Remains of 2000-year-old cats found in Denmark

December 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ancient tomb with vibrant frescoes found in Jordan

December 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A little treat

December 25th, 2016

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

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

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Tudor Christmas Cookalong

December 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmahannakwanzika, all!

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Texel shipwreck yields another great textile

December 23rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Secrets of 16th c. boxwood miniatures revealed

December 22nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciphering how the miniatures were made:

Micro CT scan of prayer bead:

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

3D Animation of the Last Judgement Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece:

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Celtic harness fitting converted into Viking brooch

December 21st, 2016

This summer, a metal detectorist scanning a field at Agdenes farm on Norway’s Trondheim Fjord unearthed a piece of bronze jewelry. The well preserved object is a bird-like figure with intricate designs representing fish or dolphins on each wing. The decoration identifies it as being of Celtic origin, probably Irish, made in the 8th or 9th century. The Irish craftsmen made it as a fitting for a horse harness, but at some point it was converted into a brooch, as attested by a hole at the bottom and rust from where the pin was attached to the back. This second stage was the work of Vikings who often converted loot from their raids into jewelry for their loved ones.

It was almost certainly buried with a woman. Similar pieces have been found before, almost all of them in women’s graves from the first half of the 800s, the early years of the Viking incursions on the British Isles. Unfortunately the grave itself was not found. The object was ploughed up and scattered in the 1200 years since it was buried, and the grave in all likelihood has been destroyed.

Experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum analyzed the brooch and found traces of gilding, so the green bronze was once shiny gold, a coveted prize for a raider, and a very fine present for any raider’s lover or family member.

Being part of the early Viking raids brought status and prestige to the individuals who participated, but also to their families. The men who returned alive from the dangerous journeys gave the objects they had stolen as gifts to female family members who waited for them at home. The fittings were then turned into jewellery, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings.

“As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewellery, so it was originally covered in gold. That made it appear more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewellery was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewellery,” [NTNU doctoral student Aina Margrethe] Heen Pettersen says.

Jewellery of this kind has typically been found in women’s graves with relatively few other burial gifts. This suggests that many of the Vikings who took part in raids far away did not represent the top layer of the social hierarchy. Instead, they were “nouveau riche” farmers and fishermen who got the opportunity to climb the social ladder by taking part in Viking raids.

The area where the brooch was found is mentioned in some of the sagas as a rallying point for ships and raiders setting out from the south end of the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord for the British Isles. The remains of a 12th century harbour built by King Øystein have been found next to Agdenes farm, so the location was of signficant strategic importance by then. The discovery of the brooch confirms that the site was populated and benefitted from raiding wealth centuries before Øystein’s harbour was built in the dawn of Viking engagement with the British Isles.

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Getty acquires beautiful, storied intaglio

December 20th, 2016

I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to be the Getty with its wondrously Midas-like resources. Imagine going to an auction looking to buy an object estimated to sell for $10,000-15,000 and being able to walk out with it even though the final hammer price with buyer’s premium is $508,765. The J. Paul Getty Museum did just that with an exquisite 1st century A.D. Roman intaglio gemstone sold earlier this month at Sotheby’s London.

The gem—made of sard, a reddish-brown translucent quartz—is exquisitely engraved. The identity of the artist is uncertain, although the scholar Marie-Louis Vollenweider has suggested it is the work of Aulos, one of the finest engravers working in the circle of the imperial court of Emperor Augustus in the late first century B.C., who signed several other gems of related style. The beautiful gilt mount dates from the eighteenth century.

“The gem’s superb quality, impressive size, and excellent condition will enhance our holdings of engraved gems, one of the strengths of the Museum’s antiquities collection,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “It will go on view in the Villa’s reinstalled galleries alongside other engraved gems, including our amethyst Apollo attributed to the engraver Solon and the engraved gem of the head of Demosthenes signed by Apelles.”

The figures have been identified as pretty much every couple in Greco-Roman mythology at various times — Paris and Oenone, Phaon and Sappho, a muse and comic poet. The Getty is leaning towards Aphrodite and her handsome lover Adonis. Sotheby’s stayed on the safe side describing it simply as a “Standing youth conversing with a seated maiden.”

