Archive for March, 2015

Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.

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Pharaoh Senebkay died a violent death in battle

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Forensic studies on the skeletal remains of Pharaoh Senebkay discovered last year at Abydos have found numerous sharp-force injuries indicating that he died a brutal death in battle. A pharaoh from a weak transitional dynasty in Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (1650 and 1550 B.C.), Senebkay was beset by enemies to the north — the Canaanite Hyksos 15th Dynasty — and south — the Theban 16th and 17th Dynasties (1650 – 1590 B.C., 1580 – 1550 B.C.). These were turbulent times that would only come to end with the unification of Egypt under Pharaoh Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty and of the New Kingdom.

Senebkay lived somewhere in the middle of the Second Intermediate Period, probably around 1600 B.C., which makes him the earliest pharaoh known to have died in battle. Before this study the first pharaoh thought to have died in battle was Theban Pharaoh Seqnenre of the 17th Dynasty (ca. 1558 B.C.), father of the future Ahmose I. Although Seqnenre too was viciously slaughtered, there are no defensive wounds so he could well have been attacked in his sleep or executed by his Hyksos enemies.

Osteologists found that Senebkay was between 35 to 49 years old at the time of his death and of unusual height for his era at five feet seven inches to six feet tall. His wounds were so extensive he must have been the target of multiple attackers.

The king’s skeleton has an astounding eighteen wounds that penetrated to the bone. The trauma includes major cuts to his feet, ankles, knees, hands, and lower back. Three major blows to Senebkay’s skull preserve the distinctive size and curvature of battle axes used during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. This evidence indicates the king died violently during a military confrontation, or in an ambush.

The weapon in question was a bronze duckbill axe. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Josef Wegner, leader of the excavation team, believes the pharoah’s injuries, the weapons they were inflicted with and force with which they were used indicates professional soldiers took the king down in a fight rather than, say, assassins or muggers.

Senebkay appears to have been on horseback when the assault began. Wounds to his lower body — a cut to his right ankle so severe it would have all but amputed his foot, slashes on his knees and hands — were inflicted from the ground upwards and the strikes on his lower back indicate he was seated when he received them. That was more than enough to unhorse him. By the time his assailants embedded their axes in his skull, the pharaoh was probably on the ground.

Another surprising result of the osteological analysis is that muscle attachments on Senebkay’s femurs and pelvis indicate he spent a significant amount of his adult life as a horse rider. Another king’s body discovered this year in a tomb close to that of Senebkay also shows evidence for horse riding, suggesting these Second Intermediate Period kings buried at Abydos were accomplished horsemen.

This is a significant discovery because the introduction of the horse to Egypt was still recent at the time. The first inscriptions referring to the use of horses among the Egyptian elite appear shortly after this period and the chariots that would become inextricably associated with pharaonic Egypt weren’t introduced until the New Kingdom.

One of other skeletons thought to be from a royal tomb (other than Senebkay’s, none of the seven other royal tombs had cartouches identifying the deceased), was a powerfully built man trained to perform a strenuous, repetitive activity with his left arm, possibly archery or combat. Between their prowess on horseback and their tough physical training, it’s possible these Abydos pharaohs were warrior-kings. The research team is hoping to be able to confirm with DNA testing if any of the people found buried in the tombs bore a familial relationship to each other.

Because we know so little about the Abydos kings, the geographic boundaries of their territory are unclear. It seems Senebkay did not die close to Abydos, however. The linen bandages wrapping him are close to the bones, which means the body had already been decaying for a while when he was mummified. He could have been exposed, perhaps by the enemies who killed him, before being sent home, or the voyage home was so long it took several weeks to get his decomposing body to the royal necropolis at Abydos.

Possibly the king died in battle fighting against the Hyksos kings who at that time ruled northern Egypt from their capital at Avaris in the Nile Delta. However, Senebkay may have died in struggles against enemies in the south of Egypt. Historical records dating to Senebkay’s lifetime record at least one attempted invasion of Upper Egypt by a large military force from Nubia to the south. Alternatively, Senebkay may have had other political opponents, possibly kings based at Thebes.

