British Museum blog

On medieval metalwork

Jamie Hall, contemporary and medieval metalworker

The majority of the objects on display in Treasures of Heaven are made from precious metals. In the modern age, the computer is the pinnacle of technological development, and during the Industrial Revolution it was vast machines that filled the role. But prior to that, during the middle ages, it was the products of the metalworker that represented the very best of human ingenuity. Popular culture gives the impression that arms and armour were the heart and soul of metallurgy, but work in the precious metals is no less inspiring, and in fact, the two branches go hand in hand, one feeding into the other.

As a jeweller, and a medievalist, the exhibition was a very exciting opportunity to see the labours of my predecessors first hand. It’s one thing to read about the methods they used, and another to behold these objects, and see the tool marks – remembering that each stroke of the engraving, and each strike of the hammer, had a human hand behind it, using tools that are not so different to the ones I use today. But these aren’t the works of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organisation – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town.

Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various persuasions – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal. One such workshop is described in a 12th-century book called On Divers Arts by an artisan-monk calling himself Theophilus, where even the steel tools were produced in-house.

My favourite piece in the exhibition is the Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin, which has an almost sci-fi quality to it. Aside from the excellent knotwork decoration, the piece is assembled from a mixture of cast and forged sections, and has a feeling of solidity that you can see across the room.

It isn’t often that we get a chance to see such a wide range of methods in one place – the exhibition is almost like a catalogue of techniques. Nor do we normally get to see objects that cover over a millenia of history, across so many different cultures, each with it’s own unique take on Christianity. From the post-classical styles of the Byzantine Empire, to the pagan-influenced works from the British Isles, and everything in between, the Treasures of Heaven exhibition is a stunning testament to the passion, inspiration and ingenuity of our ancestors, and their search for beauty in a world of tragedy and violence.

Jamie Hall (@primitivemethod) is a contemporary and medieval metalworker.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven

Perspectives on the world

Jonathan Williams, Keeper of Prehistory and Europe

The Museum’s latest exhibition exploring spiritual journeys closes in the next couple of weeks. Treasures of Heaven is all about what it was like to be human in medieval Europe, and an inherent part of medieval European life was religion. Whether you were a woman or a man, young or old, rich or poor, Christianity was part of everyday life and the exhibition explores the role of worship and the objects associated with it – and how these objects were thought to provide a bridge between heaven and Earth.

The way that Christianity permeated all elements of medieval European life is one of the big things that make medieval Europeans different from us, and that’s why we need to know about it. For better or worse, medieval people lavished their money and time, their art and their passion on their religion above all else, and made some extraordinarily beautiful and moving things along the way, many of which feature in the show.

It’s been an amazing opportunity to gain a new insight not just into the craftsmanship and sophistication of the middle ages but, more importantly, into the minds and hearts of people in a particular moment in time.

You can say something similar about the Museum’s next big show, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, about the great annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which will also give all of us a way into understanding a phenomenon that is central to the lives and imaginations of millions of people around the world, and millions of Britons too. The exhibition will explore the history of this famous pilgrimage through rarely-seen objects from across the world and will shed light on how the pilgrimage continues to be experienced today.

To explore human history is to explore human beliefs and experiences. This is what the British Museum is for – to enable us to see the world from different perspectives.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 2011.
Book tickets now.
Sponsored by John Studzinski

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012. Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, Treasures of Heaven

Installing Treasures of Heaven

Morn Capper, British Museum

As Icelandic ash clouds threatened to delay the main shipments, my Treasures of Heaven installation with the Museum Assistant team began eventfully. I need not have worried. Customs delays merely allowed us to make an especially large mountain of tissue balls with which to safely pack objects. By the evening, our lorry finally arrived back at the Museum and the crates were safely unloaded and locked away until morning.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

Starting early on day two with British Museum objects, crates were opened and parcels unwrapped, as every object was examined to ensure it had survived the flight from the USA intact.

First paperwork: despite their apparently good condition, these irreplaceable treasures are hundreds of years old, and each has instructions for care and display. Relics and reliquaries also have an unusual mixture of materials. Precious metals like gold and silver prefer dry conditions, while organic materials like wood, bone and ivory need carefully conditioned humidity to stop them cracking.

