Archive for December, 2019

National Gallery ushers in the New Year with new Gentileschi

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019

The Finding of Moses, a monumental painting by Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi, father of Artemisia, has been acquired by the National Gallery after 20 years of trying. The Gallery first attempted to buy it in 1995 and failed. In 2002, its owner, sofa magnate Graham Kirkham, loaned the work to the museum where it has been the centerpiece of its Baroque collection. This year they were again given the opportunity to acquire The Finding of Moses for £19.5 million. With the goal in sight thanks to large grants from American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust and National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Gallery launched a campaign last month to raise the remaining £2million. They announced on December 18th that the full sum has been raised and the painting acquired.

The large-scale work — 257cm (8’5″) by 301cm (9’10.5″) — depicts the scene from Exodus when the baby Moses is discovered in the reeds of the Nile by pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids. The young woman kneeling on the left pointing at the infant in the basket is his sister Miriam. It is one of the finest examples of Orazio’s late period when he’d set aside his earlier Caravaggesque style and embraced the lush vibrancy of Late Renaissance history painters like Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

It was painted in 1630 when Gentileschi was a court painter for the King Charles I. Charles commissioned it as a gift for his wife Queen Henrietta Maria in honor of the birth of their son, the future Charles II. Orazio was one of the Queen’s favorite painters and The Finding of Moses joined his ceiling paintings at Queen’s House, Greenwich. The sumptuous silks of the princess and her ladies and the green, woodsy rolling hills reflect the style and landscape of Henrietta Maria’s court rather than pharaonic Egypt’s.

The painting had been an acquisition priority for us since 1995, when we first attempted to buy it.

Not only is it a wonderful example of Orazio’s rich colouring, skill at painting shiny, sumptuous fabrics, and sense of courtly elegance, ‘The Finding of Moses’ has an important place in British history.

It is the first painting from the time when Orazio travelled to England to be a painter at the court of Charles I in London.

Orazio Gentileschi painted a second version of the monumental piece in 1633, this one for King Philip IV of Spain. He made the details of the textiles and jewelry even more sumptuous and bared less flesh, in keeping with the fashion of the Spanish court. Orazio gave it to the king as a gift, dispatching his son Francesco to Madrid to deliver it in person. It is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The Finding of Moses will be moved to the newly renovated Baroque room in April when it will go on display in an exhibition dedicated to Orazio’s brilliant daughter Artemisia.

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Rare Bronze Age funeral pyre found in Denmark

Monday, December 30th, 2019

A rare Bronze Age funeral pyre was unearthed in Bellinge, a suburb of Odense, Denmark. The site was excavated by Odense City Museums archaeologists in spring 2019 in advance of construction of a housing development. There was a burial mound there, but excavation revealed no central burial as is customary in ancient mounds. Instead, the team found the remains of an early Bronze Age (ca. 800 B.C.) cremation bonfire.

The deceased was cremated on a 3×2-meter pile of wood contained within pilings. After the funerary conflagration, the bones were removed and buried elsewhere. What remains today is a thick layer of charcoal peppered with bone fragments and the postholes from the pilings. Bronze Age cremation pyres are extremely rare, and this one is in particularly good condition, rich with remains that will give archaeologists an unprecedented opportunity to discover new information about Bronze Age ritual. Using the archaeological information, the team recreated the pyre, a pig standing in for the Bronze Age human.

The mound was built on top of the cremation site. It was created by piling turf into a mound 75 feet in diameter and lining its perimeter in large stones. It overlooked the landscape for a thousand years before again being used for funerary purposes. Over the course of three centuries, more than 100 individuals were buried on the mound surface, making the Bellinge Common mound one of the largest Iron Age burial grounds on the island of Funen.

Most of the burials were cremated remains in earthenware urns. There are also some inhumations with grave goods including jewelry (silver, glass, amber and pearl), daggers, pottery with food and drink offerings.

The urns have been transported to the Møntergården museum in Odense where they will be excavated in public view beginning on January 21st, 2020. The museum is setting up a laboratory in the foyer where visitors can see the archaeologists at work and look into the urns as their contents are unearthed.

