Cromwell’s cut-and-paste in the Great Bible

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s favorite and chief minister until he met a sharp end, played an outsized role in the English Reformation’s violent severing of relations with the Catholic Church. He led the charge on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, ordered destruction of all artwork, church decoration, relics and books he deemed idolatrous/superstitious/popish (Oxford’s entire library was destroyed) and chaired the synod that established Church of England doctrine. The Great Bible of 1539, the first authorized edition of the Bible in English, was commissioned by Cromwell who then ordered its distribution. On September 5th, 1538, the crown, ie, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction that every parish in England and Wales buy a copy of the Bible in English and set it up “in sum convenient place” so that all parishioners could read it. The first printed copies of the first national Bible, known as the Great Bible due to its large size, went on sale in April of 1539.

Two presentation copies were printed, one for King Henry VIII and one for Thomas Cromwell. These were luxury editions, with parchment pages instead of paper and the illustrations, black-and-white woodcuts in the standard copies, elaborately hand-painted to look like illuminations. Henry’s copy is in the British Library. The Cromwell copy is now in the Old Library of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The frontispiece of the Great Bible was not what you would call subtle about its propagandistic purpose. The dominant figure, larger than everyone else and enthroned above the title is Henry. Jesus is crammed uncomfortably into a small cloud-lined gap above him. He doesn’t even have space to raise his head so it sort of flops on his shoulder. Just below to his right is a much smaller Henry VIII, his imperial crown on the ground, kneeling in the presence of God. Banderoles contain biblical passages from Isaiah and Acts of the Apostles that heavy-handedly replace King David with Henry as the man God has chosen to fulfill his will. Kneeling Henry replies in his banderole with a quote from Psalm 118, speaking as David.

Archbishops, their mitres on the ground, and courtiers, hats in hand, flank the grand enthroned Henry on both sides as if they were apostles or angels to his Christ. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury on Henry’s left and Thomas Cromwell on his right receive the Verbum Dei (Word of God) directly from the king. In the second tier, they, now wearing their chapeaux, pass the Bible to (hatless) parish priests and nobility. They (hats on) then deliver it to the grateful masses at the bottom who cheer “Vivat Rex” and “God Save the Kynge.”

The message is clear: Henry is second only to God in spiritual authority and it is he, through his personal gift, who transmits the word of God to his people. The Byzantine hierarchies and Latin texts of Roman Catholicism hold no sway in Henry’s England. His people can read the Word for themselves.

Cromwell’s high station would soon come crashing down. He backed the wrong horse after the death of Jane Seymour and Henry was disgusted with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of the Cleves for wife #4. He had to go through with the wedding so as not to piss off the Germans, but their marriage was never consummated and was annulled July 9th, 1540. Thomas Cromwell was executed for heresy and treason on July 28th, 1540. His heraldic insignia, originally in a roundel at his feet, were excised from all editions of the Great Bible printed after July 1540.

The frontispiece for Henry’s lavish presentation copy went beyond the mere excision. Both iterations of Cromwell — him receiving the Bible from Henry and then passing it to the lay nobility — were painted over entirely by a grey-haired gent, possibly his successor as Lord Privy Seal John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, and the empty roundel that had held Cromwell’s coat of arms filled in with a floral accent.

Now researchers have discovered that there were alterations made to Cromwell’s copy too. Queen Mary University of London historian Dr. Eyal Poleg and Dr. Paola Ricciardi of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum turned an x-ray spectrometer a high-powered digital microscope to the title page. They discovered the face of Cromwell distributing the Bible was covered with someone else’s visage painted onto vellum and pasted on top of the original.

Dr Poleg believes the change was made to shore up Cromwell’s position with Henry who still had doubts about the move towards Protestantism. He said: “In the original title page, Cromwell is associating himself with the person distributing Bibles. This was a very dangerous position to be in because Henry was not fully supportive of the new Bible. Cromwell realised this so he tweaked the images to place himself receiving a Bible from Henry. He would have employed an artist to add in a portrait of himself receiving the Bible from Henry.

