Archive for January, 2019

Fragments of 13th c. Merlin text found in Bristol library

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Fragments of a 13th century Old French text of Arthurian legends have been found inside a series of later bound books in the Bristol Central Library. Seven handwritten manuscript fragments from the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, were discovered by the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Librarian Michael Richardson while perusing a collection of the works of 15th century French scholar Jean Gerson.

The four-volume edition of Gerson’s works was printed in Strasbourg between 1494 and 1502, but it seems they were not bound because the first binding appears to have been done in England in the early 16th century. That’s when the fragments of the Old French manuscript became integrated into the books. Parchment was expensive and bookbinders often reused old “waste materials” in their bindings instead of using clean sheets. There is evidence on the leaves that at this time they were pasted on the front and back boards of the books. When the books were rebound at a later date, the pasted fragments were unglued from the boards and used as flyleaves (those blank pages you still find today at the beginning and end of a volume).

Richardson recognized the names of key figures, most notably Merlin, from the Arthurian tales on the oft-recycled parchment pieces. He called in Dr. Leah Tether, an Arthurian expert from the University of Bristol’s English department to assess the significance of those names and manuscript fragments. She identified them as pieces of the Vulgate Cycle, a telling of the Arthur legend that predates all English-language versions and is thought to have been Sir Thomas Malory’s source for Le Morte D’Arthur. There are other surviving examples of the text, these fragments have intriguing differences in the narrative.

The seven leaves represent a continuous sequence of the Estoire de Merlin narrative (though they are bound ‘out of chronological order’ in their current form) – specifically in a section known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin).

Events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and assorted other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers.

Merlin has been strategising the best plan of attack. There follows a long description of the battle. At one point, Arthur’s forces look beleaguered but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice leads them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using Sir Kay’s special dragon standard that Merlin had gifted to Arthur, which breathes real fire.

In the end, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, and the other knights, are accommodated in the Castle of Trebes.

That night Ban and his wife, Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter of which seems to prefigure Elaine’s yet-to-be-born son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice. He wakes up and goes to church.

We are told that during Arthur’s stay in the kingdom of Benoic for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue to fight and defeat Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to look after matters in his own lands, Claudas is once again triumphant.

The narrative then moves to Merlin’s partial explanation of the dreams of Ban and Elaine. Afterwards, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep (she wishes to do this to her parents). Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but resists sleeping with her. Merlin then returns to Benoic to rejoin Arthur and his companions.

In the newly discovered fragments, there tend to be longer, more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in certain sections – particularly in relation to battle action.

Where Merlin gives instructions for who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, the characters responsible for each division are different from the version of the narrative we know.

Sometimes only small details are changed – for example, King Claudas is wounded through the thighs in the known version, where in the fragments the nature of the wound is left unsaid, which may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

The damage to the fragments from their use in two different bindings will make it challenging to fully decipher the text. Researchers will use infrared imaging, if necessary, to read through the damage and publish a full transcript of the exciting new finds.

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Leonardo’s thumbprint found on Royal Collections drawing

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

A fingerprint believed to have been left by Leonardo da Vinci has been found on one of his drawings in the UK’s Royal Collections. It was discovered by Alan Donnithorne, formerly the head paper conservator of the Royal Collections, who found the thumbprint on a red ink anatomical drawing. Fingerprints have been found on other works by Leonardo da Vinci, but this is the most likely one to have been left by the artist himself on one of the drawings in the Royal Collections.

The drawing, The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, was made around 1509-1510. Donnithorne found the thumbprint on the left side of the sheet near the subject’s arm. The mark was left in the same dark red ink as Leonardo used to make the drawing. There is also a smudged print left by his left index finger on the back of the sheet.

The UK is going all-out to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death on May 2nd of this year. It is taking the utmost advantage of the Queen Elizabeth II’s 550 works by the master, the largest single collection of Leonardos in the world. Remarkably, they’ve been together as a group since Leonardo died half a millennium ago and have been in the Royal Collection since the 17th century. To mark the anniversary, there will be 12 simultaneous exhibitions of Leonardo drawings across the UK from February 1st through May 6th. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing features 12 different drawings on display at each of the 12 museums in Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Sunderland, Belfast and Glasgow. The 144 drawings cover a wide range of interests pursued by the polymath: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

The anatomical drawing and its thumbprint will go on display Friday at the National Museum Cardiff. After that, all 144 drawings will join up with a few dozen more of Leonardo’s works from the Royal Collections to go on display at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace from May 24th until October 13th. This will be the largest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci works in 65 years. The exhibition will travel to Scotland next where it will be exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, from November 22nd through March 15th, 2020. That will be the largest collection of Leonardo’s works ever shown in Scotland.

