Archive for December, 2016

The Year in History Blog History

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

This year The History Blog celebrated its 10th anniverary. The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t make an appearance at this party like he did at the Six Millionth View party last year, but we made up for it with a really great comment thread. I love when readers who rarely (or never!) comment mingle with the regular commenters to say nice things about the blog. It’s downright invigorating. (No, that is not a prompt for more of same in the comments on this post. Okay it kind of is. Not that you need prompting.)

It’s the on-topic posts that capture people’s attention on the larger web. The article about the 17th century silk gown found on the Texel shipwreck was the runaway most visited of the year with 11,555 views. The story of the murder of Joe the Quilter and the discovery of the remains of his cottage was the second most popular of the year with 6,276 views. It was also one of my favorites. The tragic story, Joe’s outstanding artisanship, the rare survival of a labourer’s cottage from the 1820s and my first encounter with the Beamish Museum all captivated my attention. Then the modern Joe the Quilter topped it all off by commenting.

That wasn’t the only murderous story of the year. I was particularly interested in the story of Martha Brown, the woman who killed her abusive husband and was hanged for it. Among the thousands of people who attended her execution was a 16-year-old Thomas Hardy. Years later he would write Tess of the d’Urbervilles about a woman who kills her abuser and is hanged for murder. The century-old cold case of the Fontaubert bones only has the legend of a gloriously lurid murder behind it, but maybe the new forensic investigation will turn up something if not equally interesting, at least mildly so. Then there was the first known boomerang victim, killed in the 13th century by a fighting boomerang, a heavy, sharp-edged wood weapon that cut through his bone like metal. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that the remains of the victim of a huge 17th century royal sex scandal have been found, but the odds are slim.

I allowed myself some shameless photographic indulgences this year. The Australian quilts were probably my richest haul in a single post, but in sheer size and beauty, the Dream Garden Tiffany mosaic gets very high ranking in the end of the year summary even though I only just posted it a couple of days ago. Another December entry gave me my greatest source of photographic gluttony, however. It’s the boxwood miniatures. When the Art Gallery of Ontario gave me access to their folder of high resolution photographs, I seriously got a rush. It’s because the carving is so, so small. Having gigantic pictures where the details could be seen in extreme close-up totally made my year.

Along similar lines, I love how high resolution 3D scans of artifacts and remains are becoming more common. This year alone we saw 3D scans of Chinese oracle bones, the Dandaleith Pictish stone, a Pictish cross slab, an Anglo-Saxon name stone found at Lindisfarne, bones and objects from the Tudor flagship Mary Rose, the first church where Norway’s Viking saint king Olaf II was buried and the irrepressible charm of the Skara Brae “Buddo” figurine.

Some of my favorite finds of the year were inscriptions. There was the Etruscan stele found in the foundations of an ancient temple in Tuscany, later found to include the name of the goddess Uni. Newly discovered Etruscan inscriptions are always cause for celebration, and this one is very long and very old. I also loved the two from modern-day Turkey, the 2,000-year-old horse racing rules and the amazing 2,200-year-old lease contract. It’s a contract! Literally carved in stone! And thus metaphor becomes literal.

With no particular thread connecting them other than my personal interest, I got a big kick out of discoveries from all over the world. There was that group of small ceremonial iron weapons found in Oman, the small fragment of 13th century pottery from Teruel, Spain, decorated with a unique depiction of a Jewish man, the Tuscan villa of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a 4th century senator and one of the last politically prominent adherents of traditional Roman religion to fight for its preservation, that freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire and the unbearable cuteness of the Canaanite “Thinker” figurine.

In the ephemera category, the only copy of Utrecht’s first newspaper, published in 1623, was found in a hand-bound anthology in the City Archives and Athenaeum Library in Deventer, the Netherlands. The news wasn’t fresh (even our Dutch-speaking readers struggled to follow it), but the history of newspapers was entirely unknown to me before I researched the find. Fascinating subject. The account of another battle of Thermopylae, this one between invading Goths and a combined Roman-Greek force during the 3rd century Gothic wars, discovered in a palimpsest in Vienna is a stand-out of the year. It’s a previously unknown passage in the Scythica, a history of the wars written by Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus who lived through them. Only a few fragments from this history survived quoted in later books. The palimpsest gave us by far the longest surviving passage, and a riveting one at that.

