Category

Middle Ages

Sutton Hoo Burial Ship Anniversary

One of the best blog posts that I read this past summer was on the British Museum blog site. It was written by curator Sue Brunning on the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The post was not only informative, but it was also engaging and written in a way that channeled excitement in me. I was reminded of the reason why I started blogging in the first place.

Brunning’s post was written to commemorate the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which took place eighty years ago in 1939. This discovery was monumental and was unprecedented in many ways, since it is one of the most intact burials that has been found in Europe. This ship – which was almost 90 feet long (27 meters), served as the burial place for some extremely important individual (possibly the King of Anglia) in the 7th century. There is some old film footage of the excavation that shows helps to showcase the scale of this find. Probably the closest find in terms of historical weight and scope, I think, was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt seventeen years earlier, in 1922.

The Sutton Hoo is sometimes called “Britain’s Tutankhamun,” and an even more recent discovery of a different tomb of a 6th century Anglo Saxon prince has been hailed in the media as “UK’s answer to Tutankhamun.” However, I think that it will take a lot of work to have these British examples overshadow King Tut. It was a King Tut exhibition in the 1970s which created the sensation of the “blockbuster exhibition” in museum culture, and I think this event further helped to solidify the boy king’s status in modern culture today.

In terms of scholarship and archaeological trends, King Tut’s tomb might have gotten more attention because the Egyptian mummy was still intact in its sarcophagus, whereas the remains in the Sutton Hoo ship had decomposed. Without tangible, display-able human remains, there may have been less of a motivation to create an impressive display for the Sutton Hoo items (although in more recent years, a new display of the treasures has been well received). That being said, I think it’s interesting how both burials have some objects that have visual similarities: the Sutton Hoo helmet gives off a ghostly humanoid presence which is akin to King Tut’s sarcophagi and famous funerary mask.

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Sutton Hoo helmet (right) with reconstruction (left). Early 7th century, iron and tinned copper alloy helmet, consisting of many pieces of iron, now built into a reconstruction, 31.8 x 21.5 cm (as restored)

Another reason why I think that Sutton Hoo might not get as much attention is that many of the objects found in the burial are either small in scale, such as a purse clasp (shown below), shoulder clasp, and belt. These objects include a lot of minute detail and interlace lines that needs to be seen closely to be observed. I don’t think that these formal elements diminish the historical or aesthetic value of these objects, but I think that the smaller scale might cause the objects to require a more intimate, up-close connection with the viewer. Although there were small-scale objects also found in King Tut’s tomb, larger objects are also found therein and would have been more visually able to reach the masses in a blockbuster exhibition. These large scale objects continue to draw visitors to see King Tut – currently the website for the ongoing exhibition King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh 2019-2021  displays a large gilt chariot as one of the highlights of the show.

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Sutton Hoo Purse Clasp, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 8.3 x 19 cm (The British Museum). Image courtesy Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Flickr

Nonetheless, despite that the Sutton Hoo burial is not as much of a household name as “King Tut,” the findings at this excavation are extremely impressive and significant! I’m glad that the British Museum has given these objects a display (and a £4 million revamp at the Sutton Hoo site) that emphasizes their significance. Will these objects ever get to travel around the world in the same way that King Tut’s mummy and tomb objects have? Some Sutton Hoo objects did travel around Suffolk and north Essex while the National Trust display at Sutton Hoo was under renovation, but I’m not aware of any other time that any objects from this excavation have traveled. Does anyone know otherwise?

— 0 Comments

“A History of the World” Snippets

For the past few months, I have been listening to podcasts of A History of the World in 100 Objects while I exercise. The clips are engaging and interesting, and they provide some distraction for me while I run. I’ve learned and pondered a lot of things in the process, and I wanted to write down a few snippets of things that have stood out of me in the various episodes I have heard.

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic. British Museum.

The Standard of Ur: I first learned about the Standard of Ur when I was in high school, I think. But I’ve never thought much about the size of this object. Neil MacGregor describes this as “the size of a small briefcase” which looks “almost like a giant bar of Toblerone.”1

I’ve never realized that this famous object was so small! Since it has the nickname of a “standard,” I just assumed that it was a larger size. I also was interested to learn that the inlaid stone and shell come from various locations: Afghanistan (lapis lazuli), India (red marble), and shell (the Gulf).2 These various mediums indicate that the Sumerians had an extensive trade network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Standard of Ur and theories surrounding its original function, see HERE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Bronze Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Head of Augustus: I enjoyed learning about this head because it reminded me of discussions that I hold with my students about how ancient art was/is mutilated and stolen in times of war. This statue is no different. It once was part of a complete statue that was on the border of modern Egypt and Sudan. However, an army from the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë invaded this area in 25 BC (led by “the fierce one-eyed queen Candace”), and this army took the statue back to Meroë.3 The head was buried beneath a temple that was dedicated to this particular Sudanese victory, which meant that every person walking up the stairs to the temple would insult the emperor by stepping on his head.4 Even today, sand of the African desert is visible on the sculpture.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. British Museum. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David VasesI begin listening to this episode without any prior knowledge of these vases, so I was surprised to learn that these were from China (I assumed when reading the episode title that the vases had some nude figure which depicted the biblical David, à la Michelangelo or Donatello.) Nope! These Chinese vases are named after their most famous owner, Sir Percival David.

