Tudor locket celebrating marriage of Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon found

A unique gold and enamel heart-shaped pendant bearing the initials and emblems of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon has been unveiled at the British Museum. It is in impeccable condition and of such exceptionally high quality that it could plausibly be connected to the royal couple themselves.

The jewel was discovered by Birmingham café owner Charlie Clarke while metal detecting in a field in Warwickshire on a very auspicious Friday the 13th, December, 2019. After his screaming abated, Clarke notified the Finds Liaison Officer who in turn contacted Historic England. A subsequent excavation of the find site did not return any further artifacts.

The pendant is a heart-shaped locket enameled in red and white on both sides. The obverse is decorated with an engraved floral design in the center. Accented with translucent red enamel leaves, the stalk splits into two with a red and white enamel Tudor rose on the left and a pomegranate, emblem of Katherine of Aragon, on the right.

The reverse features a central design of an “H” and a “K” in Lombardic script entwined with a ribbon. The initials are enamelled in red, the ribbon with white. The ribbon ends with a thistle-shaped tassel in red and white enamel.

Both sides have a banner unfurled at the bottom inscribed with red enamel lettering reading: + TOVS + IORS. That same inscription is on the reverse of the pendant under the initials only with black enamel. This is the French “toujours” (meaning “always”) broken into two parts. Iterations of this inscription have been found on other pieces from the post-medieval period, for example this simple gold posy ring from the 16th or 17th century inscribed on the inner band: + TOVT IOVRS LOIALL (“forever faithful”). Rachel King, curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum, thinks the pendant’s inscription may also be a play on words, splitting “toujours” into “tous” (French for “all”) and “iors,” which is phonetically the same as the English “yours.”

The chain consists of 75 links for a total length of 17.2 inches. At one of the chain is a red and white enamelled, begloved hand at one end. The hand is clenched in a fist with fingers curved back under the thumb flat against the side. The cuff of the glove is white enamel with black speckles suggesting ermine trim. A rectangular sleeve decorated in translucent red enamel extends past the cuff. The other end of the chain was modified at some point to create a hinged clasp behind the glove.

The whole necklace, chain and pendant, weighs 317 grams of 24K gold. It is very high in gold content even in its most minute parts. The suspension loop, hinges, wire border are more than 98% gold, with just a trace of silver and a soupçon of copper.

British Museum researchers were able to narrow down the date of the pendant based on the Lombardic script and decorative motifs. It was made later than 1509 and before 1530. That fits the political timeline as well. Henry married Katherine in 1509 and banished Katherine from court in 1531, so the market for entwined H&K initials on heart jewels came to a screeching halt at that time. Their marriage was annulled in 1533.

Despite initially seeming almost too good to be true, said King, careful scientific analysis has proved the pendant to be genuine. What experts have not been able to uncover, however, despite scouring inventories and pictures of the time, is to establish a personal link to Henry or Katherine.

“Nonetheless, its quality is such that it was certainly either commissioned by or somehow related to a member of the higher nobility or a high-ranking courtier.”

One hypothesis, based on careful analysis of its iconography and other historical records, is that the pendant may have been commissioned to be worn or even given as a prize at one of the major tournaments of which Henry was so fond, around the time of the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Though its size suggests it would only fit a woman, it may not have been meant to be worn at all.

Nothing remotely similar survives from the period, said King. “In the British Museum, we’ve got the largest collection of objects from the early Tudor periods in precious metal; none of them are anything like this.”

Red ink added to Armada maps in 19th c.

Conservators have discovered that the red ink on the set of 16th century hand-drawn maps of the Spanish Armada’s failed invasion of England is of far more recent extraction. They look integral and original, but all of the red accents — ships on fire, city markers, compass points — were added in the late 19th century to enhance the maps’ salability.

The 10 maps in the set are the only surviving contemporary drawings depicting the progression of naval battles that led to the scrappy English fleet’s surprise defeat of the much larger and more powerful Spanish Armada in 1588. They were drawn by an unknown Flemish artist in 1589.

They were sold by the Astor family to a private US collector in 2020, but the Ministry of Culture barred their export because of their unique historic importance. The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) was able to raise the funds to acquire them and keep them in Britain. The museum sent the set to the National Archives in London for study and conservation.

Initial examination found that the maps were in good condition, with only a few areas of mold repair and water damage from a flood at Hever Castle, in the 1960s.

Non-invasive tests including x-ray fluorescence spectroscropy revealed Flemish watermarks, which, with some marginal notes, suggests a craftsman probably working in London at a time when the Flemish were recognised as the best cartographers in Europe. The iron gall ink was 16th century and in good condition despite slight fading and paper corrosion—but the surprise was the reds, only available from the late 19th century. “The only possible conclusion was that the original maps were not coloured,” says Natalie Brown, the senior conservation manager at the National Archives. The work has implications for hundreds of antique maps in their own collections.

At the museum, curator Annabelle Cameron says that, while 300 years of their history remains unrecorded, by the early 19th century the maps were owned by Roger Wilbraham, the collector and MP—and may always have been in his family—and were seen by the British Library in 1828. They were sold by Sotheby’s in 1899 to the bookseller J. Pearson and Co, who sold them in turn to William Waldorf Astor in 1903. Either could have added the coloured ink to make them more attractive, which Brown said was common practice at the time. It certainly helped bump up their price: Pearson paid £30 for the maps and sold them for £90.