This piece has an illustrious and adventurous history, which at least in part explains the crazy price. Its first documented owner was Pierre-Jean Mariette, an 18th century Parisian art dealer who wrote the first modern sale catalogue. From Mariette it passed into the fabled collection of cameos and intaglios assembled by Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and his son, also named Charles, who enlarged the collection. One of the George Spencers, it’s not known which one, bought this particular intaglio. The collection of engraved gems and cameos was so important that the 4th Duke of Marlborough gave them pride of place in a monumental family portrait by Joshua Reynolds on display in the Red Drawing Room of Blenheim Palace. The Duke holds a large cameo in his hand, while his son, standing to his left, carries a red morocco leather case under his arm, one of ten such cases that held the gem collection.

The Marlborough Gems remained in the Spencer-Churchill family until 1875 when money troubles compelled the 7th Duke to sell the entire collection, more than 800 pieces, to wealthy colliery owner David Bromilow. After his death, Bromilow’s daughter Julia Harriet Mary Jary sold the collection piecemeal at a Christie’s auction in 1899. The great collection was dispersed so widely that scholars are still trying to track down more than 500 of the pieces.

This one could so easily have disappeared too, but its ownership history is remarkably well preserved. It was acquired by Frankfurt industrialist and art collector Friedrich von Gans. He died in 1920 and by that time the intaglio was in The Hague in the newly established art gallery of Kurt Walter Bachstitz, a Jewish German-Austrian dealer. Bachstitz’s business was very successful, with offices in New York and Berlin. He and his wife moved from Germany to The Hague in 1938 fleeing Nazi persecution.

It wasn’t a long reprieve. Come the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Bachstitz was quickly targeted by Hans Posse, director of the Sondernauftrag Linz, the organization in charge of stealing/coercing art and antiquities for Hitler’s Barbie Dreamhouse museum in Linz. Posse bought the intaglio in 1941 for far less than its market value. It was stashed in the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria, along with thousands of other priceless pieces including Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. The intaglio was found there by the Monuments Men who, in accordance with Allied policy, returned it to the Netherlands Art Property Collection even though it was privately owned when the Nazis snatched it.

Kurt Walter Bachsitz petitioned the Dutch government for restitution of his property, but except for one painting Jan Steen, the government kept everything. Their position was that Bachsitz was well-connected (his Protestant wife’s brother was Hermann Göring’s art buyer) and was not subject to Nazi coercion in 1940-1, so all the stuff Posse bought at bargain-basement prices was just normal business. Bachsitz’s heirs are still fighting to find and reclaim his lost artworks today. The intaglio was restituted to his heirs this year and they put it on the auction block. The hammer price must have been a pleasant surprise for them.

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Crappy original of epic botched restoration found

December 19th, 2016

It feels like an eternity has passed since the halcyon days when octogenarian Cecilia Giménez took a poorly executed, flaking wall painting of Christ with the crown of thorns and transformed it into the global phenomenon that is Ecce Mono, aka Monkey Jesus. It was August 2012 when the painting by Elias García Martinez in the Sanctuary of Mercy in the town of Borja, outside Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, was found altered beyond all recognition. At first it was thought to be the work of vandals. The Martinez family lodged a complaint and conservators bemoaned the terrible fate of the 1895 work. There was even talk that the 81-year-old church volunteer and amateur painter might be criminally charged.

The possibility that there might be some attempt to restore the painting was bandied about, but there was so much paint loss before Ms. Giménez brought her simian vision to life that any restoration would have been more like a recreation. The root of the problem Elias García Martinez didn’t make a fresco. He just applied oil paints directly on the wall of the church instead of using water-soluble pigments on a layer of wet plaster. The oil paint doesn’t adhere and the moisture problems of the old church exacerbated the paint loss.

Then the news, and most importantly the picture, of the reconceived Ecce Homo hit the Internet. The story went viral; Monkey Jesus became a beloved meme; petitions were started demanding that Cecilia Giménez’s version remain untouched. The painting quickly became so popular, that sleepy, economically depressed Borja boomed into an overnight tourist attraction. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Sanctuary of Mercy to pay their respects to the glorious botched restoration. It has graced t-shirts, mousepads and local wine labels. The story was made into an opera that debuted in the town this August, four years after Giménez picked up her paintbrush and had a date with destiny. Instead of getting arrested, Giménez got a cut of the merchandising revenue.

The town’s good fortune doubtless blunted the sting of the loss of the wall painting for the locals. Perhaps the Martinez family may find some solace now because an oil-on-canvas Ecce Homo painted by Elias García Martinez the year before he made the mural has been discovered. Zaragozan antique dealers Ostalé and David Ricardo Maturén found it in an Aragonese private collection.