The thing that is most interesting to me is that, since these vases are dated 13 May 1351, we know that this level of fine quality blue-and-white porcelain predates the Ming dynasty (the dynasty from 1358-1644, which is typically associated with fine blue and white porcelain). In fact, we also know that the blue and white tradition is not Chinese in origin, but Middle Eastern! Neil MacGregor explains how Chinese potters used Iranian blue pigment cobalt (which was known in China as huihui qing – “Muslim blue”).5 Interestingly, Chinese artists even used Iranian blue pigment for exports sent to the Middle East, to meet the Iranian demand for blue and white ware after the Mongol invasion destroyed pottery industries in the area.It’s interesting to me that Iranian blue traveled to China, only to travel back to its area of origin as export pottery decoration.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Crown of Thorns: This chapel was not featured in the podcast specifically, but it was discussed at length in the episode for the Holy Thorn Reliquary. Sainte-Chapelle is a church that was built basically to be a reliquary, to house the Crown of Thorns. Surprisingly, the Crown of Thorns cost more than three times the amount paid to build Sainte-Chapelle!7  Today the Crown of Thorns is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; it was moved there by Napoleon in the 19th century.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the Crown of Thorns coming to Paris, and I wanted to learn more on my own. Louis IX dressed in a simple tunic (without royal robes) and walked through the streets barefoot while he carried the relic. The barefoot king is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window in Sainte-Chapelle. I also learned through my own research that the Crown of Thorns, while on its way to Paris, was housed in a cathedral in Sens overnight. This moment was honored in a window from Tours, which depicts Louis IX holding the thorns on a chalice.

The other thing I found interesting about the arrival of the Crown of Thorns is that this elevated the status of France among the Christian countries of Europe. “When the crown arrived, it was described as being on deposit with the king of France until the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to collect it and the kingdom of France would become the kingdom of heaven.”8

Are there any episodes/chapters from A Short History of the World in 100 Objects that you particularly enjoy? Please share!

1 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), p. 72.

2 Ibid., 72-73.

3 Ibid., 225 

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 413. 

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 425. Sainte-Chapelle cost 40,000 livres to build. The Crown of Thorns was bought from the Venetians for 135,000 livres (400 kilograms of gold). MacGregor writes that The Crown of Thorns was “probably the most valuable thing in Europe at the time.”

8 Ibid., 427.

— 0 Comments

Carpet Pages and Islamic Prayer Rugs

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum

Carpet Page from the Book of Kells, folio 33r, c. 800. Painted illumination on vellum. Image courtesy Wikipedia

This morning, in preparation for class, I was looking at a digital copy of the Book of Kells. I previously have written about how I think it is important to consider the exuberant decoration of the Chi-Rho-Iota page (known as the “Incarnation” page, folio 34r) in relation to the accompanying joyful text, which announces the birth of Christ. As I was looking at the digital copy of the book further, it struck me how this design is significant in relation to the context of the Book of Kells itself, since the Chi-Rho-Iota page is directly preceded by a carpet page (see above).

Carpet pages (sometimes called “cross-carpet pages”) are illuminated manuscripts which have a design that is generally in the shape of a rectangle (filling the outline of the page itself), with interlace and decorative geometric forms woven within the general rectangular form. Such pages appear in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Usually, there is hardly any text on these pages, or no text at all. The designs of these manuscripts usually are quite symmetrical and typically have a strong vertical axis (and sometimes horizontal axes as well, which often forms the shape of a cross). There are several possible origins for this type of carpet design, but I am drawn to the idea that these “carpets” are reminiscent of Islamic prayer rugs, for I think they may have also had a similar function: these carpets can serve as an aid to meditation in the sense that they alert the reader that the subsequent Gospel text is important, and the reader should mentally prepare before looking at the following pages within the book or codex.1

To see the relationship between carpet pages and other pages in the text, consider how the carpet page from the Book of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels precedes the incipit page (see image of these two pages HERE). This is a really complex and gorgeous carpet page (see below), which includes snake-like creatures whose mouths clamp down on their own writhing bodies (see this image detail).