In conjunction with the exhibitions, Alan Donnithorne has published a new scientific study of 80 of the Leonardo works in the Royal Collections. Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look reexamines those works in the light of the latest analytical technologies, including microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

One by one, Leonardo’s processes of creation are revealed, from his choice of paper and the composition of the specialist grounds used for his drawings, to his first touches in chalk, ink or metalpoint, and on to the finished compositions.

Many of these features are of course invisible to the naked eye, and have been so for centuries, ever since Leonardo took his pen from the paper. Infrared images reveal underdrawings unseen for 500 years, published here for the first time. Ultraviolet photography brings back to life now-vanished metalpoint sketches; while spectrographic analysis allows us to explore the origin and precise chemistry of Leonardo’s papers and grounds.

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16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Researchers have discovered evidence of heart disease in five mummies from 16th-century Greenland. An international team of anthropologists, medical doctors and technicians examined the mummies with a Computed Tomography scanner in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Shapiro Cardiovascular Center last year. They were looking for arterial plaque, the material that lines the arteries, hardening and narrowing them and creating blockages that can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Atherosclerosis and the cardiovascular disease that result from it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. The research team wanted to find out if it was common 500 years ago in Greenland, part of a larger project investigating the heart health of mummified human remains from pre-industrial hunter-gatherer communities.

The mummies of four young adults and one child from the Inuit community in 16th century Greenland were subjected to high-resolution CT scans. The organs were not intact inside the bodies, but even without hearts to explore, researchers were able to detect hardened calcium, ie plaque, in the remains of blood vessels in the chest and neck.

From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy — which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising — [associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program Dr. Ron] Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team’s findings shouldn’t be taken too much to heart, so to speak.

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Grave of important Christian Roman woman found in Ljubljana

Monday, January 28th, 2019

A burial ground centered around the grave of an elite Christian Roman woman has been discovered in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Modern-day Ljubljana began in 1st century B.C. as a castrum, a Roman fort, that developed an associated civilian settlement. Historians believe the city of Emona was built by imperial decree in 14 A.D. after the legion departed. Located on the Ljubljanica river, it was an important center of trade between the Adriatic and the Danube area and was the seat of a bishopric in the Early Christian era. It was destroyed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century. The city of Ljubljana grew on the site in the Early Middle Ages.

Archaeologists began excavating the site on Gosposvetska Street in August of 2017 in advance of construction. Roman graves had been found nearby before and experts expected they might find more. They did indeed, more in quantity and higher in quality than expected. The cemetery, about 2000 feet away from the northern walls of the Roman city, dates to the second half of the 4th century A.D. and contains more than 350 burials. Many of them are simple inhumation graves. Others include expensive sarcophagi that were made out of limestone quarried from Moravče, 20 miles east of the city. The remains of a six-year-old girl were found interred in one of these pricey sarcophagi. She was buried with a lovely set of jewelry — one solid gold bracelet, one dark glass bracelet, a necklace of gold rings and glass beads and a gold finger ring with a green stone.

The stand-out is a burial chapel or mausoleum that contains the remains of one 30 to 40-year-old woman who must have been a very important member of the community.

The most stunning artifact recovered beneath Gosposvetska Street was a transparent blue glass bowl found next to the woman’s body. The 1,700-year old vessel is decorated on the outside with grapes, and vine leafs and tendrils. A Greek inscription on the inside of the bowl instructs the owner to “Drink to live forever, for many years!”

This exquisite drinking bowl could have been used in both regular daily life as well as for burial ceremonies, and an analysis of its chemical composition points to its manufacture somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region. The grapevine decorations have their role in the Christian Eucharist and Communion, but have their origins in motifs associated with Dionysus, the pagan god of wine and ecstasy.

Archaeologists are also interested in how the woman’s tomb developed over time. It seems that possibly within a decade of her burial, her square chapel was demolished and a larger (30-by-40-foot) structure was built to enclose her tomb. Around the new structure and inside it, Emona’s Christian community began to practice a burial practice known as ad sanctos, in which the deceased are interred near the tombs of saints and other remains considered holy.