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Manchester’s gold mummies visit the US

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, is undergoing a huge £13-million, three-year renovation that requires the closure of multiple galleries for the duration. Egyptian Worlds, which houses Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of mummies and artifacts from 5,000 years of Egyptian history, is among them. The galleries closed in August 2018 and are scheduled to reopen in 2021 in the transformed museum.

While the collection’s home is being rebuilt, Manchester Museum has arranged the first travelling exhibition of some of its most exceptional pieces from Greco-Roman Egypt (c. 300 B.C. – 200 A.D.). Golden Mummies of Egypt is centered around eight mummies unearthed over a century ago during University of Manchester excavations in Egypt. Through the mummies and other artifacts, including the always-evocative Fayuum mummy portraits, the exhibition explores beliefs about death and the afterlife from Greek and Roman Egypt and their link to the ancient traditional religion of dynastic Egypt.

The latest technology will give visitors a literal view from the inside.

The exhibition includes 360 degree interactive CT-scans of each mummy on display, allowing the visitor to see beneath the wrappings; audio-visual translations of texts bring the words of ancient people to life; iconographic visualisations animate the gods the Egyptians hoped to meet.

Golden Mummies of Egypt opens in the US at the Buffalo Museum of Science on February 8th, 2020. Its next stop will be the North Carolina Museum of Art where it will run from September 19, 2020, through January 10, 2021.

Never-before-seen details from the golden funerary mask of Isaious. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum.

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Prototype of iconic red telephone box gets listing upgrade

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

The first of the iconic red telephone boxes has gotten an upgrade in its protection listing from Grade II (of special interests) to Grade II* (particularly important building of more than special interest).

Heritage Minister Helen Whately said:

“The red telephone box is an internationally famous British icon and I am delighted that we are able to protect the first of its kind.

In an increasingly digital world, it is important to preserve structures – like the K2 prototype phone box – that have played a part in our nation’s industrial story.”

The General Post Office’s first public telephone box, the concrete Kiosk No. 1 (K1), introduced in 1921, was rejected by London’s local councils, so in 1924 the Royal Fine Arts Commission asked architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and two other highly respected architects (Sir Robert Lorimer and Sir John Burnet) to submit designs for a new and improved phone kiosk. Five prototypes were manufactured and displayed outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar.

Scott, a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, drew inspiration from the domed canopy of the tomb Soane designed for his beloved and much-lamented wife Eliza in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church, London. The prototype with its curved dome was made of timber. After judging the K2 prototype was moved to Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, where it remains to this day.

In 1925, Scott’s design for the prototype K2 (Kiosk No.2) telephone box was chosen as the “most suitable for erection in busy thoroughfares of large towns.” Scott had planned for the finished booths to be made of steel with blue-green interior. The General Post Office decided to go with cast iron painted red.

After the successful competition, the first cast iron K2 was installed in London in 1926, with more than 1,700 appearing across the city over the course of the next decade. Only a small number were placed outside London and just over 200 K2s survive today. The K2 was replaced in 1935 by the streamlined, more compact and cost-effective K6 model which was also designed by Scott and is the most common red telephone box still in existence today.

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France blocks export of kitchen Cimabue

Friday, December 27th, 2019

The panel painting by Cimabue that was found in an elderly woman’s kitchen outside Compiegne and sold at auction for $26.6 million in October won’t be leaving France anytime soon. Minister of Culture Franck Riester has refused to issue an export certificate the buyers. Now France has 30 months to scrape up the hefty sum necessary to claim the masterpiece for the national collections.

Christ Mocked is a 10-inch panel painted by the late medieval pioneer Cenni di Pepo, aka Cimabue, in around 1280 as part of an altarpiece diptych. Two other panels believed to be part of the altarpiece are in the Frick Collection in New York and National Gallery, London. The three panels share significant detail — the architecture, the gold background, the rich pigments and the design of the halos — and the poplar plank serving as a support to Christ Mocked and the National Gallery’s panel matches precisely. They were once a single continuous piece.