“It’s been done so professionally that a microscope and a good light source are needed to see it. It’s painted on a separate piece of vellum and then glued on. This makes it the last known portrait of Cromwell before his execution. Cromwell is often seen as a reformer who moved the country very ardently in the direction of Anglicanism and here he is shown as someone who understands politics very well, and actually tries to position himself in the right location. He was very much aware of Henry’s hesitation regarding the Bible and he’s very good at playing the political game. This adds to our growing understanding of Cromwell and the uncertain course of English Reformation.”

Researchers also spotted another change likely intended to curry favor with the king. Cromwell had a miniature portrait of Jane Seymour, the queen who had finally given Henry his male heir and died from it, pasted over one of the commoners, a woman with three children at her feet.

Dr Poleg said: “The page was manipulated to present Henry with an image of Jane Seymour. Cromwell was using Jane to persuade the King of the value of the Bible. When the Bible was produced, Jane had recently died, so she was still Henry’s beloved Queen. And because she had given birth to their son Edward, putting her in a scene with children makes a lot of sense.”

Prehispanic glyphs, stele found on Puebla mountaintop

Residents of the village of Santa Cruz Huehuepiaxtla, Puebla, southeastern Mexico, have discovered two Prehispanic stele and dozens of glyphs carved on stone. They were in a remote location at the summit of the Cerro de la Peña mountain.

Archaeologists had to hike a rocky trail, much of it at a steep incline, for two and a half hours to reach the find site 2800 feet above sea level. They documented the two stele and 87 glyphs carved into the hilltop rock.

Believed to have been carved by Zapotec or Teotihuacán people, the archaeological relics have been dated to about 500 AD. Archaeologists believe that the site at which they were found was dedicated to a god of the underworld[, Mictlantecuhtli].

The best preserved stelae shows a person with horns and claws dressed in a loincloth. There are also stones engraved with images of an iguana, a bird that appears to be an eagle and a dios murciélago, or bat god, in the form of a woman.

The survey at the summit has revealed evidence of a ceremonial complex with seven pyramids and a ball court. The inscriptions on the stone slopes of the hilltop are written in the logographic ñuiñe script of the Mixteca Baja area in south-central Mexico. The Mixteca people occupied an area encompassing the modern-day states of Geurrero and Puebla, and the summit of the Cerro de la Peña affords an expansive view of the Mixteca territory. In 500 A.D., the complex of religious temples and royal palaces would ruled all they surveyed.

Glyph carved on rock at summit of Cerro de Peña. Photo courtesy EFE.

And three partridges in an apple tree

The exceptionally intricate Roman mosaic floors discovered in the village of Yavru, Turkey, have gone on display at the provincial capital Amasya for the first time in seven years.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Roman villa in July of 2013 during an rescue excavation of a site targeted by looters. Large sections covering a total of 258 square feet over two rooms of the villa were found in excellent condition. A dynamic checkerboard of swirls, chevrons, triangles, zigzags, waves and other geometric patterns reminiscent of kilim rug motifs is unique on the archaeological record. The mosaic in the adjacent room features a central panel of an apple tree with three partridges enjoying its fruit.

Located in a valley in the mountains above the central south coast of the Black Sea, Amasya has the ideal temperate climate for growing fruits and is famous for its apples. The mosaic’s apple tree is a visual record of how far back the city’s association with its most famous agricultural export goes.

Archaeologists believe the villa was built around the early 3rd century by a wealthy farmer. The elite villa was converted into a church in late antiquity and later abandoned. The mosaics were raised in 2013. After extensive conservation, they were installed in the Amasya Archeology Museum against a photographic backdrop of the walls of the structure.

On a side note, when I wrote about the discovery back in 2013, all the available photos of the mosaic in situ were unnaturally brightly colored. I actually color-corrected them to tone that down a little because it was just so obviously wrong, something I have never done before or since, but I had nothing to go by to determine appropriate saturation, so they were still far too bright. Even accounting for lighting differences, it warms the cockles of my picture-obsessed heart to finally see the real palette after so many years.

 Apple tree detail today. Photo courtesy DHA.