If she was the first or very early burial, her grave’s location at the center of a cemetery that grew up around her would identify the woman not just a person of high social status, but also someone of religious significance the Christian community that flourished in the city after the last of the persecutions under Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Her skeletal remains will be studied in the hope that some of the questions about her status in the community, the date of her death and her origins might be answered. A selection of the most exceptional artifacts discovered in the graves have gone on display in the treasury of the City Museum of Ljubljana.

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Roman cemetery found under Lisbon restaurant

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

Lisbon is a city with thousands of years of human habitation behind it, so whenever there is construction in the heart of that involves foundation or basement work, the site must be archaeologically surveyed first. So in 2016 when one its most famous restaurants, Solar dos Presuntos, a culinary icon of the city renown for its traditional Portuguese fare, decided to expand its kitchen and build a school attached to the restaurant, archaeologists got first crack at the site. Contractor archaeology company Neoepica was hired to work on this project, beginning with a preliminary study, diagnostic and test pits.

Lisbon has a rich history going back to the Neolithic and there were Phoenicians living in what would become Lisbon since at least 1200 B.C. Rome established a foothill in what they called Olissipo after the defeat of Carthage by Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C. The city was an important and prosperous trade center, thanks to its location on the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus river. Lisbon’s main square, the Praça da Figueira, is located over a major Roman cemetery in use from the 1st through the 4th century.

With all this density of history in the city center, archaeologists expected to make some discoveries where the restaurant was planning its addition, but because later construction often makes mincemeat of ancient remains, they weren’t expecting to hit a motherlode of Roman material. First they discovered 16th and 15th century artifacts, primarily pottery — dishes, cups, vessels — in very good condition. Then the bones began to appear.

Twenty feet under the surface, the team unearthed 28 skeletons from inhumation burials and urns containing the ashes of multiple individuals. Altogether, the remains of 60 people were found in the cemetery. Several of the inhumations included grave goods and funerary offerings left at the time of burial. These include typical Roman offerings like lamps, which illuminated the way to the underworld, and coins to secure the deceased would have the wherewithal to pay their way. There’s also a highly unusual object that is still in the process of being studied and evaluated, but appears to be a doctor’s case containing surgical instruments.

The finds are mostly in excellent condition. Neoepica archaeologist Paulo Rebelo described it as “possibly the best-preserved Roman necropolis found in recent times.” The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but based on the objects found, the cemetery dates to the 2nd or 3rd century.

The borders of the cemetery have not been pinpointed by this excavation. The team dug a little further afield and found additional traces of the necropolis in several directions. The archaeological material in the planned construction area has been salvaged, so the expansion of the restaurant will now be allowed to proceed. The finds have been transferred to Neoepica’s research laboratory. When the study is complete, the remains will be given to the city council which will determine where they will go on display.

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New LED lighting illuminates St. Peter’s Basilica

Saturday, January 26th, 2019

The faithful assembled for Christmas mass were the first to be bathed in the glow of the new LED lighting system which was officially inaugurated yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica. The product of two years of planning and work, the illumination project hits every possible mark: energy efficiency, unobtrusiveness, brightness, focal points, enabling the latest in video technology.

There are 780 new fixtures installed in the basilica at heights ranging from 40 and 360 feet, all artfully camouflaged. They add up to around 100,000 LEDs generating more than 10 times the light with 80% fewer fixtures. The energy savings are enormous, up to 90% over the previous system. The lighting can be controlled in minute detail by a digital system which will allow different elements to be emphasized on different occasions. It will allow video capture in 4K and 8K for ultra high definition television broadcasts and recordings.

More than 27,000 people visit St. Peter’s every day. These improvements will enhance the experience for the thousands of pilgrims who flock to the basilica to celebrate religious events, making it much easier to get a decent view of the Pope and other concelebrants. An even greater advantage will go to the lovers of art and architecture who also flock to St. Peter’s and wait in its insane lines without the consolation of religious fervor. The architectural and decorative features of one of the masterpieces of Renaissance construction are now visible in a whole new depth. The areas that were lit by the old system, like the main dome, originally designed by Bramante and redesigned and strengthened by Michelangelo, are now so clearly lit that details can be seen which were previously invisible. Places that could not be lit under the old regime are now dazzling, including the octagons and mini-cupolas of the side aisles. You simply could not see the rich mosaics that adorn these features from the ground unaided. Five hundred years ago they were lit by candles, so effectively not lit at all. Now they’re plain as day for the first time in half a millennium.