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, folio 26v, early 8th century CE.

Here are some of my other favorite carpet pages:

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne Gospels, Carpet Page for Book of John, folio 210v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Lindisfarne, Carpet Page, Book of Mark, folio 94v, early 8th century

Do you have any favorite carpet pages? If you know of any other connections between carpet pages and Islamic prayer rugs, please share! I did find an abstract for a lecture that explored the possibility of how illuminated Islamic manuscripts may have factored into the production of physical carpets themselves, although these historical connections are still unclear.

1 Other origins for carpet pages include contemporary metalwork, Coptic manuscripts, and Roman floor mosaics in post-Roman Britain. See Robert G. Calkins, Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 53.

— 6 Comments

History of the Halo in Art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Last year, in two different classes, I had students ask me about the history of the halo in art. It is an interesting topic to consider, especially since there isn’t a reference to Jesus having a halo in the Bible. I think that the closest reference to a halo in the Bible is a description of Moses being surrounded with a “crown of light” or “rays of light” (from when he came down off of Mt. Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 34:29). Interestingly, St. Jerome’s Vulgate had a translation of this verse as “horns of light,” and you sometimes see depictions of Moses with horns from the Middle Ages and onward. But that’s another story for another post, perhaps.

Detail of Helios from a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, British Museum

I thought I’d write down a bit about the early sources for the halo, in case I have more students ask the same question in the future. The halo may have come from several different sources, including classical culture. For example, the Greek god Helios is depicted with rays emanating from his head. There also are a few depictions of Apollo with halos. A Roman floor mosaic in Tunisia which has one such depiction. I’ve also heard discussions about how laurel wreaths (used to crown victors in classical societies) could be related to the halo.

In addition to classical sources, the sun disk found in Egyptian crowns may have been an early manifestation of a halo-like form.  There also are similar forms related to the halo (like the nimbus or aureola) found in non-Western art, too. Some think that the halo form traveled from West to East, ending up in Ghandara and influencing depictions of the Buddha (see one example from the Tokyo National Museum from the 1st-2nd centuries CE).1

Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum M (Mausoleum of the Julii), from the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. Mid-3rd century CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christians adopted the round halo from their contemporaries, using the circular shape to connote perfection, divinity, and holiness. I know of one early image, a ceiling mosaic from the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s (see above), which may depict Christ or Sol Invictus (the later sun god of the Roman empire). This image pre-dates the 4th century, and could be a very early example of the halo in a Christian context. After this point, halos were used for Christ and the Lamb of God, angels, the Virgin, and eventually saints.2

Some variants of the halo:

  • The mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole) usually is used for depictions of Christ and the Virgin. However, the earliest representation of a mandorla appears around an Old Testament figure, specifically one of the three angels who visit Abraham (in a 5th century scene at Santa Maria Maggiore).3 The mandorla continues to become more abstract and angularly defined in later art.
  • The cruciform halo is usually used for members the Trinity, especially Christ. This form of halo includes a cross within or extending beyond the circular area of the halo. An early example of the cruciform halo is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (c. 504). In Orthodox and Byzantine tradition, the cruciform also include the letters Ο Ν, which translate to mean “The Being” or “I Am,” serving as a testament to Christ’s divinity (see more information HERE).
  • The square halo was sometimes used to indicate that a person is still living when the work of art is created. From what I can tell, the earliest example of a square halo dates from about the early 8th century. The square, as an imperfect shape that represents the Earth, is used to draw a contrast with the perfect circle used for divine figures. (For an example, see mosaic of Pope John VII at the beginning of this post. Other examples of square halos are found at Santa Prassede in Rome, found in a mosaic of Pope Paschal I (c. 820) and a mosaic which includes a woman specified as “Theodora, Bishop”).
  • The trianglular halo is sometimes used to symbolize the Trinity (example: Antoniazzo Romano, detail of God the Father, from the Altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, c. 1489-90, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome).
  • The hexagonal halo has been used in conjunction with allegorical figures (example: Alesso di Andrea, Hope, 1347. Pistoia Cathedral, Pistoia).
  • Dotted halos sometimes appear in Crusader art; they are considered one of the stylistic characteristics of this type of art (example: Saint Sergios with Female Donor icon, c. 1250s).4 The dotted halo also appears in other artistic traditions, too, including Ottonian art (example: Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50).
  • The star halo sometimes appears in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. This type of halo refers to the to the description of the Virgin being crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Several depictions of the Immaculate Conception appear in Counter-Reformation art, including Velasquez’s The Immaculate Conception c. 1619 and Francesco Pacheco’s Immaculate Conception with Miguel Cid, c. 1621 (Seville Cathedral).