Denmark may win the award this year for most exciting finds in one country. There was the wee gold pendant found by a metal detectorist that is the earliest figure of Christ found in Denmark, the lead amulet invoking elves and the Christian Trinity, the rediscovery of the long-lost Ydby Runestone, the stabby beauty of the Viking treasure hoard found in Lille Karleby, the
two pounds of Viking gold bangles, the Viking toolbox unearthed at Borgring, and that amazingly smooth giant Neolithic flint axe. But of all the great and wondrous treasures Denmark has brought us this year, the greatest of them all was the 17th century bishop’s turd. The title alone made me laugh for a solid two days.

The hoards of the Danes had sturdy competition this year from Spain and Switzerland. The sheer quantity, 1,300 pounds of Roman coins, found in Tomares outside Seville, Spain, would have been impressive enough on its own, but they came in custom matching amphorae of a type never seen before. Researchers are still going through the tens of thousands of coins from the late 3rd, early 4th century. It’s not cash or pounds of gold, but the Roman lamp hoard found in Switzerland stands next to these glories with its head held high, just because it’s so pristine and unique.

I think the highlight of the year, maybe the highlight of the first decade of The History Blog history, was the chilling Halloween three-parter about the Harrison Horror (part I, part II, part III). I’d been thinking about writing a serial for years, and a long-form treatment of the body-snatching of John Scott Harrison and Augustus Devin for at least two years. I finally did it and it was so, so worth it. I’m warning you, though, there is no way I’m even trying to top it next year, not for Halloween anyway. Maybe some other theme will inspire me, or maybe it’ll just be something that I randomly stumble across. Stay tuned to find out!

I wish you all the very best of New Years, full of prosperity, peace and nerdery. I will continue to do my utmost to contribute to the last of those.

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3,800-year-old wetland potato garden found in Canada

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a prehistoric garden with 3,800-year-old tubers still in situ near Vancouver, Canada. This is the first direct archaeological evidence that the Holocene hunter-gatherers of the northwest coast cultivated plants as well as hunting and gathering it. The site, discovered during road work, was low-lying wetland 6,000 years ago. The anaerobic soil preserved the remains of an astonishing 3,768 wild wapato tubers (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Indian potatoes.

Wapato tubers were a dietary staple among the indigenous people of the Fraser and Columbia rivers — the garden site is in what is now the Katzie First Nation territory — and were recorded by early ethnographers. Harvested between October and February, the tubers provided much-needed sustenance during the coldest of the winter months when supplies were scarce. The newly discovered ones long predate any such records, of course, and even the waterlogged soil couldn’t keep them in eating condition for close to 4,000 years. They’re black and brown now, although some the starchy interiors of some of the roots have survived.

Adjacent to the wetland garden is a dry site on a sandy ridge that contains the remains of two rectangular dwellings dating to the Middle Component (5,300–4,250 years before the present) and a fire pit that was so actively used during the Middle and Late Component (4,100–3,200 B.P.) that archaeologists unearthed more than 12 metric tons of fire-altered rock (FAR). Late Component artifacts were also found at the dry site, including more than 90,000 stone beads.

The tubers were wild plants, not domesticated, and wapato plants can grow deep underground all on their own. It’s an assemblage of rocks that makes it clear that this site wasn’t just a very prolific wild potato patch, but a cultivated wetland garden ingeniously customized by the indigenous people of the area to enhance harvest yields. The key evidence of cultivation is the rock pavement which is too uniform and densely packed to have been the result of natural processes like water carrying small stones to the lowest lying land. Archaeologists also found fragments of 150 fire-hardened wood tools, some still embedded in the rock pavement, used to harvest the tubers en masse.