Look inside the Gjellestad mound

It hasn’t even been a month since the first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in Norway in 100 years began, and fascinating new data is already coming to light thanks to soil analysis and digital technology.

Researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the University of Oslo have analyzed five soil samples from the Gjellestad ship burial seeking clues to how the burial mound was constructed. The samples were taken during last year’s test excavation from the ship burial trench itself and from four different sites in the mound.

The analyses show that the construction and use of the mound is carefully planned and executed. It wasn’t simply placing the ship with the deceased on land and shoveling soil over it, according to NIKU researcher and archaeologist Lars Gustavsen.

“Here, the area of the mound has been carefully prepared by removing topsoil so that the intact subsoil was exposed. It is this subsoil that we see in the GPR data as a distinct black area around the grave itself.”

“Our analysis shows that this is soil that has been formed on-site; and the characteristic dataset signature must therefore be due to the fact that the mound covering the grave has changed the physical properties of the soil – likely due to soil compression from the heavy mound” Gustavsen continues.

The mound itself was made of turf or sod, not topsoil. Researchers were able to determine that it was not local, that all the turf used to form the mound was brought in from the outside. This was a complex, well-planned operation that appears to have followed an established procedure seen in other large ship burial mound.

The IT department at Østfold University College has been able to convert the findings from the geophysical surveys and excavations into a remarkable digital representation of the  Gjellestad ship site. The site is far more complex than just the one burial mound and with the exploration of the site still in its early stages, archaeologists have been working continuously with the IT team to update them with the latest information, correcting details and revising errors to ensure the 3D model is as accurate as humanly possible.

All their efforts have paid off with an interactive rendering of the site’s history. After a pretty cool intro of Viking ships braving the cold dark ocean waters, the Gjellestad site appears. You arrow through an overview of the site’s use from the Bronze Age onward, showing the cycle of construction and destruction of longhouses and how the mounds proliferated on the landscape.

If you click “open map” in the lower left corner, you can navigate to select spots to find out more about them.  If you click on the ship, you get a fly-in tour of how it was built, including an illuminating cross-section showing how the turf was layered to protect the ship and keep it vertical while the mound was built up around it. There are links to videos about the 2019 excavation, the discovery of the ship’s keel and nifty 3D ship viewer. You can manipulate the ship to see it from all directions.

The quality of the rendering is top-notch. They didn’t ruin it by trying to create believable humans puttering around, but there are some awesome sheep. Fine details include hearth fires and their smoke, tree leaves moving in the wind, the variety of grasses and the quality fencing.

Iron Age butter dish, butter found in loch

The Scottish Crannog Centre is a living history museum with a reconstructed crannog and demonstrations of Iron Age woodworking, spinning, weaving, music, cooking and other activities of daily life on Loch Tay in Perthshire, central Scotland. A wealth of archaeological material has been recovered from the loch bed over the years, rich remains of the Iron Age people who lived in the lake’s numerous crannogs (wooden roundhouse on stilts) 2,500 years ago. The crannogs had a limited lifespan and when their stilts could no longer hold them up, they and all their contents collapsed into the water. The anaerobic conditions of the lake preserved organic remains in remarkable condition.

One of the objects retrieved is a wooden butter dish complete with remnants of butter. Scottish Crannog Centre archaeologist Rich Hiden:

“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”

Liped [sic] analysis on this matter found that it was dairy material, with experts believing it likely originated from a cow.

Holes in the bottom of the wooden dish further suggest that it was used for the buttering process.

Cream would have been churned until thickened until it splits to form the buttermilk, with a woven cloth – possibly made from nettle fibres – placed in the dish with the clumps of cream then further pushed through to separate the last of the liquid.

The SCC was scheduled to open this year on March 29th, but was thwarted by a certain pathogen that shall remain nameless. With lockdown restrictions now easing in Scotland, the Scottish Crannog Centre reopens to visitors on August 1st. In the meantime, the museum’s YouTube channel has produced a weekly series of videos illustrating the crannog’s history in 10 objects. They’re on number eight now, a beautiful swan neck pin. The butter dish was the fifth in the series and while the video is all too brief, you get to see what the dish would have looked like intact and how it was used.