The maps are still undergoing conservation, but conservators have deemed them stable enough to go on public display. Only two have been exhibited since the purchase, and those were in Liverpool. The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth plans to exhibit all ten of them together in the near future.

Rare Elizabethan ship found in Kent quarry

The remains of a rare 16th century ship have been discovered in a sediment layer in a quarry in Kent, southeastern England. Despite the enormous significance of this period in English seafaring history, very few ships built in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have survived.

Over 100 timbers from the ship’s hull were recovered, with dendrochronological analysis, funded by Historic England, dating the timbers that built the ship to between 1558 and 1580 and confirming it was made of English oak. This places the ship at a transitional period in Northern European ship construction. When ships are believed to have moved from a traditional clinker construction (as seen in Viking vessels) to frame-first-built ships (as recorded here), where the internal framing is built first and flush-laid planking is later added to the frames to create a smooth outer hull. This technique is similar to what was used on the Mary Rose, built between 1509 and 1511, and the ships that would explore and settle along the Atlantic coastlines of the New World.

The aggregate quarry on the Dungeness headland is now 1000 feet from the coast, but when the ship was built, the find site was likely on the coastline. It’s not clear from the remains if it met a violent end in a clash against the headline or if it was simply abandoned when it stopped being worth repairing and left to sink. The discovery has the potential to shed new light not just on Elizabethan shipbuilding and trade, but on the natural history and the commercial development of the Kent coast as well.

The ship has been documented, photographed and laser-scanned to create a detailed 3D model that can be studied without exposing the ship to the elements. Once the excavation and recording of the ship is complete, it will be reburied in the same sediment layer where it was found so the timbers will be preserved as they have been for almost five centuries.

Still from a 3D model of the remains of the Elizabethan ship. Photo courtesy Wessex Archaeology.

Rare Nativity by Renaissance master saved for UK just in time for Christmas

An extremely rare 16th century Nativity by Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi has been acquired by the National Museums NI, saving it for the UK after an temporary export bar prevented it leaving the country. The £277,990 necessary to buy the piece were raised from contributions by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, Department for Communities NI and the Esme Mitchell Trust.

Peruzzi was a Sienese painter who worked in the Rome in the early 16th century and was a peer and collaborator of Old Masters Raphael and Bramante. He was a true Renaissance man, an able architect, draftsman, theater set designer and painter. Peruzzi was considered an accomplished and innovative architect and artist, employed by the elite of Rome including Popes Julius II and Paul III. He was so highly esteemed by his contemporaries that he was buried in Rome’s Pantheon next to Raphael.

Most of his paintings were frescoes and have been lost to history, and what few painted works of his have survived are in Italy. The Nativity is the only one in the UK.

Painted on wood panel around 1515, the Nativity is depicted as a night scene, an unusual approach for the period. Peruzzi’s innovations in this work — the nocturnal setting, the side lighting — would be adopted a decade later by the likes of Parmigianino, marking it an important transitional piece in the art of Renaissance Italy. It also illustrates Peruzzi’s keen understanding of ancient architecture in the curved façade of its ruined folly behind Joseph.

The painting is currently undergoing conservation at the National Gallery in London.

Anne Stewart, Senior Curator of Art at National Museums NI said:
National Museums NI is delighted that this remarkable painting will be part of our collection which has been made possible with the help and generosity of our partners and funders. Currently, there are no High Renaissance paintings in any public collection in Northern Ireland, so this is truly a Christmas gift to our audiences. We look forward to welcoming visitors to the Ulster Museum when it goes on display in 2023.

Brilliant colors restored to 15th altarpiece

The Altarpiece of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli, a Renaissance masterpiece by Domenico Veneziano, has been restored to its extraordinarily vivid original colors by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

Created between 1445 and 1447 for the high altar of the church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli in Florence, the tempera-on-panel painting depicts the enthroned Madonna and Child flanked by Saint Francis and John the Baptist on the left, Saint Zenobius and Saint Lucy on the right holding her eyes on a plate (they were plucked out, the legend goes, before her martyrdom). Mary sits under a rib vaulted and columned canopy, soft light shining down through the open courtyard. The tops of three orange trees are centered in the pointed arches high in the background.

This work is oldest known example of a rectangular altarpiece without the gold background that was de rigeur in its Gothic predecessors. It is also the first “Sacred Conversation,” ie, a painting of Madonna and Child with saints that are all on the same scale in the same space. Veneziano’s mastery of light, accurate geometric perspective and intricate architectural setting make the St. Lucy altarpiece one of the most important and innovative from 15th century Florence.

The restoration project began in 2019. When the altarpiece entered the collection of the Uffizi Gallery, it was subjected to a drastic cleaning and glazed with an adhesive. This highly invasive intervention damaged the paint and dimmed the brilliance of the colors to the point where they were unrecognizable. Reversing this damage was a complex operation and took even longer than expected thanks to COVID closures.

It was very much worth the wait. The new restoration has brought back to life the brilliant pinks, greens, blues and bright whites of the original paint. The Easter egg technicolor palette lends the scene a surreal, fantastical look. The extraordinary richness of the details, the floor with pink, green and white marble inlay, the fine lettering on the steps, the meticulous patterns in the decorative design on the pedestal under Mary’s feet and on Saint Zenobius’ cope and mitre.

The work will be exhibited to the public for one day only on December 21st at the Laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (booking is required). It will return to its permanent home at the Uffizi early next year.