With only 11 other Cimabue works known to exist, all of them in museums, the bidding for this panel was hot, to say the least. The Acteon auction house did not reveal the buyer’s identity, but it did obliquely refer to a “foreign museum” having been among the bidders. That turns out to have been the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, despite its copious funding, was only the second-to-last man standing. The Met lost out to the Alana collection, a private collection of Italian Renaissance art based in the United States. It applied for an export license that was denied on Monday, December 23rd.

Following the opinion of the Advisory Committee on National Treasures, the Minister of Culture signed the decree refusing the export certificate last December for this rare panel, thus conferring on it the status of national treasure for a period thirty months which will start from the notification of this decision to the owner of the painting. This period will be used to raise the funds necessary to carry out an acquisition for the benefit of public national collections in order to allow this panel to join the Maesta of the Italian master already kept at the Louvre museum.

“I salute the eminent role played by the export control system for cultural goods for the protection and enrichment of the national heritage and I thank the members of the Advisory Committee on National Treasures, under the leadership of its chairman, Edmond Honorat, whose careful examination of the certificate refusal proposals clarifies my decisions. Thanks to the time given by this measure, all efforts can be mobilized so that this exceptional work can enrich national collections,” declared Franck Riester.

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Rimini Altarpiece conserved at long last

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

The Rimini Altarpiece, a masterpiece of late medieval figural sculpture that is the highlight of Frankfurt’s Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, is undergoing a comprehensive multi-year conservation project that will restore the luminous transparency of the alabaster it was made out of and repair the damage done by past invasive restoration attempts.

The altarpiece consists of 18 white alabaster figures and groups depicting the Crucifixion and apostles. The centerpiece is a very high crucifix with the figure of Mary Magdalen at its base hugging the cross. Flanking it are the two thieves, much smaller in scale. At the base of the left thief are the three Maries, the Roman soldier Longinus who speared Christ in the side and a servant. The base of the right thief features Stephaton, the man who offered Jesus the sponge soaked in vinegar, a centurion and a bare-footed youth. A freestanding figure of John the Baptist stands by the group. The 12 apostles, each individually carved, stand on both sides of the Calvary groups.

Traces of surviving pigment have been found on the white alabaster attesting to it having been partially polychrome originally. This Master of the Rimini Altarpiece embraced the idealized forms of the International Gothic style while also incorporating the anatomical realism of the Renaissance, in the contorted arms and bodies of the crucified thieves flanking Christ, for example. It was carved in the round and mounted in a framework, now lost, to display its exceptionally detailed carving on the church altar. Without the framework, scholars don’t know how it was originally arranged.

It was carved by a specialist alabaster workshop in Northern France or the Southern Netherlands in around 1430 to adorn the altar of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini. It remained in the church until 1910 when the Franciscans brothers sold it to an antiques dealer in Rome. The museum acquired it from him in 1913.

As unique and important as it is, the altarpiece has not been very well conserved. The last time it received thorough treatment was in the late 1960s, but the materials they used have discolored, penetrating the stone and making it more and more brittle.

Above all, however, the last restoration involved a massive alteration to the very structure of the altarpiece. For purely aesthetic and subjective reasons based on art-historical considerations – but justifiable neither objectively nor in terms of art technology – the original appearance of the central Crucifixion group was substantially altered. Using model plaster and iron reinforcements, the upright element of the cross was lengthened by more than half a metre and the crossbeam by several centimetres. And this is not only an aesthetic problem: the materials chosen at the time now confront us with extremely serious conservation problems, as they have led not only to extensive corrosion but also to a dramatic loss of stability. As a result, the object is almost impossible to move without risk of damage, although the changing exhibitions at the Liebieghaus make it absolutely necessary to move it. In addition, the fragility of the cross has made it quite impossible for the piece to be lent to other museums, enabling it to be shown in other countries.