The rock pavement controlled the depth to which the wapato rhizomes could penetrate, allowing harvesters to more easily locate and release the tubers from the mucky substrate. The context, breakage pattern, and direct association with the rock pavement suggest that the wooden tips are the distal ends of digging sticks. Their stratigraphic provenience and orientation imply that wapato harvest involved pushing or thrusting digging sticks into the pavement, where a prying or rocking motion was used to break the wapato tubers free from the mat of rhizomes and muddy substrates. Once released, the tubers would float to the water’s surface. When thrust through the pavement or caught between the pavement stones, some of the digging sticks broke and the tips of the fractured sticks were left in situ or discarded in the adjacent midden area.

The rock pavement in the garden is made of mixture of fire-altered rock and cobbles. It’s likely that the FAR were first used in the large hearth pit on the dry site and then recycled after they’d been shrunk by fire to too small a size for use in roasting. This was nothing if not an efficient system. Radiocarbon analysis of the fire-hardened wood found at the wetland garden indicate it was in use 3,800 years ago. By 3,200 years ago, it had been abandoned, thousands of tubers left in their watery garden for archaeologists to find.

You can read the full report on the site published in the journal Science Advances here.

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Tiffany’s glass mosaics get their own show

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, New York, will present the first exhibition dedicated to the intricate glass mosaics made by Louis Comfort Tiffany‘s glassworks. Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics combines works in the CMoG collection with ones from The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass and pieces loaned from other institutions and private collections. Almost 50 mosaics made from the 1890s through the 1920s will be displayed, from small decorative objects to massive installations made of thousands of glass tiles.

The exhibition will reveal the process of creating a mosaic at Tiffany’s studios—through detailed watercolor studies and drawings to surviving glass sample panels and examples of completed work. Museum visitors will gain insight into the labor-intensive processes, including the selection of individual pieces of glass, which played a vital role in the overall aesthetic of the final product. Drawing on The Neustadt’s archive of Tiffany glass, objects on display will also include original examples of colored sheet glass, glass “jewels,” and glass fragments made for specific mosaics.[…]

“Although Louis C. Tiffany is best known for his pioneering leaded glass windows and lamps, his mosaics are the culmination of his experimentation and artistry in glass,” said Lindsy Parrott, director and curator at The Neustadt and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “Indeed, the mosaics represent an exciting synthesis of his work in both leaded and blown glass. Using a rich variety of materials, including multicolored opalescent glass and shimmering iridescent glass, accented with three-dimensional glass ‘jewels,’ Tiffany’s innovations in glass established a bold new aesthetic for mosaics and contributed a uniquely American character to the centuries-old art form.”

The exhibition will also explore how Louis Comfort Tiffany used his showroom to market his portfolio to wealthy clients, driving up perceived value by letting buyers get a peek behind the curtain at how the wizards in Tiffany’s workshop made every piece by hand.

“Tiffany’s successful combination of art and business coincided with the rapid development of consumer culture in the United States,” said Kelly Conway, curator of American glass at CMoG and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “His impressive New York City showroom and clever, gorgeous displays of the company’s mosaics at world’s fairs, coupled with strategic marketing, sparked consumer interest and drove demand for high-priced luxury objects for the home.”

That was just the beginning of the Tiffany mosaic business, however. As the mosaic workshop became increasingly well-established at the end of the 19th century, religious and educational institutions commissioned Tiffany mosaics on a grand scale. While individual mosaics, mostly portable, have been on display before, this exhibition is the first to display the full breadth of Tiffany’s mosaic oeuvre. The museum has created custom digital displays that will allow visitors to explore the minute details of large-scale architectural mosaics in churches, libraries and universities that cannot be moved for exhibition. Mosaics at 12 different locations in New York State, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago have been photographed in high resolution by the CMoG team for the virtual displays.

Here is a magnificent example of that photography. It’s a mural in the Curtis Publishing Company Building in Philadelphia, a huge wonderland of glass tiles that looks completely different from a distance than it does up close, like one of those magic eye posters.