The University of Pennsylvania team will continue excavations at Abydos and to study the remains in the hope of answering some of these questions.

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Mithras tauroctony, Picasso painting found in Italy

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Carabinieri art theft squad has recovered two major artworks in separate investigations: an early Cubist work by Pablo Picasso and an ancient Roman sculptural group of Mithras slaying the bull, a scene known today as a tauroctony. Only one of them, the sculpture, is known to have been looted. The Picasso painting is currently under investigation, but its purported provenance is a classic art smuggler’s tall tale, and a particularly bold iteration at that. It could be true, sure, but the Carabinieri clearly don’t think so or they wouldn’t have confiscated it.

The Picasso came to light when Sotheby’s, in the name of the putative current owner, filed an export license request in Venice for the oil painting Violin and Bottle of Bass made in 1912 by Pablo Picasso. The painting is listed in the 1961 edition of the great multi-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works compiled by Christian Zervos. It was done in the early Analytic Cubist style developed by Picasso and Georges Braque characterized by a palette of browns and other neutrals and as such is extremely rare and desirable.

Yet, the declared value of this early work was 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million). That’s a ridiculously lowball figure for a painting that would go for at least 15 million euros ($16.2 million) in the open market and could easily make more at auction. The weirdly cheap Picasso drew the unblinking eye of art squad investigators who sought an explanation from the owner. Said owner turns out to be a retired Roman frame maker. In 1978, a gentleman of advanced age came to his shop holding a picture frame with a photo of his beloved late wife inside. The maid had apparently knocked over the frame and broken the glass, devastating the widower. The frame maker repaired the frame for free because it was such an easy fix. In gratitude, the customer repaid the frame maker by returning two days later with a gift: Violin and Bottle of Bass. The frame maker had no idea what a treasure he’d been given for replacing a two-cent piece of glass, so he just stashed it somewhere and forgot about it for 36 years until discovering by accident that he might have a Picasso.

Mysteries abound in this less than entirely believable story. Tests have confirmed the attribution of the painting to Picasso, but more will be forthcoming while the investigation proceeds.

The statue of Mithras is a looter’s special, too. The Carabinieri found it during a complex operation of surveillance centered in the Fiumicino area outside Rome where the airport is, a crossroads of the market in illicit archaeological goods. Carabinieri noticed a nondescript van with no external identifiers that for some reason had a motorized escort — a motorcycle in front and a Smart Car taking up the rear. They pulled the van over and searched it. The back was filled with flowers and plants under a tarp. Cops saw the nose of a bull sticking up through the plants and found the marble sculpture group with the soil from its illegal excavation still caked on it.

The sculpture dates from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. and depicts an iconic scene in Mithraism wherein the hero tilts back the bull’s head and slays the beast with a knife while a dog and snake lick its blood and a scorpion has a go at the bull’s testicles. Every Mithraeum had at least one representation of this scene, usually reliefs and frescoes. A large freestanding sculpture like this would have been extremely luxurious then, and it is even more so today. Experts put its value at a minimum of 8 million euros. Only two other large tauroctonies like this one are known to exist today, one in the British Museum, one in the Vatican Museums.

Soil tests of the dirt on the sculpture pinpointed two possible locations of origin in central Italy: the ancient Etruscan cities of Tarquinia and Vulci. The regional Culture Ministry immediately began emergency excavations at the possible sites and found the exact spot from which the statue had been looted. It was Tarquinia, and archaeologists found two smoking guns in the form of the little rampant dog missing from the sculpture and the head of the missing snake. They also unearthed a few other marble fragments, the remains of a mosaic floor and a terracotta tile floor that suggest this was once a Mithraem.