Lastly, no fundamental technological analysis of the ensemble has ever been carried out. In the work on the “Rimini Altarpiece” that has now begun and is scheduled to take place over the next two or three years, the initial task will be to carry out and document a precise technological examination of the entire ensemble in preparation for its restoration. This will include, among other things, a meticulous analysis of the present condition of the stone as well as an examination of the figures for traces of the earlier polychromy, likewise a measure that has not been systematically undertaken before.

As alabaster is one of the most sensitive types of stone, which immediately rules out many of the standard methods of restoration, several series of tests will first have to be carried out in order to ensure the object’s gentlest possible restoration. For visitors to the museum there will be a conservation studio on view, complemented by a film and also, in due course, glass cases with educational material, while on our website we will publish results of the ongoing research and restoration. In these various ways, we aim to enable interested members of the public to follow and share in all the further phases of the work as the project progresses.

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Christmas surprise found under painting

Wednesday, December 25th, 2019

Conservators have discovered a nativity scene underneath a damaged 16th century painting depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The canvas on wood panel painting is in the collection of The Bowes Museum, originally acquired in the 19th century by museum founders John and Josephine Bowes. Bowes Museum curators have been working with conservators from Northumbria University to assess its condition and treat the deteriorating wood structure behind the painted canvas.

Art Conservator Nicky Grimaldi and forensic scientist Dr Michelle Carlin, are now examining the painting to determine its age, background and history.

Nicky said: “It is clear that the painting is in a poor condition and has been for some time. The panel behind it is made up of several pieces of wood and where these join together there has been significant paint loss over the years.

“Our initial aim was to understand why this is occurring and recommend solutions to ensure the painting can be protected for years to come.

“The first stage of most investigations of this kind is to carry out an x-ray to understand what is going on underneath the layer of paint we see on the surface. That was when we realised there was more to the painting than we originally thought.”

Clearly visible on the x-ray is the Christ child with a halo and rays beaming off his manger, angels, a haloed figure kneeling beside him with an outstretched hand who may be one of the Three Magi. Harder to discern are the outlines of other figures and what might be the stable in the background.

As Nicky explains: “It was common practice to apply gold leaf to these type of religious paintings and in the x-ray we can see that gold is present in the halo around the baby’s head.

“Incredibly we can see lines over the x-ray image which we believe to be preparatory drawings, showing where the painting was probably copied from an original drawing (cartoon).

“Those lines were subsequently filled with another paint layer such as lead white which allows them to be visible on the x-ray.”

The painting will be analyzed further by Northumbria experts. Samples of the paint will be tested for chemical composition and the latest technology from scanning electron microscopes to infrared reflectography will be deployed.

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Burial of Phoenician mother, father, child found in Israel

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

The grave of a small nuclear family — two adults buried with a child — has been unearthed in the ancient Phoenician city of Achziv on the northern coast of Israel near the border with Lebanon. The cist grave is 2,800 years old. Achziv was an important Phoenician port city at that time and the family’s graves goods attest to their prosperity.

Discovered during a 2017 excavation, the grave was dug in the ground and then lined with field stones creating a clean rectangular structure that was then sealed by two large limestone slabs. Within its confines were the bones of a child between three to five years old, an adult woman and an adult man. The remains of the adults were in fetal position. The child’s bones had fallen into a heap so its burial position could not be ascertained.

Interred with the remains were a bronze bowl and seven decorated pottery vessels. One of them is the largest Phoenician amphora ever discovered in Israel. The child was buried wearing a bead necklace of gold, silver, agate, amber and carnelian.

