors of the northern half of the Nacional Monte de Piedad, a non-profit pawnshop established in 1775 to provide interest-free loans for the poor, between September 2017 and August 2018 in advance of foundation work to strengthen the historic structure. They discovered pre-Hispanic basalt slab floors dating to the reign of Axayácatl (1469-1481) and the remains of  Cortés’ residence in Tenochtitlan from the earliest days of the conquest ca. 1521.

The INAH team dug 12 test pits and unearthed the remains of a stone wall, plus flooring and column remains from the early Viceregal building. Archaeologists then excavated a neighboring room and discovered walls made of basalt and vesicular lava stones built on a basalt slab floor. These were built by order of Cortés after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.  Underneath that floor was another one paved with basalt slabs, this one from Axayácatl’s palace. It was likely an outdoor space within the palace precinct.

By the time the Spanish arrived at Tenochtitlan in late 1519, Moctezuma II, son of Axayácatl, no longer lived in his father’s palace. It was known as the “Old Houses,” while Moctezuma resided in the “New Houses.”  He was gracious enough to allow Cortés and his men to live in his father’s palace. Big mistake, needless to say. Within months the palace was a military barracks and Cortés imprisoned a series of Aztec rulers, starting with none other than the guy who had rolled out the red carpet for them, Moctezuma II. He was still there when he was killed in the revolt after the Tóxcatl massacre.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Cortés ordered the destruction of the city’s royal and religious buildings, and he was more than thorough about it. The city’s survivors were forced to demolish their buildings to the foundation. Almost no walls higher than three feet were left standing, and the rubble was reused to construct nice new digs for the conquerors.

The evidence is embedded in the walls of Cortés’ house.

As an example of this, embedded in the façade of the southeast interior corner of the colonial room, two pre-Hispanic dressed stones carved with sculptures in high relief were found. They depicted a feathered serpent (Quetzalcóatl) and a headdress of feathers, and must have belonged to a panel of the Palace of Axayácatl. Also, another Mexica sculpture with the glyph that symbolizes the tianquiztli or market was recovered, in its place as part of a shaft.

Nacional Monte de Piedad officials are looking into how to preserve the discoveries as a layer cake of Mexico City’s history and make them accessible to the public.





November 2020


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