Raphael’s Sistine Madonna turns 500

Raphael's Sistine Madonna in its new frameThe Sistine Madonna, the iconic Madonna with saints and cherubs that is the last painting Raphael finished with his own hands before his premature death, turns 500 years old this year. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, proud owner of the masterpiece, is putting on a major new exhibition to celebrate the quincentennial. In honor of the special occasion, the painting has been reframed in what is basically a gilded temple, complete with modified Corinthian columns and a huge cornice.

In 1512, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to create an altarpiece of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child for the newly-built Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza. The pontiff required that the painting include Saint Sixtus, in tribute to his uncle Pope Sixtus IV, and Saint Barbara, one of Fourteen Holy Helpers whose powers of intercession are deemed particularly keen. Raphael finished the painting around 1513 or 1514. He died in 1520, and although he designed and worked on other Madonnas and paintings in the six or seven intervening years, his assistants did much of the work.

The painting remained enshrined over the altar in the little-known monastery until 1754 when Augustus III, absentee King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, purchased it from the Benedictines for 110,000-120,000 francs. Augustus III, like his father and grandfather before him, was an avid art collector. They created a world-class collection of Old Master paintings with the Sistine Madonna as the jewel in the crown. Legend has it that Augustus moved his throne so the painting could have the best light in the room, but the entire collection had been moved from Dresden Castle to the more spacious Stallgebäude (the Electors’ Stable Building) next door in 1747; thus, either Augustus wanted some alone time in the throne room with the Raphael for a while, or the story is apocryphal.

Raphael's Sistine MadonnaThe only Raphael in Germany, the Sistine Madonna was an immediate sensation. Even though Protestant Saxony was uneasy about its very recent Papist extraction and general Catholic imagery, the painting’s embrace of classicism (the Madonna could just as easily be a Juno and the composition follows the ancient principle of the sectio aurea or golden ratio) and its self-aware presentation as a piece of art (see the green curtains in the upper corners and the cherubs down below who rest against a balustrade much like the altar which the altarpiece was created to adorn) made it a favorite with budding Romantics and classicists alike. Goethe wrote a song about it; Wagner made special trips to Dresden just to see it; Alfred Rethel said, “I would not swap for a kingdom the delight I have had from standing before this picture,” and that was before he went insane.

As war loomed in 1938, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister closed up shop and removed its collection to safety in underground storage in Switzerland. Thus the Raphael survived the firebombing of Dresden that so severely damaged the gallery it wasn’t fully reconstructed until 1960. It also survived the Soviet army, which according to its own press had “saved” the precious painting from a flooded out cave. In fact the storage area was climate-controlled and entirely functional; the Soviets simply felt entitled to claim any and all of the enemy’s treasures as payment for all of their own cultural patrimony looted by the Nazis (see this excellent article for more on the subject).

In 1955, two years after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union decide to return the Sistine Madonna to Germany as a gesture of goodwill to strengthen relations between the countries. The jewel in the crown went back on display in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.

The cherubs, kitsch deities in their own rightThe 500th anniversary exhibit opened Saturday, May 26 and continues through August 26. It covers the painting’s checkered history in four sections: Raphael in Rome — an examination of the context in which Raphael painted the piece; Augustus III’s acquisition and the move from Piacenza to Dresden; the influence of the Sistine Madonna on art, literature, music and design; and lastly, a romp through the rich separate life of the two little cherubs at the bottom who were first copied on their own in 1800 and have been on everything from posters to coasters to t-shirts ever since.

Earliest evidence of Iberian Jews found in Portugal

Archaeologists from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany have uncovered the oldest evidence of Jews living in the Iberian peninsula: a 16-by-24-inch inch marble slab inscribed with the name “Yehiel” in Hebrew. Researchers believe it may have been a tomb slab. Antlers found in rubble next to the slab were radiocarbon dated to 390 A.D., which means that the slab is at least that old if not older. That makes it the oldest evidence of Jewish inhabitants on the Iberian Peninsula.

Before this discovery, the earliest archaeological evidence of Jews living in what is now Portugal was a tomb slab from 482 A.D. that was inscribed with a menorah. There was text on that slab as well, but it was in Latin. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions came considerably later, in the 6th or 7th century A.D.

The find was surprising not just for its age, but also its location. The site where the slab was unearthed is a Roman villa first discovered in 2009 by Portuguese archaeologist Jorge Correia during an archaeological survey around the village of São Bartolomeu de Messines in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. This is a remote spot, far from the urban centers of the Roman province of Lusitania. Archaeologists were not expecting to find evidence of Jews and Romans living together in such a rural area, and it’s the first time a Jewish artifact has been found inside a Roman villa.