A map of Switzerland and Swiss traveling routes found in the van make it very clear where the tauroctony was headed if it hadn’t been intercepted. Its value on the open market would be something in the neighborhood of 8 million euros ($8.7 million), a meager thing compared to its immense historical value. The statue will go on temporary display at the Vatican Museums in a few weeks after which it will return to Tarquinia in July.

The Carabinieri announced a third recovery at the same press conference, an 18th century oil painting by Luca Carlevarijs entitled View of Piazza San Marco from the Dock. It was stolen on April 28th, 1984, from the home of a private collector and discovered last September in the hands of an art dealer in Milan indicted for receiving stolen goods and illegal export of a painting now in the United States. While searching the dealer’s home, cops found 190 photographs of paintings. One of them was the Carlevarijs. They compared the photos against the squad’s database of stolen cultural goods and discovered the 30-year-old theft. It seems the artwork had been given to the dealer by a collector in anticipation of its sale.

Carlevarijs was the founder of the Venetian school of vedute, meaning views or landscapes of the city, starting with etchings in 1703 and then moving on to oil paintings. Canaletto was strongly influenced by him, as you can see in this piece, and probably met Carlevarijs around 1720 when the young artist moved back home to Venice after studying in Rome. Canaletto may have been Carlevarijs’ pupil at this time — the sources are murky — but if so, he soon surpassed the master. In 1725, just five years after Canaletto’s return, art merchant Alessandro Marchesini would suggest to his client, collector Stefano Conti who was looking for vedute of Venice, that he acquire a piece by Canaletto who “inevitably amazes everyone here who sees his works, which are in the manner of Carlevaris, but light shines out from the sun.”

Compared to the Picasso and the tauroctony I’m afraid poor Mr. Carlevarijs doesn’t quite make the headline, but it amuses me how each of these stories touches on the standard tropes of the traffic in illicit art and antiquities. We’ve got a supershady provenance story, a recently excavated, high-quality ancient sculpture that was destined for surreptitious sale in Switzerland where it doubtless would have received brand new papers certifying it as having been in “an anonymous Swiss collection” for the past 50 years, and we have the art dealer acting as a fence and keeping a big cache of incriminating photographs of the pieces he is trying to sell/has sold illegally. It’s like looter’s bingo.

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Trajan’s Column up close and in stop-motion

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

National Geographic has devised some sort of doomsday mind reading device only instead of using it to enslave humanity like the rest of us would, they’ve chosen to hone in on one of my fondest dreams and make it come true: a proper close look at the helical relief that wraps itself around Trajan’s Column. Trajan’s Column, built in 113 A.D. to commemorate the emperor’s victories over the Dacians in two wars (101–102 and 105–106 A.D.), has a 625 foot-long frieze that winds around the 98 foot-high column shaft 23 times. There are 2,662 figures in 155 scenes plus scads of structures (pontoon bridges! forts!) and gear (weapons! army standards! exotic Dacian fashions!). The complexity of the carving, the density of characters and scenes, and, last but certainly not least, the monumental scale of the column make it an ideal candidate for digital exploration. Short of a surreptitious and illegal nighttime visit to Trajan’s Forum aboard a cherry picker, it’s simply impossible to see anything more than the pedestal close up in person.

Your best shot at a thorough look at the frieze in person is on the plaster casts in museums. The Museum of Roman Civilisation in the EUR neighborhood of Rome has a blessedly handy collection of casts of the relief separated into sections that are lined up in narrative order along three rows that you can walk through. Because the casts were made in the 19th century, the relief is in better condition than on the original column that has been exposed to an additional century and a half of pollution and erosion. The Victoria & Albert has plaster casts mounted on two central brick columns that makes them look like the column was cut in half. You can view it from ground level or from a gallery.