The photographs look so good I might even brave those insane lines myself next time I’m in Rome, which is saying something because I took one look at them and ran the hell out of there in 2017. I didn’t even attempt it in 2018.

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The Dresden Mars returns to Dresden

Friday, January 25th, 2019

A bronze statuette of the god Mars by Mannerist master Giambologna is returning to Dresden almost a century after it was sold away. Its homecoming is so heralded because the sculptor himself sent it to Dresden 432 years ago.

Born Jean Boulogne in Douai, Flanders, in 1529, Giambologna traveled to Rome in 1550 where he was influenced by Classical art and Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael. He moved to Florence in 1553 where his refined approach to the contortionist Mannerist style earned him a position as the top sculptor at the court of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany by 1560.

The Medici were so protective of their greatest sculptor that they never allowed him to leave Florence out of fear that one of the Habsburg imperial courts would lure him away. His works were so famous they were widely copied. Very few of his sculptures have undisputed documentation of having been produced by his hand during his lifetime. The Dresden Mars is one of them.

It is the earliest cast of the artist’s Mars, made by Giambologna as a personal gift for Christian I, Elector of Saxony (1560-1591). It is the most significant and powerful of his male nudes, the strength of the mythological deity conveyed by his dynamic stride, detailed musculature and intense glare. The usual attributes of Mars — helmet, shield, spear — are absent, with only the hilt of a sword clutched in his right fist standing in for them.

It was made before 1587, the year it arrived in Saxony. Inventory records of the Dresden Kunstkammer note its arrival: “Brass cast portrait of Mars, sent by Giovanni Bologna to His Grace the Elector.” It’s the only Giambologna piece known to have been created for a prince and the sculptor made certain that it was of royal quality. Christian I was keenly aware that it was an exceptional work. In return, the Elector commissioned a hugely expensive necklace from goldsmith Urban Schneeweiss to thank Giambologna for his generous gift. It is believed he was wearing the prized jewel when he sat for a 1591 chalk portrait by Hendrik Goltzius now in the collection of the Teylers Museum in Haarlem.

After three centuries at the Kunstkammer, the masterpiece went into private ownership in 1924, a casualty of the complicated aftermath of World War I. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser, the last King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus III abdicated as well. The kingdom became the Free State of Saxony, a semi-autonomous state in the Weimar Republic. The new state confiscated the former king’s assets but he refuse to walk away from them as he had the throne. Instead he hired a lawyer and in 1919 sued the Free State of Saxony for illegally requisitioning his family patrimony. He claimed a passel of real estate, millions in cash and securities and 17.5 million marks’ worth of art.

A commission was formed to negotiate a settlement. It took many years of stops and starts, amendments and provisos before the deal was sealed. In 1924, Frederick Augustus got castles, lots of cash and a buttload of art from the collections of multiple museums, including the Kupferstichkabinett Dresden, now the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD).

He was more into the castles and cash than the art. The Dresden Mars was consigned to an art gallery in Berlin which sold it to Theodor Plieninger, General Director of Chemische Werke Griesheim-Elektron, in 1927. Griesheim-Elektron gave it to a member of the board of directors Constantin Jacobi as a retirement present in 1943. Sure beats the usual gold watch. It remained in his family until 1988 when his son and heir Walter Jacobi gave it Bayer AG.

In 2018, Bayer decided to sell Mars at a Sotheby’s auction. The company’s art collection is almost entirely modern, with the Giambologna as its only Renaissance piece and the infusion of millions of dollars from the sale would give them the chance to grow the collection’s contemporary art. Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate was £3-5 million ($4-6.6 million) and it was thrilled to be handling an original Giambologna because they basically never come on the market.

A week before the auction, the SKD, armed with contributions from Free State of Saxony, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Friends of the SKD, approached Bayer AG offering a private sale. On July 3rd, the day before the scheduled auction, the deal was made and the lot withdrawn.

The Dresden Mars will go on permanent display in the SKD’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister when it reopens after refurbishment in December of this year. As of this week, it is going on a Welcome Home Tour through Saxony, beginning at the Stadt-und Bergbaumuseum Freiberg then moving to the Schloss Hartenfels in Torgau and making its last stop on the tour at the Schlossbergmuseum Chemnit.