Actually, the Jena researchers were hoping just to find any inscriptions at all that would tell them about Roman-era life far from the well-excavated centers of west coastal Portugal. Hebrew inscriptions were the last thing on the list, especially from this time period. Theodosius I, the last emperor of both the western and eastern Roman Empire, had made Nicene Christianity the sole official state religion in 380 A.D. The new state-enforced dominance of orthodox Christianity made for an ugly environment for anyone of a different religious persuasion. Fearing persecution, Jews during this time wrote in Latin rather than Hebrew.

Perhaps that’s part of why the Hebrew in this inscription was so roughly carved. The archaeologists couldn’t even identify the language at first, so poorly were the letters rendered.

Only after long research the Jena Archaeologists found out which language they were exactly dealing with, as the inscription was not cut with particular care. “While we were looking for experts who could help with deciphering the inscription between Jena and Jerusalem, the crucial clue came from Spain” Dennis Graen says. “Jordi Casanovas Miró from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona — a well-known expert for Hebrew inscriptions on the Iberian Peninsula — is sure that the Jewish name “Yehiel” can be read, — a name that is already mentioned in the Bible.”

There are more letters after the name which have yet to be identified. The Jena team has excavated 1722 square feet (160 square meters) of the villa already, but most of the site is still under ground. The archaeologists will pick up where they left off this summer.

Gnawed Roman skeleton that inspired Plath back on display after 30 years

Skeleton of a Roman woman found at Arbury, 4th c. A.D.The skeleton of a Roman woman that inspired one of Sylvia Plath’s most memorable poems is back on display after 30 years in storage.

Coffin discovered on Fortescue Road in Arbury, August 1952The skeleton of a wealthy woman from the 4th century A.D. was one of a number of high-status Roman burials found by construction workers clearing land in Arbury, just outside of Cambridge, in 1952. She had been wrapped in a woolen shroud and laid to rest in a massive stone and lead-lined coffin, but despite her expensive accommodations, the undertakers made two notable mistakes: they put her in the wrong way around, and they either didn’t put the lid on flush or they let a mouse and a shrew move in before covering the coffin. When the coffin was opened in 1952, the skeletons of the mouse and shrew were found inside and the 40 to 55-year-old woman’s ankle showed signs of having been gnawed by her companions.

Shrew and mouse bonesThe coffin and skeletons were put on display in the Clark Gallery of Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Cambridge researchers arranged the bones of the mouse and shrew on a placard and displayed them along with the coffin. Sylvia Plath attended Newnham College, Cambridge, on a Fulbright scholarship between 1955 and 1957. The gnawed-upon woman and her rodent friends at the museum inspired her to write All the Dead Dears.

Rigged poker-stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

These three, unmasked now, bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We’d wink at if we didn’t hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.

Coffin is hauled out of storage to put back on display at refurbished museumThe Dead Dears remained on display from the 1950s until the 1980s when they were moved to storage because of overcrowding. Now that the museum has completed a major 18-month, $2.8 million dollar refurbishment, many important pieces that have never been on public display and some important pieces that have been out of public view for decades have returned, including the gnawed-upon Roman woman and the original shrew and mouse placard which so impressed Sylvia Plath.

Newly refurbished Clark Gallery of the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, coffin in foregroundCambridge has a huge collection of artifacts from around the world donated by wealthy alumni and scholars, as well as local discoveries that illustrate the ancient Roman and Anglo-Saxon history of the Cambridge area, all the way through to the founding of the university and beyond. The new gallery will have almost double the number of objects on display, but even so that is less than 1% of the museum’s entire collection.

The refurbished gallery reopens on May 25th. See the museum’s Facebook page for tons of pictures and updates documenting the refurbishment. Here’s a lovely video about the refurbishment and the collection. Watch it full screen because there are some beautiful shots of the artifacts, including a 45-foot-tall totem pole from British Columbia, the Arbury skeleton and a Roman vase decorated with naked ladies and a proliferation of phalluses. It was discovered in Great Chesterford, Essex in the 19th century and so scandalized the Victorians who found it that they never recorded it as one of the finds from the site.


1000-year-old pre-Inca tomb found intact in Peru

Newly discovered Pachacamac tomb, ca. 1000 A.D.Archaeologists from the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) have discovered a huge intact tomb in the ancient religious center of Pachacamac, 20 miles southeast of Lima. Provisionally dated to around 1000 A.D., 200 years after the collapse of the Huari culture which first built the city and 450 years before the Inca Confederacy invaded the area, the oval tomb is 65 feet long and contains the remains of more than 70 people including a dozen infants.

Ceramic piece from Pachacamac tombThe tomb was dug into the ground, then covered with a roof of reeds supported by carved tree trunks. The babies were found around the perimeter of the tomb with the heads pointing inward towards the center of the tomb. The main chamber is divided into two parts by a mud brick wall. More mummies and skeletons of men and women of all ages were found buried in fetal positions near the mud brick wall. They were buried with a wealth of around 100 grave goods: ceramic animals (dogs, guinea pigs) and vases, copper and gold alloy jewelry, gourds and wooden masks with faces painted on them known as “false heads.”