As far as digital options go, there are several excellent sites dedicated to Trajan’s Column. The University of St. Andrews has a phenomenal Trajan’s Column site that has a searchable database of images of the frieze that you can easily click through using a numbered map (after you click on a piece of the frieze, click zoom out to see all the images of that scene). It also has exceptional background information: explanations of numbering conventions used to identify scenes and figures, the drawings and casts that scholars have made to study the column, a detailed description of the column’s history, materials, construction method and more. The only problem is the photographs are small and it’s easy to lose your way in the details. There is no big picture view of the entire relief.

The German Archaeological Institute’s Arachne database has many images of Trajan’s Column, but they’re in black and white, watermarked and the interface is awkward, to put it mildly. Far more user friendly but still information-rich is the Trajan’s Column website created by Dartmouth College professor Roger B. Ulrich. The photographs are too small to quench my thirst. Google Art Project has a handful of good images of the plaster casts at the Museum of Roman Civilisation (this one of Trajan’s cavalry defeating the Sarmatian cataphract heavy cavalry is my favorite because you get to see the weird fish scale armour in detail), but nowhere near enough.

Wikipedia user MatthiasKabel has probably the best photographs of the complete column in situ on the web. Massive panoramas capture each side in exquisitely high resolution. They’re beautiful, but they’re just images, no information or key to help you interpret the riot of people, equipment and action. See them at the bottom of the Trajan’s Column entry.

The detailed view of the scenes flowing from one to the other has heretofore been lacking. That’s the gap National Geographic has filled. Their interactive graphic has a brief slideshow of highlights you can click through, but most importantly allows you to wind your way around the entire column, zooming in to examine whatever detail catches your fancy. They’ve created a simple color-coded notation system that categorizes the scenes by subject (marches, speeches, construction, etc.) and makes Trajan easy to spot because he’s been tinted yellow in all 58 of the scenes in which he appears.

As if that weren’t cool enough, National Geographic raised the bar to infinity and beyond by making a stop-motion animated video of how the column may have been constructed. There are several competing theories on the question, but none of their advocates have made a stop-motion video of them, so, you know…

But wait, there’s more! Damn that video was awesome, you say to yourself. I wish I could see how they made the magic happen. Well your wish has already come true, because there’s a making-of video. :boogie:

Lastly, because they’re a legitimate magazine with articles and what not, National Geographic has a story accompanying the great graphics that gives an overview of the history behind the column and of the Dacian culture Trajan all but obliterated from a perspective that is not imbued with Roman propaganda.

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Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Two rare hand-inked and hand-painted production cels from the classic 1957 Warner Brothers cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd exposed many children to the first and possibly only Wagner arias they’d ever known, will be going under the hammer at Heritage Auctions on April 9th, 2015. Only a handful of cells from this instant classic have survived the callous treatment they received in their time. These two have the advantage of being iconic images and having been rescued by a legendary animator who has kept them safe at home for all these decades.

What’s Opera, Doc? was directed by Chuck Jones (legend), voiced by Mel Blanc (legend) as Bugs with animation by Ken Harris (legend). Just six minutes long, the cartoon took seven weeks to produce, two weeks more than scheduled. Jones was so committed to this story that he made his crew falsify their time cards to say those extra two weeks were spent on a Road Runner cartoon that wasn’t in production yet. “For sheer production quality, magnificent music, and wonderful animation,” Jones said, “this is our most elaborate and satisfying production.” His instincts were unerring. Voted number one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by 1,000 members animators in 1994, What’s Opera, Doc? was also the first cartoon Congress deemed worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry in 1992.

One lot captures Elmer in his Siegfried outfit lifting up Brünnhilde Bugs during their dance inspired by the Bacchanal ballet in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. It’s seven inches tall and while there is some paint loss and paint separation, it’s still graded in Good condition.

The second cel is from the beginning of the cartoon and features Elmer as Siegfried holding on to his helmet and spear. It’s 6.5 inches square and only has slight spots of paint separation in the horns and spear. There is no paint loss so it’s graded in Very Good condition. Both cels have pre-sale estimates of $5,000 and up.

