I am delighted and grateful to our Associate – James Robinson for selecting his Curator’s choice for our new online exhibition. James needs no introduction as he has been at the forefront of museum studies for many years. Having worked previously in Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery as well as at the Museum of London, he has been curator of Late Medieval Europe for many years at the British Museum. With responsibility for collections dating from the late eleventh to the early sixteenth centuries, James’ s real interests lie in the field of jewellery, seal dies, pilgrim badges and alabasters. He has contributed to many exhibitions catalogues and has also published on pilgrim badges, reliquaries and chess.
Many thanks to Gerry (Guest) for putting the show online.
James Robinson, Curator of Late Medieval Collections at the British Museum
There is so much that is enticing about the British Museum’s late medieval collections that it is almost impossible to identify a list of favourite pieces. I have chosen objects that effortlessly reflect the strengths of the collection but also convey something of the diverse projects that furnish the Museum’s ever-expanding programme. The choices are, of course, purely personal and the descriptions that follow are an informal assessment of each piece’s appealing qualities. Further object details with images can be found on the museum’s collection online facility or in James Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art, (British Museum Press 2008).
If the late medieval collection possesses one truly unique piece, it is probably The Royal Gold Cup. Difficult to surpass in technique, material richness and historic associations, it was acquired by the Museum in 1892. Its history is as colourful as the exquisite translucent enamels that decorate its solid gold surface. The cup was commissioned by Jean duc de Berry, probably between about 1370-80, and presented to his nephew Charles VI at Tourraine in 1391. The enamelled scenes tell the story of the life, martyrdom and posthumous miracles of St Agnes, a narrative that appears to have held some personal relevance. The duc de Berry’s brother, Charles V, was born on 21st January – the feast day of St Agnes. The cup may, therefore, have been intended as a birthday present for him. Charles died before the gift could be made and so it was offered to his son. Through the turmoil of the Hundred Years War, the cup then fell into the royal English household from at least 1435 until 1604 when James I presented it to the Spanish ambassador Juan de Velasco to commemorate the peace between England and Spain. He in turn gave it to the convent of Medina de Pomar near Burgos where it remained until 1883 when a priest took it to Paris to sell it to raise funds for the convent. Its purchase by the British Museum was at incredible cost and reliant on the generosity of a number of individual patrons. Significantly, however, the cup was the first object to be acquired with a contribution from the Treasury and so earned its place as the first object to be bought for the nation by the nation, inspiring the formation of the National Art Collection fund, now the Art Fund, in 1903.
Impressive as its grand history may be, the cup requires intimate inspection. It is the details that delight the visitor – the smoky black demon that hovers over the supine body of Procopius, the dancing flames of the burning faggots that refuse to harm St Agnes and the array of fine fabrics rendered with such skill by the enameller. The Royal Gold cup takes pride of place in the newly refurbished Paul and Jill Ruddock gallery of medieval Europe 1050-1500 which opened in March 2009. Its vibrant palette inspired the design of the gallery where objects are displayed against vivid blue and red panels to evoke something of the visual richness of the age.
More than any other item, the Lewis chessmen attract the vast majority of visitors to the late medieval Europe gallery. They are probably the most famous chessmen in the world – a fame secured by their inclusion in the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The chessmen form part of a hoard of walrus ivory that was discovered in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides at some point before April 1831 when they were shown at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland in Edinburgh. The precise findspot and the exact circumstances of their discovery remain unknown. They were acquired by the British Museum between November 1831 and January 1832. In addition to the eighty-two pieces in the British Museum, a further eleven are held by National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, acquired in 1888 from the collection of Lord Londesborough. In recent years the chessmen have become significant pawns in a political game with calls from the Scottish National Party for their return to Lewis.
Dating from the years between about 1150 and 1200, they exhibit features that place them securely within Norse culture. Sir Frederick Madden first published the find in Archaeologia in 1832, in an essay that identified the pose of one of the most characterful pieces in the hoard – the Berserker. The Berserker was a warrior who, in Norse literature, bit his own shield in a self-induced frenzy. The Lewis chessmen include four such figures, one in Scotland and three at the British Museum. They take the position on the board of the present day rook. The Berserkers along with the famously grumpy queens who sit with their chins in their hands, are two of the pieces that excite the most popular interest because of their comedic charm. The queens especially, however, also demonstrate the mastery of the ivory carver – in the folds of their drapery, the articulation of their fingers and in the highly individualized sculptural qualities of their thrones. It is the carving of the thrones that help to link the chessmen with the more monumental architectural forms of Scandinavian churches – particularly those of Norway. Trondheim is generally considered the most likely place of manufacture for the chessmen but the question of attribution is a difficult one to resolve and other suggestions have included Ireland, Scotland, England and Iceland. Iceland was suggested as a place of origin by Sir Frederick Madden in 1832 and the same argument has been proposed recently by a chess enthusiast from Iceland, Gudmundur Thorarinsson whose case made the New York Times in September this year.