Despite the material wealth buried with the people, the tomb does not appear to be royal. It’s more likely a family plot.

The team’s group of physical anthropologists, under the direction of Dr Lawrence Owens (University of London), have posited the possibility of a genetic relationship between many of the individuals, on the basis of certain morphological traits recorded in the skeletons. Certain of the individuals suffered mortal injuries, physical trauma or serious illness.

Previous work by the Ychsma Project has revealed the extensive presence of disease in the Pachacamac skeletal population, leading to the suggestion that the affected individuals had, as testified by Inca sources, travelled to the site in search of a cure: a form of Prehispanic Lourdes.

Painted wood "false head" mask from Pachacamac tombIt’s an incredible stroke of good fortune that a tomb of such advanced age was discovered untouched by Conquistadors, wars and looters. The tomb was discovered in front of the Temple of the Sun that was built by the Inca, who treated Pachacamac with reverence after their conquest because of its long history as the main religious center of coastal Andean cultures. The Inca allowed the local priests autonomy instead of absorbing them into their own religious hierarchy and made the city a major administrative center.

The tomb site is next to a cemetery, but there’s a wall between them. The area was thoroughly explored by diggers in the 19th century who announced definitively that there was nothing left to find behind the wall, because if there were something, looters would have found it already. As luck would have it, looters didn’t bother because over the centuries the roof of the tomb had been covered by layers of construction debris. They didn’t want to dig that deep. As even luckier would have it, nobody in the modern era built on the spot either.

The ULB team had been exploring the cemetery since 2004, working for two or three months each year during the digging season. The season is now over so they can’t dig again until next year, which is a tad frustrating from the team because they found the remains of beams that could mean there’s another tomb right next to this one. There are Peruvian archaeologists still working in the area, but their brief is the preservation of the temples, not further excavation.

Any new discoveries will have to wait. For now, researchers have cleaned and inventoried the finds on site before moving them to a laboratory for further study. There they will be radiocarbon dated and tested for consanguinity, place of origin and cause of death. Researchers are hoping to determine whether the babies were sacrificed and whether the tomb was used over a long period of time by a family or if everyone was buried at the same time.

Crush, kill, destroy Senator Fistus

Lead tablet cursing Senator FistusTwo 1,600-year-old lead curse tablets in the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna were recently deciphered, and one of them turns out to be the first known surviving curse directed at a Roman senator.

It’s a juicy one, too. It starts with a dramatic drawing of a snake-headed deity, possibly Hekate, underworld goddess of crossroads, sorcery and necromancy (among other things), with her arms crossed and a star carved over her groin. Although her name is not mentioned, the phrasing of the invocation is similar to other curses that enlist Hekate to their dark cause. The crossed arms symbolize the binding of the deity to the curse. The goddess will remain bound until its terms are fulfilled.

Drawing of the tablet cursing Senator FistusThe text is written mainly in Latin with Greek invocations, and it’s highly reminiscent of the killer android from Lost in Space.

The Latin expression for “crush” is used at least four times in the curse. “Crush, kill Fistus the senator,” part of the curse reads, “May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

I bet there’s a “destroy” in there somewhere, but sadly the article doesn’t include the complete translation. This was probably more of a personal vendetta than a political one. In the late Roman empire, senators held no political power. Emperors had stopped bothering to have their accession ratified by the Senate since Carus in 282, and once Diocletian instituted his constitutional reforms in 300 AD, the Senate lost even the pathetic semblance of consent. The only powers still delegated to the Roman Senate were determining its own membership and control of the public games. So Fistus would have been a rich and prominent citizen, but not much more than that.

Lead tablet cursing PorcelloThe second curse tablet has a less august target, but is just as vigorously hateful. The cursed people are a veterinarian felicitously named Porcello and his wife Maurilla. It is directed towards the same snake-headed deity with crossed arms and the starred groin, but this time Porcello gets a drawing too. He is portrayed as a wrapped mummy with his arms crossed and his name written on both of them.

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …” part of it reads.

There’s the destroy we were looking for! I do love it when a pop culture meme shows up in the archaeological record.

Drawing of lead tablet cursing PorcelloDespite their commonalities, there’s no evidence the tablets were written by the same person. Unfortunately we don’t know where they came from. They were acquired by the museum in the 19th century, then forgotten until their rediscovery in 2009. The museum has no specific record of the acquisition and the tablets’ provenance. They could be from anywhere in the late Roman empire.

Doctoral student Celia Sánchez Natalías from the University of Zaragoza did the deciphering. Her findings were recently published in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (the Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), which does not post issues more recent than 2008 online.

I leave you with this clip from HBO’s spectacular Rome in which Servilia Caepionis, mother of Brutus and jilted mistress of Julius Ceasar, shows us how to do a lead curse and mean it.