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Conservation of Tutankhamen’s tomb complete

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Ten years after it began, the conservation of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings is complete. Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute worked together to make a thorough study of the site, assess its long-term conservation needs and train a new generation of conservators even as they cleaned and stabilized the elaborate wall paintings in the inner chamber. They also created a new entrance space and viewing platform that will allow visitors to see the most famous pharaonic tomb ever discovered while protecting it from the barrage of damage that inevitably accompanies human intrusion.

Discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the tomb of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamen was tiny but mighty. It is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and of the four rooms, only the burial chamber was painted, but the small space was crammed to the gills with treasure. A fluke of nature had protected it since the king’s premature death around age 19 in 1323 B.C.: debris from a flood blocked the entrance shortly after the tomb was sealed. Grave robbers made several attempts to break into the tomb, but were thwarted by the blockage and soon the short-lived king was forgotten.

The discovery of so immense a treasure in the small tomb of a so inconsequential a king caused a cultural sensation that is still ongoing. It took a decade to remove and document all the riches of his tomb. In the 1930s, it was opened to a public hungry to see the find site and for decades the tiny space was filled with thousands of dirty, moist, carbon dioxide-exhaling mammals.

Humidity and CO2 feed microorganisms that can damage the paint, and fluctuating moisture levels can cause flaking and bubbling. There were also areas of physical damage to the paint, scratches and scrapes caused by tourists and accidental contact from film equipment squeezed into the tight space. Abrasive dust brought it by countless feet coated the walls, dimming the colors of the paint and putting it at risk of even more loss.

Concerned about the delicate condition of the tomb — particularly the brown spots on the paintings known to be microbial growths — in 2009 the Ministry of Antiquities requested the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute in developing a program of conservation and management.

The GCI-Egyptian project went on to carry out the most thorough study of the tomb’s condition since Carter’s time. The team of experts included an Egyptologist to conduct background research; environmental engineers to investigate the tomb’s microclimatic conditions; microbiologists to study the brown spots; documentation specialists, architects, and designers to upgrade the tomb’s infrastructure; scientists to study the original materials of the wall paintings; and conservators to carry out condition recording and treatment.

“As in all of our collaborative projects, the GCI has taken the long view, with the intent to provide sustainable conservation and site management outcomes,” says Neville Agnew, senior principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “This involves systematic planning, documentation, scientific investigation, personnel training and a sensitive approach to treatment.”

The project team found the wall paintings to be in relatively stable condition, apart from localized flaking and loss of paint that was caused by both inconsistencies in the materials used and their application, as well as damage caused by visitors. Newly designed barriers now restrict visitor access in these areas to reduce the risk of future damage. The paintings were stabilized through dust removal and reduction of coatings from previous treatments, and condition monitoring was also established to better evaluate future changes.

Also addressed were the mysterious brown spots on the wall paintings. They were already present when Carter first entered the tomb, and a comparison of the spots with historic photographs from the mid-1920s showed no new growth. To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and confirmed the spots to be microbiological in origin but dead and thus no longer a threat. Because the spots have penetrated into the paint layer, they have not been removed since this would harm the wall paintings.

Restored, stabilized and with new lighting, ventilation and information panels, the tomb of Tutankhamen offers a much improved experience for visitors as well as more secure, controlled conditions to preserve the priceless archaeological material. That includes a few important pieces on display as well as the tomb itself: Tutankhamen’s mummy on view in an oxygen-free display case, the stone sarcophagus and the outermost coffin made of gilded wood.

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Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has acquired a rare late 15th century book chest. The Bodleian’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books is one of the largest in the world, but this is its first book coffer and it’s a special one. At 8.5 x 12.6 x 5.5 inches in size, it is one of the largest examples of a book coffer from this period known to survive.

This acquisition gives us greater insight into the ‘everyday life’ of books and print culture more broadly. The coffer provides a link between books held at the Bodleian and cultural objects which were once united, but now usually live apart in libraries and museums around the world.

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

“The Bodleian collects books and manuscripts but also objects which helps us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood. The coffer is a remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context. Among other things, it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The coffer is made of leather-covered wood and is lined with red canvas. The cover is wrapped with nine iron bands, hinges and a lock to secure the high-value contents. Also known as a messenger’s box, it has two iron loops on the side through which leather straps would have been threaded through so it could be carried on a person’s shoulders or attached to a horse’s saddle.

