15th c. wood panel painting conserved

The Detroit Institute of Art holds in its collection a small egg tempera on panel work by 15th century Venetian painter Antonio Vivarini. It’s a scene from the life of Saint Monica, long-suffering mother of Saint Augstine, in which she coverts her pagan husband Patricius on his deathbed. This was not originally a stand-alone panel painting. It was part of the predella (small action scenes in the footer of an altarpiece whose main panels feature large-scale individual figures) of a polyptych which is no longer extant. It was cut out of the frame leaving the bottom of panel is therefore wider than the top.

The original altarpiece is believed to have been in the Church of Santo Stefano in Venice. The church was extensively rebuilt in the early 15th century at a time when the cult of Saint Monica reached its zenith in popularity. When construction was completed around 1440, there was a chapel with an altar dedicated to St Monica in the left aisle. Francesco Sansovino, writing in 1581, noted that the altarpiece in the chapel had been painted by Giovanni and Antonio Vivarini (phrased as brothers, but Giovanni d’Alemagna was actually Antonio’s German brother-in-law). In the 17th century, art historian Carlo Ridolfi described Vivarini and his brother-in-law’s art in the chapel as a statue of Saint Monica standing surrounded by “picciole historiette” (wee historylets) depicting scenes from her life.

The chapel was moved to the right aisle in the 18th century but the altarpiece did not move with it. The new chapel got new art, and the old was given away to an Augustinian lay community who cut it up and sold it piecemeal. Art historians in the 20th century have traced the scattered components, identifying five panels of the lost altarpiece in museums around the world: The Marriage of St Monica is in Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia; The Birth of Saint Augustine is now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Saint Monica at Prayer with Saint Augustine as a Child is in the Museum Amedeo Lia in La Spezia; Saint Monica Converts her Dying Husband is in the Detroit Institute of Art; Saint Ambrose Baptizes Saint Augustine in the Presence of Saint Monica is in the Accademia Carrara,  Bergamo.

The panel at the DIA is not on public view. (Well, technically nothing is right now, as the museum is closed. It reopens on July 10th.) Its condition is too delicate for display and requires conservation to keep the wood from splitting more and the prevent continuing paint loss. The DIA has posted a fascinating video about the panel conservation, the first episode of the museum’s new Conservator’s Corner series on its YouTube channel. It covers the recent history of conservation and the latest treatment and is a satisfyingly comprehensive glimpse into how the conservatorial sausage is made.

Stolen Van Gogh “proof of life” pics circulate

A “proof of life” picture of the Van Gogh painting stolen from a museum in March has emerged. The photograph shows the painting topped by a May 30th issue of the international edition of the New York Times on one side and a book on the other. The book is Meesterdief by Wilson Boldewijn, a biography of one of the art thieves who stole two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. A second photograph shows the label on the back of the painting.

(The choice of book is obviously pointed, the art crime version of a weird flex. One of the two paintings stolen in 2002 was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, a different scene of the same church where Van Gogh’s father was minister. Both paintings were found outside of Naples in 2016 after having been passed around as currency in a Camorra organized crime network for years.)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum outside Amsterdam in the early hours of Monday, March 30th, what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday. The smash-and-grab raid targeted the painting which was on loan from the Groninger Museum. The thieves broke in through the glass door, took the painting and fled before the police could arrive.

These are almost certainly photographs of the authentic work. The image of the label on the back of the painting is particularly telling because as far as Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum, knows, no photograph of the label has ever been published before.

The images were received by Arthur Brand, a private eye who specializes in retrieving lost art works. He is not naming his source, but he has extensive knowledge of and connections to the art crime underworld. He has seen more than these two pictures of the stolen painting, so it seems that the thieves are circulating these snapshots to find a buyer.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” [Brand] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Professionals though they may be, they are not handling their cash cow with anything like appropriate care. From the photo, it looks like the painting is on a garbage bag and the newspaper and book are casually plopped on top of its unprotected surface. There is also a white mark in the bottom center just below the fence posts. It could be a scratch because the original painting was done on paper and later mounted on board.