EDIT: Extremely relevant information I left out for some unknown reason is that the exhibition runs from May 20th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Calvatone Victory rediscovered at the Hermitage

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

An ancient Roman bronze statue lost since World War II has been rediscovered at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The gilded bronze statue of Nike, goddess of Victory, was created in the second century A.D. to commemorate the victory of co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus against the Parthians in the war of 161-166.

The Victory was found in four pieces: the body, torso, right hand and the sphere. The head was discovered first, churned up in February 1836 by farmers working the fields of a private estate near the town of Calvatone outside Cremona in Lombardy, northern Italy. The estate’s owner, Luigi Alovisi, was fascinated by the golden head and had people keep looking for more parts. On March 14th, 1836, they found the body, missing the left arm and leg, and a sphere with both of her dainty feet perched upon it. The inscription on the sphere — VICTORIAE AVG. / ANTONINI ET VERI / M. SATRIUS MAIOR — identified its age and that it was dedicated by local dignitary Marcus Satrius Maior to the emperors.

Italian restorers put the existing pieces back together, revealing a statue 170 cm (5’7″) in height. Even though it was incomplete, its size, quality and the elegant balancing of the winged Victory atop a sphere immediately classified it among the masterpieces of antiquity. Very few ancient bronzes survived melting down, and the Calvatone Victory not only managed to avoid the forge, it kept a large proportion of its gilding.

In December of 1841, Luigi Alovisi sold the Victory to King Frederick William IV of Prussia for 12,000 Austrian lire and a noble title. German restorers picked up where the Italian ones left off and all the statue’s missing parts — left arm, left leg, wings — were recreated and attached. Now complete, it became a favorite subject for artists to draw and sculptors to copy. A plaster cast of the sculpture was created in 1871 and another eight made after the turn of the century. Some of the copies are in museums in Berlin, Rome, Cremona and Moscow even today.

Up until 1939, the Calvatone Victory was on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Along with many other precious works, it was moved to the cellar of the new Royal Mint building for its protection when World War II broke out. It remained (relatively) safe there while its former home at the Altes Museum was destroyed by Allied bombs. It was in the chaotic aftermath of the Battle of Berlin in 1945 that the Victory disappeared, one of thousands of artifacts lost to looting by German Army deserters and Red Army troops.

Its whereabouts were unknown for the next 70 years. Recent research by Hermitage staff into declassified Soviet files and newly discovered documents found that the Victory was specifically targeted for removal from the mint cellar by a Russian expert in ancient art. The cellar had flooded in the waning days of the war, and the Calvatone Victory was one of many pieces stored there to suffer damage. Packed into one of 40,000 cases full of art, the Victory wasn’t assigned an inventory number. By the time it arrived at the Hermitage in 1946 and was entered into inventory there, its real identity was lost and it was mistakenly assessed to be a 17th century French sculpture.

The statue is not in great condition. The heavy gilded iron wings attached by the Berlin restorers in the 19th century fell off during its wartime service in the cellar, and there is evidence of damage from bombs and water.

Hermann Parzinger, the director of the SPK, and Michail Piotrowkij, the general director of the Hermitage, have agreed to collaborate on the sculpture’s restoration.

Parzinger thanked the Hermitage for its transparent handling of the research, and for a history of successful collaborations on exhibitions surrounding works displaced from German museums during World War II. “With the Victoria of Calvatone sculpture, our successful and mutually trusting scholarly collaboration has gained another milestone to mark.”

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Remains of 2000-year-old cats found in Denmark

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Danish archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of three ancient housecats in Aalborg, northern Jutland. At 2,000 years old, they are by far the oldest domesticated cat remains ever discovered in Denmark. The cat bones were found during an archaeological survey before construction of a new university hospital in Aalborg East. The bones of two of the three cats could be dated from their archaeological context to the 1st century. They will be radiocarbon dated to confirm their age.

The settlement was located on the foreland at the narrowest point on the Limfjord, an area which today is considered a marginal area for agriculture. During the Iron Age it was rich pasture land, however, and the settlement took advantage of the excellent grazing to raise livestock. The remains of longhouses from that period have been found at the site, with rare surviving chalk floors and equally well-preserved animals bones, teeth and other zooarchaeological material.