The animation cels were saved from the dustbin of history by another animation legend, Jerome Eisenberg, who worked as an animator on Jones’ unit at Warner Bros. in the mid-to-late-1950s, the Golden Age of Looney Tunes cartoons and who has held on to the cels for almost six decades.

Eisenberg moved from MGM Studios cartoon unit and joined Jones’ Warner Bros. unit just after “What’s Opera, Doc?” was completed, coming to Warner specifically to work with Jones.

“It was special to me to work in his unit,” said Eisenberg. “We had tremendous fun.”

One afternoon, to the best of his recollection, he was in one of the artists’ rooms, or in the room of the unit’s layout man, when he saw a group of cels on a table. The art appealed to him and, knowing that most animation art was simply stored and eventually trashed, he took a few.

“In those day I never thought much about saving them,” he said. “I really just saved them for the artwork.”

Bless his good taste.

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Richard III reburied today

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

More than 35,000 people lined the cortege route on Sunday, and more than 20,000 visitors have queued up to pay their respects to the mortal remains of Richard III in the three days the coffin has been on view at Leicester Cathedral. The culmination of this week of events is today’s reburial service.

A few tidbits about the service:

  • The current royal family will be represented by the Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, and the Duke of Gloucester who shares a title Richard held before he was king, but Queen Elizabeth II has written a tribute to Richard that will be printed in the service program.
  • After the service the coffin will be lowered into a tomb built of Yorkshire Swaledale stone. This is the first time the public will witness the actual lowering of a monarch’s coffin into the grave.
  • Descendents of people who fought at the Battle of Bosworth will be present.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, who is playing Richard III in an upcoming BBC series based on Shakespeare’s relevant histories, will read a poem called Richard written for the occasion by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Also University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer found Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard III are second cousins 16 times removed, see abridged genealogy here (pdf).
  • After the service the Cathedral will be closed to the public until Friday when the new memorial will be in place.

If you missed the transfer of the remains from the University of Leicester to the Cathedral and the Compline service that followed, Channel 4 has their entire coverage of the event available on their website. They will again be the only television channel broadcasting the reinterment live, but it looks like a sure bet that they’ll have that video available on their website if you miss it live.

Channel 4′s live coverage begins at 10:00 AM GMT (6:00 AM EST). In addition to airing the service itself, it will include discussions with some of the guests and the people involved in the discovery and reburial. The program will last three hours until 1:00 PM GMT. They’ll air a one-hour highlight reel at 8:00 PM GMT.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching live.

6:00 AM EDIT: Or rather I would be, if the Channel 4 viewer weren’t giving me an error. :angry:

7:06 AM: I can’t get it to work, dammit. I’ll have to watch it on demand later. For now, I’m listening to BBC Radio Leicester’s live coverage and following the Twitter RichardReburied hashtag.

The Leicester Mercury is liveblogging the reburial, as is the city’s dedicated King Richard in Leicester website.

7:23 AM: Here’s Queen Elizabeth II’s message:

7:31 AM: Professor Gordon Campbell, the University of Leicester’s public orator (dude, they have a public orator!) opened with a euology that was a brief, dry summary of Richard’s life, the discovery of his remains and the significance of his mitochondrial DNA. They don’t orate like they used to, man.

7:37 AM: The Dean just placed Richard’s personal Book of Hours, found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, on a cushion in front of the coffin.

7:49 AM: Check out this amazing headshake and eyeroll from John Ashdown-Hill of the Richard III Society. That’s Philippa Langley sitting next to him. I’m guessing is has something to do with insufficent recognition of Langley and the Society’s work in making this day come to pass.

7:58 AM: What a poetic sermon from the Bishop of Leicester.

8:02 AM: Here’s a neat story about the artist who made the ceramic vessels to hold the soils of Fotheringhay, Middleham and Fenn Lane that were blessed on Sunday and will be interred with Richard’s remains today. Michael Ibsen made the box, and a handsome one it is.