Possible French Revolution bones found in memorial chapel wall

Osteological remains believed to date to the French Revolution have been found in the wall of the Chapelle Expiatoire, a memorial chapel dedicated to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette built on the site of a cemetery where they were buried after they were guillotined.

Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz, the chapel’s administrator, turned historical detective after he noticed curious anomalies in the walls between the columns of the lower chapel. Anxious not to damage the building’s foundations, the French authorities called in an archaeologist, who inserted a camera through the stones in the walls.

In his report, archaeologist Philippe Charlier confirmed Peniguet de Stoutz’s hypothesis: “The lower chapel contains four ossuaries made of wooden boxes, probably stretched out with leather, filled with human bones,” he wrote. “There is earth mixed with fragments of bones.”

The Madeleine Cemetery had been in use for less than 75 years when it was shuttered by the Revolutionary government in 1794 after residents complained about the stench. It opened in 1721 and received an average of about 160 new burials a year. Those figures were eclipsed by tragedy in 1770 after 132/3 people died when a fireworks display on Place Louis XV (modern-day Place de la Concorde) celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette went awry and a stampede ensued.

Come the Revolution, the plodding pace of burials picked up briskly. Part of the Revolutionary agenda was the creation of large extramural cemeteries to replace the hundreds of insalubrious, shoddily-maintained churchyards grossing up the city, but the death toll of Revolution necessitated a more immediate solution. La Madeleine fit the bill nicely. It was a ten minute stroll from the former Place Louis XV, now renamed Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine was erected. As a relatively new cemetery, it still had space for inhumations. It was also walled in, keeping the ugly work of the constant grave-digging and body dumping away from prying eyes.

Some of the victims of the Revolution believed to have been buried there are the Madame du Barry, more than 600 Swiss guards killed defending the royal family in the Tuileries Palace during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, more than a thousand prisoners killed in the September Massacres including Marie Antoinette’s closest friend the Princess de Lamballe, the Duke of Orléans aka Phillipe Égalité, dozens of Girondists, Charlotte Corday and last but not least, Jacques Hébert and his followers who were buried there on March 24th, 1794, right before the cemetery’s closure.

Walls notwithstanding, people were definitely watching the Revolution’s body count get buried and watching very closely at that. In 1802, Olivier Desclozeaux, a royalist who had lived next door to the cemetery since 1789, bought the land. He claimed to have seen where the guillotined bodies of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette had been buried and paid his respects by planting trees and hedges around the burial site. He sold the land to Louis XVIII in 1815 and the king had the remains of his older brother Louis XVI and his queen moved to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the ancient necropolis of the kings of France. The next year Louis XVIII commissioned construction of the Chapelle Expiatoire where his brother’s remains had once lain. It was completed in 1826.

The Madeleine cemetery was only fully cleared in 1844. All extant bones were removed to the West Ossuary. When it was closed in 1859, the bones moved to their final resting place: the Catacombs of Paris. Today a plaque notes the stack of bones said to have come from Madeleine.

There is no way of knowing whether the bones in the chapel wall were the remains of guillotined aristocrats, Swiss guards, revolutionaries killed by other revolutionaries, victims of the fireworks debacle or any of the regular 160 yearly burials that took place at the Madeleine Cemetery from 1721. Louis XVIII ordered that “no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the [Chapelle Expiatoire],” but it seems somebody involved in the construction didn’t follow directions, probably because the exigencies of building over a cemetery required a little flexibility lest the remains be destroyed in construction.

Norway ship burial excavation begins

On Friday, June 26th, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment Sveinung Rotevatn broke ground on the country’s first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in 100 years. The newly-discovered Gjellestad Ship comes slow on the heels of the Oseberg Ship which was excavated in 1904. Archaeological methodology, technology and understanding is a completely different universe 116 years later, so even though the  Gjellestad Ship is known to be in a far worse state of preservation than the exquisite Oseberg (now on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo), methods like micromorphology, DNA analysis, soil analysis and stable isotope analysis will give archaeologists a far richer picture of the ship burial, its contents and context.