The chessmen are probably the most well travelled objects in the entire British Museum collection. They have participated in exhibitions around the UK and as far afield as Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Japan. A selection of more than thirty pieces from National Museums Scotland and the British Museum is currently touring Scotland in an exhibition that opened in Edinburgh and is now at Aberdeen before moving to Shetland and the Isle of Lewis. They will return to the British Museum briefly before they are sent on their next mission to the Cloisters where they will be displayed from November 2011 to April 2012.
The Royal Gold Cup and the Lewis Chessmen are the big-hitters of the late medieval collection. Other objects, however, escape notice by the majority of visitors due to their modest dimensions and intimate nature. The reliquary pendant of the Holy Thorn falls into this category and suffers from the additional complication that it is difficult to display because it is so multifaceted. When closed it has the appearance of a secular jewel – an amethyst locket in a gold setting. When open it begins to reveal its sacred content. It is a wonderfully intricate jewel consisting of three leaves that are decorated with iridescent, translucent enamel. They give the appearance of a miniature book or a tiny altarpiece but they are also deeply suggestive of stained glass windows in the arrangement of their narrative that runs from bottom to top. The ‘frontispiece’ contains a donor portrait of a king and queen kneeling in veneration of the Virgin and Child. Given the dating of the pendant to the years around 1340, the royal figures are likely to represent Philippe VI and Jeanne de Bourgogne. This is placed opposite the Flight into Egypt and the Presentation. On the reverse of this panel there is a painted representation on parchment of the Nativity placed above the Annunciation to the Shepherds. This is the most intriguing part of the piece since it conceals a cavity that contains the relic of the Holy Thorn. The parchment has suffered water damage and is now protected by a modern glass cover. When open, the exposed relic is seen opposite the end page which shows the Crucifixion and the Deposition. Interestingly the Crown of Thorns does not appear in these scenes, presumably because it is represented by the actual presence of the thorn.
The reliquary pendant is one of a large number of items from the collection currently on display in the touring exhibition Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 17 October 2010 – 17 January 2011
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 13 February – 15 May 2011
The British Museum, London, 23 January 2011 – 9 October 2011
Bagnoli, M., Klein, H. A., Mann, G.C., and Robinson, J., (eds.), Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, (Yale University Press 2010)
Robinson, J., Finer than Gold: saints and relics in the Middle Ages (British Museum Press forthcoming 2011)
The British Museum has one of the largest collections of Gothic ivories in the world, catalogued by O M Dalton in 1907. However, one of the finest pieces, shown here, is not represented in the publication because it was acquired only in 1943. It forms the right leaf from a diptych which has a corresponding left half at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The left wing shows the Flagellation below the Crucifixion and the right shows the Deposition and the Entombment. The British Museum’s panel retains traces of pigment that give some indication of how the polychromy might have originally been applied – selectively to allow the beauty of the ivory to shine through. The Deposition is imbued with pathos and tenderness as Christ’s body is eased gently from the cross while the nails from his feet are extracted by a young boy with pliers. High relief is achieved by dramatic undercutting emphasizing the sculptural qualities of the piece that relate it to monumental carvings, such as those at Auxerre Cathedral.
The association of the two panels with the ‘rose group’ identified by Koechlin in his corpus of ivory carving published in 1924 was questioned by Neil Stratford in the exhibition catalogue Images in Ivory (1997). Koechlin’s work is in the process of being significantly updated by the Courtauld Institute in London for a digital database of Gothic ivories that will be launched on 15 December 2010. The British Museum is highly involved in the project and has committed a project curator to assist in the compilation of entries and commissioned new photography of the two hundred plus ivories in the collection.
This exceptional seal-die was found at Swanley in Kent by a metal detectorist and was acquired by the British Museum in 2006. It is one of a large number of finds that fall each year under the purview of the Treasure Act 1996. The Act revised the ancient law of Treasure Trove by stipulating that all finds of gold and silver of more than three hundred years of age must be reported to a local coroner. Formerly, in order for an item to be considered Treasure Trove, it had to be demonstrated that the object was deliberately buried with the intention of recovery. With the new Act, incidental finds of rings, brooches and seals are also defined as Treasure. Through the process of the Act, finds may be acquired by museums who pay the market price for the object in question which constitutes the reward for the finder.
The Museum has a comprehensive collection of around 1900 medieval seals. This example was considered acquisitionable because of its legend – not otherwise represented in the collection – and because of the very high quality of the classical gem that it contains. The legend reads: PONITE LITERAS ISTAS INSIGL SILLV SECRT (‘place your letter under a secret seal’). Seals such as this were used as counterseals or on closed correspondence and from the twelfth to the fourteenth century they were frequently set with classical gems to demonstrate both taste and learning. The identity of this red jasper intaglio has been determined by comparison with coin portraits to be a representation of Antoninus Pius, emperor of Rome from AD 138-161. It has been judged to be one of the finest classical gem portraits in the British Museum (or indeed anywhere) and constitutes an exceptionally rare category of object. It was featured in the 2007 exhibition, Good Impressions: image and authority in medieval seals and published in 2008 in the papers of the associated conference, now available online.