Then the excitement: under the watchful eyes of the exhibition curator, James Robinson, I unwrapped the head of St Eustace – a British Museum object which has been on tour around the world – from the special intercept material which prevents him from tarnishing and carefully compared each gem, rivet, dent and scratch to the record photos to make sure he had returned safely. Satisfied, James signed St Eustace back into British Museum hands. Senior Museum Assistant, Jim Peters was given the nerve-wracking task of carrying the Holy Thorn Reliquary – a 700 year-old object made for the French royal family – across the Great Court and into the exhibition space.

Immediately, couriers from across the globe began to arrive, co-ordinated by Project Manager Rachel. Curators from Cleveland and Baltimore were joined by conservator Larry Becker from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, with the St Ursula companion: the face on every British Museum poster for the exhibition. Specialist British Museum conservators advised on their care.

Once these couriers leave site the display cases containing their objects cannot be reopened and with Museum Assistant Sam co-ordinating the effort the team had to work late into the night.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Each pin holding such relics as the sixth century necklace from Cleveland or the skull fragment of St Thomas Becket from Stonyhurst College, was expertly positioned, tested and sheathed in plastic.

While some of these relics have little known histories, others have fascinating stories up to the present day. The Man of Sorrows, a Byzantine Icon, has been in Santa Croce in Rome since at least the fourteenth century, where it was surrounded by the cabinet of relics it still holds today, each with an individual hand written label. Later in the exhibition, books from the Reformation hint towards a time when the printed word led to greater questioning of these strange and powerful objects of devotion. It has been a fascinating week.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven

St Baudime reliquary arrives at the Museum

By James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Today the installation began in earnest with the placing of one of the most significant and compelling reliquaries of the exhibition. The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. It’s normally kept in the church of St Nectaire deep in the Auvergne in the centre of France where, sadly, relatively few people have seen it.

Statue reliquary of St Baudime in the church of St Nectair, Auvergne, France

Imagine the excitement when the packing case was opened and the eyes of this exceptional figure were exposed again to the light. The eyes were designed to hold the gaze of the onlooker and still command attention today. Made of ivory, horn and wax, they are slightly mobile and move in their sockets – a miracle of medieval technology. The beautifully expressive hands were made to extend benediction and welcome. The right hand may have once held a phial of the saint’s blood. Despite its remarkable delicacy, its solid walnut core makes it extraordinarily heavy and it required concentrated effort to place it safely in its display case.

The reliquary arrives at the British Museum and is carefully removed from its crate and prepared for conservation work.

Although this reliquary of St Baudime has always remained in France and has stirred rarely from the church it was made to furnish, it has experienced its fair share of trauma. The settings for the jewels that once adorned the figure are now almost all empty, robbed of their riches at the time of the French Revolution. Later, the reliquary itself was stolen by the infamous Thomas brothers in May 1907 but was recovered in a wine cellar!

A slideshow showing every step of the installation is now online.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven, , , , , , , ,

Treasures of Heaven

James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Next month, over 120 sacred relics (the physical remains or belongings of saints) will begin arriving at the British Museum from across Europe and the USA for the forthcoming exhibition Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe. As curator of the exhibition, I will be one of the first to see these amazing objects coming out of their travelling cases – and I can’t wait.

But why am I so excited about seeing a bunch of old bones? In the medieval period the relics of saints were enshrined in the most precious and valuable materials. These containers, known as reliquaries, were made by the finest craftsman of the age. Gleaming gemstones and luminous enamels were placed in sublime combinations with precious metals to speak to the viewer of the reliquaries sacred contents. It is these containers that will be showcased in the exhibition.

Medieval Christians believed that the physical remains of saints provided a tangible link to the divine. Saints sat beside God in heaven and could be petitioned to ask God for help. If I were suffering from plague in the Middle Ages I would want to pray to and venerate the relics of St Blaise, an expert in healing the plague. St Blaise might then ask God to help me and I might be miraculously healed. Some Christians hold similar beliefs today. In 2009 over 90,000 pilgrims came to Westminster Cathedral in London to venerate the travelling relics of French nun St Thérese of Lisieux.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion
of St Ursula. South Netherlandish, c. 1520–1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In researching this exhibition we have discovered some extraordinary medieval legends. One is the story of the English princess Ursula who before her marriage went on pilgrimage to venerate relics in the Holy Land. She never got there and was captured and martyred along with her 11,000 virgin travelling companions by pagans in Cologne. This captivating reliquary made from delicately painted wood would once have contained the skull of one her companions.

We still have a lot of work to do before the exhibition opens but I couldn’t resist giving a sneak peak at these unusual stories and astounding objects.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven, , ,

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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