Excavations took place in 2014-2015, but they found so many different kinds of animal bones that scientific analysis identifying them were only completed this year. Most of the bones came from sheep and/or goats, cattle, horses, livestock that would have been raised, slaughtered and eaten in the settlement. A large number of fish bones attest to the sea-side settlment’s use of marine resources. No remains of game were found, suggesting hunting was not a major source of food for the Iron Age residents.

There are comparable animal remains at other settlements on the fjord, but the cats are unique. The Limfjord was an important thoroughfare during the Iron Age. Trade networks moved weapons, luxury goods and exotic animals from the south and west of Europe to what is today Denmark. The cats almost certainly came from the Roman Empire.

A genetic study reported in the journal Nature this September suggested that cats, all of ancient Egyptian lineage, spread over Europe in waves, reaching northern Europe by making themselves useful to the seafarers of the Viking era.

Cat populations seem to have grown in two waves, the authors found. Middle Eastern wild cats with a particular mitochondrial lineage expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Geigl suggests that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats. After seeing the benefit of having cats around, humans might have begun to tame these cats.

Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa. A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century bc to the fourth century ad was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. Sea-faring people probably kept cats to keep rodents in check, says Geigl, whose team also found cat remains with this maternal DNA lineage at a Viking site dating to between the eighth and eleventh century ad in northern Germany.

The discovery of the three cat skeletons in an Iron Age settlement on North Jutland poses a challenge to that view. Of course, the scenarios are not mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible cats were introduced to the fjord via trade with Rome, direct or otherwise, but didn’t establish themselves until a thousand years later.

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Ancient tomb with vibrant frescoes found in Jordan

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Workers expanding a waste-water sanitation system in the village of Beit Ras in northern Jordan have unearthed a Roman or Byzantine-era tomb decorated with vibrantly colored frescoes. In rich reds, greens, yellows and pinks, the oil frescoes depict people and their animals in daily life, agricultural workers, grape vines and scenes from mythology. There are Greek inscriptions above the While some areas are eroded, on the whole the art is remarkably well-preserved and provides a unique insight into the funerary rituals of the city of Capitolias in late antiquity.

The tomb includes a cave with two burial chambers. The larger chamber contains a basalt stone rock-cut tomb decorated with raised etchings of two lion heads and with several human bones enclosed. […]

The inscriptions and some artifacts found in the tomb are being analysed to give a more accurate time-frame of when this tomb was built and who it was built for. […]

Her Excellency Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ms. Lina Annab, following a visit to the site, confirmed that the Department of Antiquities will continue to excavate, expand and prepare the site for future visitors. Her Excellency also confirmed that due to the tomb’s archaeological value, the site has been closed off to visitors and on-lookers to protect the archaeological integrity of the tomb as more tests are being run to ascertain more information about its significance.

The ancient city of Capitolias was founded in the 1st century A.D. under the reign of either Nerva or Trajan. The planned city, dedicated to and named after the god Jupiter Capitolinus, prospered. By the 2nd century it was encircled by a defensive wall and continued to grow in regional significance. It was one of the cities of the traditional Decapolis, a group of 10 cities that were centers of Greek and Roman culture in the Levant. Capitolias was populated through the Umayyad period in the 10th century, and there are records of Latin titulars assigned to the city as late as the 14th century.

The site wasn’t thoroughly excavated until the 1980s, and there were limitations on how much of the area could be explored without interfering with the modern village. Very few structures have been found — a smattering of the surface remains of the city walls, a marketplace, a colonnade, an aqueduct — but there’s little left of most of them. The largest single surviving ancient structure is the 2nd century Roman theater.

Other archaeological finds, large numbers of glass fragments from the 3rd-5th century which are evidence of a major secondary glass production industry in Capitolias, indicate Capitolias was economically prominent in the region well into the Byzantine era. The newly discovered tomb may fill in more blanks about this same period.