A woodcut depicting God the Father in Majesty is affixed to the inside of the lid, one of only four surviving impressions of this print. His presence would have blessed the contents and protected them during their journeys. Other coffers from this time also contain religious prints on the inside lid, and it’s possible they served double duty as portable altars.

It is a version of an illumination in a 1491 Missal by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany, a Paris illuminator who was active in the last quarter of the 15th century. He was a versatile artist who created designs for woodcuts, metalcuts, tapestries and stained glass as well as creating illuminated manuscripts for his highest-end clientele. The hand-colored prints found in messenger’s boxes were produced in Paris between 1490 and 1510, which is how we know where and when this coffer was made. These boxes are the only sources of single-leaf French prints before 1500. They are literally the only examples we have of the dawn of printmaking in France.

We have confirmation that these types of lockboxes were used to transport precious books as well as other valuables because depictions of them being used for this purpose have survived, most notably a Rest on the Flight into Egypt made in Antwerp around 1530 which shows a partially open coffer by Mary’s side. At the back is a small book with metal clasps. In front of it are a rosary, a pair of scissors and a brush.

The coffer has gone display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in a new exhibition, Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures, which runs until February 17th. You can see 3D models of the box here.

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Speaking of looted art from Visigothic Spain…

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Two Visigoth reliefs looted from a church in northern Spain 15 years ago have been found in Britain and returned to Spanish officials. The theft was a total debacle, but the heavy reliefs depicting two evangelists managed to survive intact against the odds.

The 7th century limestone reliefs originally adorned the church of Santa Maria de Lara, one of only a handful of churches from the Visigoth era still remaining on the Iberian peninsula. Built in the 7th or early 8th century, the church was abandoned after the Umayyad conquest and was likely rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquista in the 9th century. It was donated to the neighboring monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza in the 11th century but was not maintained and fell to ruin, eventually being forgotten entirely. The remains were rediscovered by a priest on a walk in 1921. They were obscured by brush and the location was remote so even after the church was found locals still used the ruins as corrals for their livestock.

Its fortunes improved when scholars identified as a Visigoth church in 1927 and it was granted National Monument status two years later. It wasn’t until the custodian and guide built an asphalted road to the nearby town of Quintanilla de las Vinas in the 1970s that the church became a popular tourist draw and brought it enough money to fund the site’s maintenance.

Even with a decent access road and thousands of visitors a year, Santa Maria de Lara was secluded enough that in 2004 thieves were able to use a crane to strip two 110-pound stone reliefs from the church and remove them unimpeded. They thought they had hit the jackpot. Very few Visigoth figural sculptures have survived, so these two pieces would be worth millions. Notice the conditional. They would be worth millions if they weren’t protected cultural patrimony, but they are.

As so often happens, the looters found themselves saddled with artifacts they could not sell for what they were worth. They had to take the hit and sell them off for whatever money they could get. And so in 2010, two priceless Visigoth reliefs were sold in Britain as garden ornaments for maybe 50,000 pounds apiece.

Somebody with a keen eye saw the “garden ornaments” for sale and thought they was much more to them. He alerted the Art Detective, private investigator Arthur Brand who recovers looted cultural material and stars in a TV show in the Netherlands dedicated to his exploits. Brand traveled to England to follow up, only to find that his informant had just died. His wife only knew a man named “Tony” was connected to the stones. All she had was his first name and a description of him.

It took Brand years to track Tony down. When he finally did, the fellow was suffering from dementia. He did remember the reliefs. He had seen them being delivered to London on a truck by a French art dealer and recognized that they might be Visigothic. Eventually he was able to locate photographs of them.

Brand then tracked down the French dealer, who pointed them towards an unnamed British aristocratic family living north of London.

“It ended up in the garden of an English nobleman, who did not know that it was world heritage, where they would stay like 15 years,” he said.

The owners were so shocked when told the truth that “they wanted to throw the artworks into a river and let them disappear forever. Fortunately we managed to convinced them not to,” said Brand.

I hope that was facetious. Destroying cultural heritage out of shame for having bought it through no fault of your own seems … well, nuts. Anyway it’s all good now. The reliefs are on their way back to Burgos and scholars are thrilled at what might be learned from them.

The looted artworks could also be “essential” evidence in a debate raging among scholars about the exact age of the church, said Oxford University researcher David Addison.

Addison said some believed it was a 7th century building while others dated it to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Brand’s return of the artifacts “would be a great service in this regard,” Addison said.

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