Jan Van Eyck, detail of Virgin from the Ghent altarpiece, 1432

With the rise of realism in Renaissance art, the halo began to decrease (in terms of size and frequency of use). Giotto seems to have struggled with how to depict groups of figures with halos, while still giving a sense of three dimensional space, as seen in his Madonna and Child altarpiece. Masaccio tried to angle his halos to appear a little more realistic in three-dimensional space, as seen in his “Tribute Money” fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci only subly suggests a thin halo in many of his paintings, like Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery in London. In some Renaissance art, sometimes the halo was subtly incorporated into a scene, like the a firescreen (Follower of Robert Campin, Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen) or an architectural device (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper). I like how Jan Van Eyck created thrones in the Ghent altarpiece with backs that give the suggestion of halos (see above). Beyond the Renaissance, some artists continued to suggest halos without creating a traditional halo, as seen in the drapery behind Christ in Coypel’s The Resurrection of Christ (1700).

What are your favorite depictions of halos? Why?

1 Sally Fisher, The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 “Mandorla,” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Available online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/361739/mandorla (accessed September 19, 2013).

4 Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “To the Holy Land and Back Again: The Art of the Crusades,” in Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance, edited by Kim W. Woods (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 134.

— 16 Comments

Ottonian “Baroque” Elements

"Christ and Apostles on the Sea of Galilee" from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50 CE. Ms. 1640, folio 117

Over the past week I have been transcribing my handwritten art history notes from my undergraduate years into digital format. I’ve been working on the notes from my class on medieval art, and I’ve been struck that my past professor casually referred to some Ottonian works of art as “baroque” in style. Although the Ottonian period is often referred to as a “renaissance” in terms of a rebirth of artistic production (with classical influence feeding into the Ottonian style from both the Carolingians and Rome itself), I can see what my professor is saying about a few instances in which baroque elements can be found in Ottonian art.

For example, the bow and stern of the ship in “Christ and the Apostles on the Seat of Galilee” from the Hitda Codex (shown above) seem to strain against the border of the manuscript itself, as if pushing forward into the actual space of the viewer.1 The sweeping curves of the ship remind me of the undulating, Borrominesque curves found in 17th century architecture. And the dramatically-windblown sail reminds me of the grandiose “cloth of honor” that is found in many Baroque paintings, such as the Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin from 1606.

"St. Erhard Celebrating the Mass," from the Uta Codex, c. 1020. Image courtesy Wikipedia

My professor also felt like the Ottonian School of Regensburg was the “baroque phase” of Ottonian illumination, largely because the works of art are so visually complex. The Uta Codex is from Regensburg and includes several masterpiece manuscripts, such as “St. Erhard Celebrating the Mass.”2 Visual complexity is typified in the dynamic, decorative canopy which sweeps over the head of St. Erhard. The manuscript is also filled with excessive decoration and detail. Semi-circles seem to bulge out of the sides of the rectangular border of the frame, which adds a dynamic element that arguably could be called baroque.

Detail of Creator introducing Adam and Eve, from the Hildesheim Doors, 1015. Photo via petrus.agricola via Flickr

While thinking about such baroque elements in Ottonian art, I also was reminded of an article by Harvey Stahl, “Eve’s Reach: A Note on the Dramatic Elements in the Hildesheim Doors” (.PDF available online). Stahl discusses how there are dramatic elements and moments of tension in the doors, which help to encourage the viewer to follow the narrative. I think that this element of drama has some parallels with the aesthetic and subject matter of the Baroque period. One such dramatic element found in the panel in which Adam and Eve are introduced. Here, Adam and Eve reach for each other, but are depicted as almost touching. Stahl explores this idea of drama and tension, finding that the doors were influenced by the plays written by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim about a half-century before Bishop Bernward commissioned these doors.3

Although I do not claim that these Ottonian elements had a direct impact on Baroque artists, I do like to think that this might be another slight example of the cyclical nature of art. Perhaps, in some ways, the classical style of the Carolingians led into a few Ottonian dramatic elements and visual distortions that could be seen as departures from the “classical calm,” similar to how the Renaissance style of the 15th and 16th centuries led into the Baroque style of the 17th century.

1 For more images from the Hitda Codex, scroll to the bottom of this website: http://www.oberlin.edu/images/Art310/Art310f.html

2 For more information on this manuscript, see http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/liturgical_objects/liturgical_objects2.html and http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/catholic_historical_review/v088/88.4mayr-harting.html. I especially like that Abbess Uta, the original owner of the manuscript, is depicted in the upper-right corner.

3 Harvey Stahl, “A Note on the Dramatic Elements in the HIldesheim Doors” from Reading Medieval Images by Elizabeth Sears and Thelma K. Thomas, eds. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2002), p. 163, 168, 169.

— 6 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.