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A little treat

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

I saved this just for today since I knew I wouldn’t have time for a full post. Remember the wonderful video from last year of the Historic Royal Palaces conservators lovingly cleaning the massive Mortlake February tapestry? Several comments on that article wished to see a picture of the tapestry after it was cleaned. Well, there are no direct before-and-after comparison images that I could find, but there is another great video, this one showing the cleaned tapestry re-hung by textile conservators in the Privy Chamber of Kensington Palace.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Xmp_B4h7-tc&w=430]

They take the same care hanging such a large and delicate tapestry as they do washing it.

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Tudor Christmas Cookalong

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Looking for last minute holiday feast ideas? Historic Royal Palaces has some suggestions from the Tudors whose feasting prowess was legendary. They’ve posted two Tudor Christmas Cookalong videos hosted by food historian Robin Mitchener who is part of the crack team in the Hampton Court Palace kitchens that recreate period foods for the visitors to the palace.

The first video in the series is for a dish called Sauge made from leftover white meat, so maybe more of a post-Christmas dish unless you still have turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving. It’s like a combination of chicken and egg salad, only without mayonnaise or oil. The yolks get mashed up in a monster marble mortar and pestle with spices, herbs and vinegar, though, so it does get somewhat creamed. Please note around the 2:40 mark how slickly Robin Mitchener deploys his blade.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/MT_955ErcAE&w=430]

Next is Cormarye, a marinated pork loin dish that looks legitimately delicious. In Tudor times the entire loin was roasted on a spit in one of the ginormous Hampton Court fireplaces, but the food historian has modified it to use readily available and easily pan-cooked loin steaks.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/PUzWRfGGQVA&w=430]

The whole YouTube channel is a treasury of cooking videos. This one from six years ago offers a Tudor-style alternative to the traditional Christmas mince pie. It’s called Ryschewys close and fryez (watch the video to learn how to pronounce it) and is a pasta parcel filled with fruits and nut paste and fried.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/LLKIPv0b6JM&w=430]

This one isn’t Christmas themed per se. It’s a savory cheese pie filled with all the rich dairy you’re not supposed to eat at Lent, hence the name Tartes owt of Lente. I’m sure it’s very tasty and looks relatively simple to prepare, but the key part of the video as far as I’m concerned is the unimpeded view of Robin whipping out his trusty scimitar from his hip holster. Watch out cowboys; we history nerds are coming for you.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/2KAYlHWqEjk&w=430]

Merry Christmahannakwanzika, all!

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Texel shipwreck yields another great textile

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

The 17th century ship that sank in the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland has already yielded a remarkable trove of well-preserved textiles. A beautiful silk damask gown was identified as having belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria and governess to three of her children with King Charles I. Buried under the sand for centuries, the gown survived in stunning condition, as did some of her other garments — a jacket, several silk bodices embroidered with gold and silver thread, woven silk knee socks — and pieces like a silver-embroidered red velvet pouch that would normally have disintegrated over time.

Now to that record we can add 13 fragments from an extremely rare carpet. Woven from silk and wool, the carpet has intricate flower and animal designs. One fragment features a striking scene of a lion attacking a cow.

Art historians have studied the fragments, examining the weaving and knotting techniques, the colors, patterns and figures. They believe the carpet was likely manufactured in Lahore, then part of the Mughal Empire that ruled over modern-day Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It dates to the second quarter of the 17th century, a time when the Dutch East India Company’s exports of Indian textiles to Europe was kicking into high gear.

Since the ship was a baggage ship for Queen Henrietta Maria’s royal retinue, the carpet may or may not have originated from the Dutch East India Company. The company traded all over Europe, and several Mediterranean objects were found on the wreck, so the carpet might have come to Holland via the south as well.

The highly prized carpets with their stylized botanicals and dynamic animal figures were very popular among the wealthy in the Dutch Golden Age. Yet, almost none of them have survived.

“It’s almost like having the fragments of an original Rembrandt in front of you,” textile researchers Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis and Hillie Smit, who examined the carpet, said in an emailed statement from the museum.