8:07 AM: Classic ashes to ashes dust to dust reading over the coffin which is now being lowered into the tomb.

8:08 AM: Apparently the soils will be sprinkled over the coffin, not placed in the tomb in the handsome box.

8:14 AM: “Grant me the carving of my name…” Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is beautiful and moving and Benedict Cumberbatch recited it like, well, a pro.

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

8:27 AM: And that’s all, folks. The luminaries are processing out. It was less than an hour long. No long, boring speeches. Beautiful music. Great poem. Epic Ricardian eyeroll. I couldn’t ask for more.

8:35 AM: Channel 4′s coverage continues with interviews of some of the principals — Langley, Ibsen, etc. I wonder if they’ll ask Philippa about the epic eyeroll. If, like me, you’re having trouble viewing the broadcast on Channel 4′s website, you can watch it online here instead. Wish I had remembered that an hour ago. :blankstare:

8:41 AM: They did ask John Ashdown-Hill about his eyeroll and he minced no words. He hoped the service would be peaceful, but “we still seem to be dealing with some lies from Leicester.” Daaaaamn… He wouldn’t specify the lies beyond saying they got Richard’s birthday wrong on the program.

8:45 AM: Benedict Cumberbatch was blown away by the poem. He looks stylish wearing a white rose lapel pin.

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Boy it sure got quiet in here

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

At first I just assumed I’d bored everyone to death once and for all. When I found myself all alone nerding out over Richard III’s cortege for 18 hours or so, I was bummed, but still not suspicious. Yes, it took another three days of complete radio silence in my comments for it to dawn on me that something might just be rotten in technological Denmark. So I looked under the hood and lo and behold, the last comment was posted on March 16th and on March 17th I installed an update to the anti-spam plugin. Coincidence or just two things happening at the same time? Neither! There was, gasp, a causal relationship between the two events.

So now I have a new anti-spam plugin that is not dead set on silencing you and eviscerating my self-esteem. Group hug!

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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.

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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.

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Queen Anne coronation medal designed by Isaac Newton

Monday, March 23rd, 2015


Oxford University PhD student James Hone has discovered a manuscript in the National Archives at Kew that proves Isaac Newton personally designed the coronation medal commemorating the accession of Queen Anne in 1702. Newton was Master of the Mint at the time, but before this discovery scholars believed that the medal was designed by court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller.

[T]he notes show Newton switching ideas from science to maths, classical history, politics and literature.
“It tells us that Newton didn’t conceive of himself as a scientist, but a master of lots of trades. The understanding of him as a great scientist is a later imposition, he would have seen himself more as a public servant.”

Finding a manuscript in Newton’s own hand complete with sketches and explanations of the metaphors woven into the design lends new insight into the man, his work at the mint and the seething cauldron of politics bubbling around Queen Anne’s coronation.

Official commemorative medals were struck for every coronation of a Stuart monarch. There were gold versions to hand out to the peers and diplomats attending the coronation and cheaper silver versions to throw into the crowds gathered at Westminster Abbey. Original documentation about the design and production of most of the Stuart tokens has not survived. That makes the Isaac Newton papers on the creation of the 1702 medal all the more significant.

Hone was doing research for the Stuart Successions Project, a joint study by Exeter University and Oxford University of printed material written during and about the succession crises in Britain between 1603 and 1702, when he came across a set of manuscripts from Newton’s time as Master of the Mint. One of them was a 50-page document that, judging from the completely rusted clasp keeping the pages together, hadn’t been read for years. The manuscript detailed the design of the first coronation medal and other prospective medals as well.