It’s the same size as the church painting — 55 by 45 centimeters — and is believed to be the same in all other aspects as well. Since Martinez is known to have spent a mere two hours painting the one in Borja, perhaps he copied from his own canvas. Or maybe he didn’t even need it with him. The subject was a common one, a clothed version of Baroque master Guido Reni’s 1630 copper panel painting Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns. By the late 19th century it was so widely used an image, mass-produced on every medium from souvenir plates to postcards, that most any artist would have known how to crank it out given a couple of spare hours.

For now the canvas is being kept in an art gallery out of public view. The plan is to have a grand opening where the painting can be viewed alongside its more evolved primate cousin. Naturally the guest of honor will be Cecilia Giménez.

The art dealers insist the painting is not for sale but has already attracted interest from art collectors around the world.

“The painting should stay in Borja,” explained Ostalé. “It could be exhibited in the sanctuary next to that of Cecilia Giménez. At the moment, Borja’s Ecce Homo is one of the most visited paintings in the world and, in that sense, it is one of the most genuinely popular works we have in Spain.”

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Oldest copy of Silent Night found in Vienna

December 18th, 2016

The oldest known copy of the Austrian Christmas carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night in English) has been discovered in an antique shop in Vienna. The pamphlet entitled Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was printed by one Joseph Greis in the small Upper Austrian town of Steyr in the early 19th century. The full lyrics of Silent Night, the six original verses, are printed on pages seven and eight of the pamphlet. It was found by an antiquities dealer in June of 2015. Experts from the University of Vienna and the Silent Night Society in Salzburg examined it and confirmed it was the oldest known printed edition of the blockbuster.

The song began as a poem written by Josephus Franciscus Mohr in 1816. Mohr was born in Salzburg the illegitimate son of an embroiderer and an army deserter who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend before Joseph was born. The poverty of his early childhood was given a reprieve when Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, the vicar and musical director at Salzburg Cathedral, recognized the boy’s talent and sponsored his education. Mohr entered the seminary (he had to secure a special dispensation because of his illegitimate birth) and was ordained a priest in 1815.

These were turbulent times. With the end of the Napoleonic wars and the new boundaries established by the Congress of Vienna, the former ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg was divided into two sections, one given to Bavaria, the other Austria. Trade was disrupted and the associated industries — transportation, ship building, heavy lifting — suffered. Mohr witnessed this widespread economic uncertainty, political upheaval, troop withdrawals and the fallout from years of war in his first job as assistant priest at Mariapfarr in the Lungau region of Salzburg where he wrote Silent Night.

It didn’t become a song until two years later. Mohr was then assistant priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. Legend has it mice had eaten through the church organ making it impossible to play, so on Christmas Eve, 1818, Mohr gave choirmaster, organist and schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber his two-year-old poem and has him to write a melody suitable for two solo voices, a choir and a guitar. A few hours later, Gruber was finished and Stille Nacht was performed for the first time. Mohr played the guitar and sang the tenor role; Gruber sang bass.

The parishioners loved the simple song, and very soon the rest of the world would too. Just a year later it was already being performed in Tyrol by the popular Rainer Family Singers. In 1822 they performed it in front of Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tzar Alexander I of Russia. The Rainer Singers brought the song Stateside in 1839 and performed it for the first time on American soil in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in the cemetery of Trinity Church in New York City. An English translation was written in 1859 and by the turn of the century there were translations on every inhabited continent.

Today Silent Night is sung in more than 300 languages and dialects all over the world. It is by far the most popular Christmas carol ever, with 733 copyrighted recordings since 1978. Bing Crosby’s 1935 version of the song is the third best-selling single of all-time. (His White Christmas is number one).

Despite its almost immediate local and regional prominence, there is no original manuscript of the poem or of the composition. The printed version previously believed to be the oldest extant was published by A. R. Friese in Dresden in 1833, part of pamphlet entitled Four genuine Tyrolean songs. The recently discovered pamphlet is not dated, but Silent Night Society researchers believe it significantly predates the Friese publication because Joseph Greis, the publisher, ran a printing business in the early 1800s. He opened a bookstore in 1827 and died in 1835. There are no Greis printings after 1832, so even if Four Beautiful New Christmas Songs was one of the last things he did, it still beats the Dresden edition.

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