The fragments are now on display at the at the Kaap Skil museum, where the damask dress is on display, in Diving into Details, an exhibition about the latest research into the shipwreck. The exhibition runs through mid-February, after which the fragments will be sent to the Hilde House in Castricum, the archaeological museum of the Province Noord-Holland, for further study and conservation.

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Secrets of 16th c. boxwood miniatures revealed

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum, is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the mysterious beauty of 16th century miniature boxwood carvings. The AGO is home to the Thomson Collection of European Art which includes 12 boxwood carvings (10 prayer beads and two altarpieces), the largest collection in one place. There are only 135 known miniature boxwood carvings known to survive, so the AGO has almost 10 percent of the world’s total. Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures brings together the Thomson Collection pieces with another 50 loaned by other museums and private collections.

The miniature boxwood carvings were made during a very brief window, between 1500 and 1530, in Flanders or the Netherlands. It’s possible that only a single workshop, perhaps two, carved them all. The rise of a new moneyed merchant class with money to spend on expensive and showy objects created a market for high-end, portable religious carvings. Come the Reformation, rosaries, altarpieces and beads would go most decidedly out of fashion in Northern Europe and the window shut.

The prayer beads, also known as prayer nuts because their exteriors resemble a very symmetrical walnut shell, were devotional objects worn on a belt or on the end of rosary. About the size of golf balls, the beads open to reveal intricate, deeply layered Biblical scenes and inscriptions from the Vulgate. Their rich imagery and detail were meant to inspire contemplation and prayer. They had the ancillary benefit of being a religiously correct way to show off one’s wealth. A dense wood like boxwood holds its shape well and gives carvers the opportunity to create tiny details, but it also takes a huge amount of work and time. That makes it expensive. Features like copper or silver cases, often themselves engraved with elaborate scenes, added to the display of riches.

The space the carvers had to work in was so small and the wood so hard, that it seems almost impossible they were able to achieve such complex scenes, many with dozens of figures, human, heavenly and demonic, architectural elements, trees, symbols, all in the space of a single inch. They used specialized tools two inches long to dig deep into the wood, creating tiers of characters and landscape.

How exactly the craftsmen were able to create these elaborate compositions has been a mystery for 500 years. They must have used magnification because you can’t see how they’re put together with the naked eye. The curators and conservators of the AGO, Met and Rijksmuseum sought to break new ground in the study of the miniature marvels. X-rays weren’t enough to show how the sausage was made because the parts were too tiny. The AGO experts turned to micro-CT scanning to find the answers. The beads were carved from one piece of boxwood. The layers of the scene were carved in sections and then the discs set into the sphere with boxwood pins smaller than a seed of grass. The overlapping discs added depth and complexity to the miniatures.

Some of the carvings in the exhibition have never been seen before in North America. One of the ones making its North American debut in Toronto is the Chatsworth Rosary (ca. 1509–1526), an astounding masterwork of miniature carving which was originally owned by King Henry VIII and his devout Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. The eleven beads are each carved on all sides with prompts for prayers, and the largest bead features Henry and Catherine at mass barely visible behind a pillar. It may have been a wedding present, and it seems Catherine kept it in the divorce. All for the best given that Henry outlawed rosaries in 1534.

The exhibition runs at the AGO through January 22nd, 2017. It opens at the Met Cloisters on February 21st, 2017, and moves to its last stop, the Rijksmuseum on June 15th, 2017. If you can’t make it to the shows, or even if you can but want to have your mind blown by the details in these pieces, the AGO has created a dedicated page with the whole collection available to peruse in extreme closeup. The zoom tool gives you an amazing view of every last nook and cranny. If that isn’t enough to slake your thirst, check out the wonderful videos below from the AGO.

Deciphering how the miniatures were made:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/ytTcrjKMzcc&w=430]

Micro CT scan of prayer bead:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/G4aCWcA1WsQ&w=430]

3D Animation compiled from the Micro CT scans of the St. Jerome Boxwood Prayer Bead:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/g5bYK4G8Kqo&w=430]

3D Animation of the Last Judgement Prayer Bead:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/cjHp2usD2Qw&w=430]

3D Animation of the Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/eZl0bKCf9u0&w=430]

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