A wealthy family’s tomb fits the archaeological picture of Achziv as a thriving community over the centuries with several distinguished families, which by the way had four cemeteries in ancient times. In the 1960s, several cist graves were uncovered, one with two bodies buried with cylinder seals, bronze bowls, a bronze double axe, lance heads, and an ivory bowl with lion couchant. Other graves contained pottery, figurines, scarabs, and bronze and silver jewelry, also pointing to wealth. […]

In 2015 the excavators found what may be the only known mold for a supposed death mask, of a man, in what seems to have been a cultic building from the ninth century B.C.E. in the city’s south. The building, of which remained two mud-brick walls and three white plastered stairs that may have led to a second story, also contained several intact vessels, including a carinated bowl, chalices, a cooking pot, a storage jar, a lamp, and a goblet of burnished clay, as well as burnt animal bones. The archaeologists suspect it served a cultic function. […]

It was while trying to better understand the apparently cultic area that the archaeologists stumbled upon the tomb containing the nuclear family, dating to around 800 B.C.E., when Achziv was at its peak and some 100 years before the city surrendered to Sennacherib’s army.

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British Museum acquires Seal of Wulfric

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

The British Museum has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon seal matrix predating the Norman Conquest. It was discovered in a box in a garden shed in Sittingbourne, Kent, in 1976, and the British Museum has been trying to add it to its collection ever since. Now, thanks to funding from John H Rassweiler, the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts, the Henry Moore Foundation and British Museum Patrons, it has finally succeeded.

Shortly after its discovery, the circular piece 4 cm in diameter was identified by archaeologists as an exceedingly rare early 11th century seal Anglo-Saxon seal matrix, one of only five surviving seal matrices predating the Norman Conquest and one of only three made of walrus ivory. Comparison with other seals from the period pointed to a date of around 1040-1050.

It is carved out of walrus ivory and is inscribed “SIGILLUM WULFRICI +” (meaning “seal of Wulfric”) in Anglo-Saxon all caps. In the middle is the 3/4 length figure of a bearded man holding an upraised sword in his right hand. He faces left and points with his left hand. A flange above the matrix is in the form of a bird-headed dragon or serpent entwined with itself, biting its tail. It is perforated, indicating it was a suspension lug so the seal could be worn as a pendant.

The sword indicates that Wulfric was a secular figure rather than a cleric. He had to have been of high rank in order to have a seal, and based on comparisons to the closest of the other surviving Anglo-Saxon seals (the Godwin seal, also in the British Museum), he could have been a theyn or minister to the King of England.

It was sold at Christie’s auction in March of 1977 where the British Museum was outbid by the British Rail Pension Fund. The BRPF loaned the seal to the British Museum for almost two decades before deciding to sell the piece at auction in 1996. The museum tried a second time to acquire it, but again was outbid, this time by Norwegian shipping heir and avid manuscript collector Martin Schøyen. When the Schøyen Collection put its entire collection of medieval seal matrices up for auction this summer, the British Museum took no chances. They ensured that the third time would be the charm and arranged a private sale of the Seal of Wulfric beforehand.

Lloyd de Beer, the Ferguson curator of Medieval Britain and Europe at the British Museum said: “We’re delighted to have this incredible object join our collection. These things are extremely rare and it is an object that brings us close to a pivotal moment in history. Within a generation England would be completely transformed, and this object introduces us to one of its people.”

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Unusual artifact may be prehistoric adze

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

A stone artifact discovered near Monroe, North Carolina, in 1973 is now believed to be an adze that may date as far back as 3,000 B.C. It is triangular and comes to a point, but at seven inches long, two inches high and 1.5 inches wide, it is obviously not an arrowhead, common finds in North Carolina. The grooved ring at the base of the widest part of the triangle is a key clue to its usage.

This suspected grooved adz is made out of local meta-argillite and has a deliberately modified area where a handle was likely attached. This distinct “neck” was created using a technique of pecking and grinding. Unlike a typical grooved axe, the bit end of this tool would have been oriented perpendicular to the handle and was not ground smooth. Note the edge damage on the bit end. An adz is woodworking tool used to dress, shape, or smooth timber and could have been used prehistorically to make wooden bowls, dugout canoes, or other wooden objects. It is unclear how old this object is, but if it was made during the time that many of the grooved axes were being made and used, it would likely date to the Late Archaic period (3000-1000 BC).

Assistant State Archaeologist David Cranford has created a 3D model of the tool stitching together 46 individual photos with modeling software. Even at moderate resolution you can get a good view of the chipping at the tip end.

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