Newton was in his mid-50s when he was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 during the reign of King William III. He was enlisted by Secretary to the Treasury William Lowndes to help in the Great Recoinage of 1696, an attempt by the government to solve a currency crisis by taking old, badly clipped silver coins and counterfeits out of circulation. Newton committed to the task with characteristic vigor, going undercover in taverns and dark alleys to gather information on counterfeiters. He personally interrogated suspects and witnesses and prosecuted dozens, securing convictions in 28 cases. He also helped establish the Bank of England as ordered by Acts of Parliament.

He was appointed Master of the Mint in 1699, and even though both the mint positions he held were widely considered sinecures, Isaac Newton took the second one as seriously as he had the first. He retired as Member of Parliament for the Cambridge University constituency to dedicate himself to the job. Little surprise, then, that he was writing 50-page treatises on commemorative medals when his predecessors had left that sort of thing to Mint minions. He put his extensive knowledge of mythology and allegory to work crafting a doozy of a propaganda piece.

The obverse of the medal is profile of Queen Anne similar to what you’d find on the regular coinage inscribed “ANNA D.G. MAG. BR. FRA. ET. HIB REGINA” (“Anne, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain, France and Ireland”). The reverse is the juicy bit. Anne is depicted as the Greek warrior goddess Pallas Athena standing on a hill with the rays of the sun shining down upon her. She holds three bolts of lightning upraised in her right hand and her aegis in the left. At her feet is an aggressive monster with two heads, four arms (two of them hold clubs, the other two rocks) and eight snakes in place of legs. This side is inscribed “VICEM GERIT ILLA TONANTIS” or “She is the Thunderer’s viceregent” across the top and “INAUGURAT XXIII AP MDCCII” (“Crowned April 23, 1702″) across the bottom.

The multi-headed serpent element suggests this monster is the Hydra, classical symbol of a complex and die-hard enemy that springs two new heads for every one you cut off. Before now scholars have thought the monster represented a domestic faction opposed to Anne’s rule. Hone discovered that Newton had a whole other think going.

But Newton, in his own notes on the design, describes it as a symbol of “any Enemy with which Her Majesty hath or may have War”. In other words, the monster presents the double threat posed by Louis XIV and James Francis Edward Stuart [Anne's exiled half-brother, the Catholic son of James II], the Old Pretender. The motto looks back to William and Mary. By describing Anne as a “Thunderer”, Newton explains that he was alluding to the coronation medal of 1689, which likewise portrayed William as a thundering Jupiter. In a sentence, Newton explains that the coronation medal “signifies that her Majesty continues the scene of the last reign”.

The messages of the medal were not lost at the time. Some of William’s allies used the medal to suggest that Anne was William redivivus. William’s Tory enemies, on the other hand, considered it a potentially seditious object. The High Tory Vice Chancellor of Oxford even banned students from discussing the medal in their panegyrics to the new queen! This medal, it seems, had political bite.

The medal’s depiction of Anne as the warrior queen continuing where King William had left off seems to have made people nervous in other ways as well. She never again appeared as a fighter. There were two other medals cast after this one in 1702. The second featured her profile on the obverse and her husband Prince George of Denmark on the reverse. The third had the usual profile obverse and a European town under siege on the reverse. The inscription says “VIRES ANIMUMQUE MINISTRAT,” meaning “She gives strength and courage.” Gone was the warrior goddess vanquishing the country’s enemies with her terrible power of the thunderbolt. In a matter of months her she was whittled down into an inspiration, a sort of spiritual Betty Grable pin-up shoring up troop morale. That shift became permanent, and it’s very noticeable because there were multiple issues of Queen Anne commemorative medals with battle scenes on the reverse.

Hone thinks Newton’s work at the mint may have played a part in his knighthood. Queen Anne knighted Isaac Newton in 1705, three years to the month after her coronation, during her visit to Cambridge. He was running for Cambridge MP at the time and the election was a month away, so historians generally believe the knighting was a political gesture rather than recognition of his work for the crown or his scientific accomplishments. Newton was only the second scientist ever knighted. Sir Francis Bacon was the first to receive the honor in 1603.

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