The Gjellestad ship was discovered during a ground penetrating radar scan of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, in October of 2018. The GPR picked up the distinctive shape of the 65-foot long ship set within the circular perimeter of what had once been a burial mound on top of it, lost over centuries of agricultural work. It was incredibly close to the surface, just 1.6 feet underground, and therefore incredibly close to destruction.

In September of last year, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) archaeologists dug a test pit and retrieved a sample of the wood from the keel to get an idea of the ship’s age and condition. There was good news and there was bad news. The good news was the ship was confirmed dendrochronologically to be a Viking ship, the timber for its keel felled between the late 8th century and the start of the 10th century. The bad news was it is being devoured by fungal growth and very close to destruction.

Norway allocated funds for an emergency excavation of the Gjellestad Viking Ship to recover whatever of the ship and its context can be recovered before it all rots away. Now that the official ground-breaking is out of the way, archaeologists will begin the official excavation on Monday. Stage one entails the painstaking sifting of all the topsoil above the ship to a depth of about one foot. The hope is there might be some iron rivets, boat fittings, artifacts that were churned up out of their original positions by ploughing.

The ship is bisected by a drainage ditch, so the team is taking advantage of the landscape in the project planning. Working under a protective tent that covers the entire length and width of the ship, the team will first excavate the bow which is about 23 feet long tip to drainage ditch. In the second phase of excavation, they will unearth the bow and the burial chamber which is expected to be about in center of the ship.

The team is hoping to find grave goods, but there is evidence that the mound was looted long ago. Grave robbers dug a tunnel down the center of the ship so all the more obvious portable wealth like precious metals and jewelry from the burial chamber is probably gone. On the plus side, utensils, household goods, pottery and the like placed in the bow and stern were likely left behind.

The full excavation is expected to take about five months. It will not be open, but archaeologists will plan guided tours, pandemic measures permitting.

17th c. children’s cemetery found in Poland

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 100 children in a late 16th, early 17th century graveyard in the village of Jeżowe, southeastern Poland. Human remains were first discovered by road workers and archaeologists called in to excavate. They have found the skeletons of 115 individuals, most of them, around 70-80%, are of children.

Many of the burials unearthed thus far can be precisely dated despite the lack of grave markers because the deceased were buried with coins in the mouths. Most of the coins were minted during the reign of Sigismund III Vasa who ruled Poland from 1587 to 1632. There were also coins from John II Casimir Vasa (r. 1648-1668).

It’s the “pay the ferryman” aka Charon’s obol tradition, a funerary practice common in ancient Greece and Rome. Coins were placed in the grave so that the souls of the dead would have cash to pay Charon to ferry them across the river Styx to the Underworld. The practice was not uniform — the number, placement and type of coins differed from place to place and culture to culture — but it was widespread in the Greco-Roman world and the Near East. It was adopted by local peoples in late antiquity and continued into the early Christian era. There were still instances of it as recently as the 20th century. While the ritual was interpreted differently depending on time and location, there are clusters of finds in which the practice was consistent between burials. The coin being placed in the mouth is more frequently seen in Christian burials from Merovingian France to 19th century Britain.

The burials in Poland contained no other grave goods, nor any evidence of hardware like coffin nails or fittings. This indicates the cemetery was used by people of modest means.

[Archaeologist Katarzyna] Oleszek said, “We know from sources that during a visit of the bishops of Kraków here in Jeżowe 1604 there was already a large parish church, with a garden, a rectory, a school and a cemetery. It probably existed already since 1590.”

The bodies were found in sandy ground and were arranged on an east-west axis, all with heads to the west on their backs with the hands at their sides. The graves are most likely those from the children’s section of the graveyard.

One grave contains the bodies of four children. They lay in close formation but not on top of each other. All their heads are resting to one side in the same direction. The fourth child, on the edge of the group, is much younger than the others.

“The arrangement of the skeletons, the state of their preservation, shows that the discovery is a Catholic church cemetery, which was certainly taken care of. No grave is damaged by another. The inhabitants knew exactly where they had graves and took care of them,” said Oleszek.

There is no more church at the site, only a small memorial chapel marking the spot. The remains will be fully exhumed and studied before reburial at the current parish church.