British Museum blog

A medieval alchemical book reveals new secrets

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library 

Marcel Marée, Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

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A page from the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 50v)

Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣabah), on loan from the British Library. The book’s 13th-century author, Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined!

Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-‘Irāqī, known as al-Sīmāwī (‘the practitioner of natural or white magic’), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī (r. 1260–1277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-‘Irāqī himself.

The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The ‘climes’ (from which our word ‘climate’ is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-‘Irāqī’s title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.

Al-‘Irāqī reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-‘Irāqī’s lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?

Luckily, while al-‘Irāqī’s 13th-century autograph manuscript is lost, one source of his illustrations is known to us: the Book of Images (Muṣḥaf al-ṣuwar). It is attributed to the 4th-century Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and preserved in a copy made in Egypt in 1270, during al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime. The manuscript, now in Istanbul, could even be the one that al-‘Irāqī consulted.

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Matching illustrations in the 13th-century Book of Images (left) and the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (right). The later image is much reduced and reinterpreted, and pseudo-hieroglyphs were added. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 196r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18r)

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Another pair of matching illustrations in the same manuscripts, again showing numerous changes. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 205r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18v)

Al-‘Irāqī was usually careful to cite his sources by title and author, but the images in his work, at least in their 18th-century versions, show many changes and omissions. In addition, some of the pages were embellished with pseudo-hieroglyphs, perhaps a code for the Arabic alphabet, not present in the original.

What did al-‘Irāqī make of the hieroglyphs in the illustrations? Were they all completely invented? To begin to understand this, it is worth examining a group of images in the Book of the Seven Climes now on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. Below we illustrate a key explaining the various elements. These have been numbered for ease of reference in the rest of our discussion.

KG stela finalAl-‘Irāqī states that the material on this page comes from a ‘Hidden Book’ attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (1), a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt who was believed to have mastered the secrets of occult sciences such as alchemy and to have recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, last written nine centuries before al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime, were undecipherable to him and his contemporaries. Undeterred, and guided by the legend of Hermes Trismegistus, he gave the illustrated elements an alchemical interpretation. He refers to apparatus such as the distillation furnace (7) and the bain-marie (12), and to processes such as roasting (11) and blackening (2). Alchemical substances are referred to symbolically: the eagle (3, 4, 10) and the ‘intensely black’ raven (9) were widely employed as codes for sal ammoniac and for iron and/or lead, respectively.

But this page does not only contain alchemical secrets. The hieroglyphic composition in the lower panel is coherent enough to show that it was ultimately copied from an actual ancient monument. While distortions have crept in, the shapes of the hieroglyphs are not complete fantasy, unlike those of the interpolated pseudo-hieroglyphs mentioned further above. The Egyptologist Okasha El Daly first noted that the inspiration for the present image came from a stela carved in the name of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 1922–1878 BC. Two of Amenemhat’s official names can still be recognised (9 and 12).

The ‘Horus name’ identified a pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus, the god of kingship. It was written inside a serekh (9): a frame representing a palace, complete with a panelled façade and with Horus, shown as a falcon, perched on top. In al-ʿIrāqī’s illustration, these elements have undergone an alchemical transmutation: at some point the panels of Amenemhat’s serekh were changed into curious implements, and the falcon into a raven! Despite further distortions, we can just discern the Horus name of Amenemhat II: Heken-em-maat, literally ‘He who rejoices in justice’. On the original monument the preposition ‘in’ was undoubtedly written with an owl. To suit the alchemist’s agenda, it has here become a red eagle (10).

A pharaoh’s throne and birth names were traditionally written inside oval ‘cartouches’, to make them stand out from surrounding text. Unaware of this fact, al-‘Irāqī identifies just such a cartouche as ‘Maria’s bath’, the bain-marie (12) or hot-water bath, which is named after the alchemist Maria the Jewess, and is still used today by the catering industry. The hieroglyphs enclosed by the present cartouche spelled out the throne name of Amenemhat II: Nub-kau-Ra, or ‘The life-forces of Ra (the sun god) are of gold’. In our manuscript a sun-disc (‘Ra’) and a necklace (‘gold’) have been transformed into a human face with neck and arms. Hieroglyphs above the cartouche still recognisably give two well-known royal epithets: ‘the great god, lord of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)’ (11). Al-‘Irāqī interpreted the whole group as pertaining to ‘roasting’: apparently a hieroglyph representing a basket became a roasting dish, and two stretches of land below it became a grill! The hieroglyphs below the cartouche, in their ancient meaning, claim that the pharaoh is ‘given life forever’ (13).

Monuments of Amenemhat II are rare and his stela is lost, so the exploits of our medieval alchemist hold value to modern Egyptology. Comparing al-‘Irāqī’s drawing with extant stelae of similar date, we can determine more precisely how the stela of Amenemhat would have looked. The stela shown below, displayed in Room 65 of the British Museum, dates from the reign of his grandson, Senwosret III (around 1874–1855 BC). That king’s Horus and throne names again take up two-thirds of the top. The remaining third mentions a deity (‘Horus-son-of-Isis’), of whom the king is said to be ‘beloved’. The texts naming king and god were given opposed orientations, so that the actors involved ‘look’ at each other. The image in the Book of the Seven Climes reveals that Amenemhat, too, was described as ‘beloved’ of a deity (14), whose name must be sought in the hieroglyphs grouped on the left, likewise facing those naming the king. In our 18th-century copy most of these signs have been shuffled about and reshaped beyond recognition, but two of them read probably ‘Wepwa(wet)’, the name of a jackal god (16). Three hieroglyphs crammed in between the god’s and the king’s names, assuming the former’s orientation, cite blessings bestowed on the latter: ‘life, stability, dominion’ (17).

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Stela from the reign of Senwosret III, whose ornamental inscription at the top is laid out very similarly to that on the lost stela of Amenemhat II, as illustrated by al-‘Irāqī. (British Museum, EA 852)

Amenemhat’s ornamental inscription would have been bordered at the bottom by a stroke representing land and at the top by a band representing heaven, supported at the ends by divine sceptres symbolising the full extent of the king’s god-given ‘dominion’. Only the top of the left-hand sceptre (18) has made it into our 18th-century manuscript, but its identity is unmistakable.

The very fact that a hieroglyphic inscription from around 1900 BC can still, in part, be read in an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century Arabic text testifies to the care Arabic scribes took in copying and recopying earlier manuscripts through the centuries. The inclusion of an authentic hieroglyphic text in the Book of the Seven Climes also demonstrates the interest in Egyptian antiquities taken by some medieval Arabic scholars. Al-ʿIrāqī’s alchemical understanding of that text highlights the differences between medieval interpretative frameworks and those employed by the modern science of Egyptology.

More accurate copies of the Amenemhat inscription may still await discovery in unpublished earlier copies of al-‘Irāqī’s Seven Climes in Dublin, Cairo or elsewhere. Furthermore, the identification of more works from which al-ʿIrāqī took his illustrations could bring us closer to the ancient monuments from which some of the illustrations were ultimately copied. We plan to study the other manuscripts of the Book of the Seven Climes and search for the sources of its illustrations. This will throw more light on how al-‘Irāqī adapted his material and may enable a fuller reading of the original inscription of Amenemhat II. It might even reveal further authentic hieroglyphic texts.

The 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

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Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

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One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

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Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

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Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , ,

Ten years of the Asahi Shimbun Displays: focussing in on objects in focus

Laura Purseglove, Project Assistant and David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

2015 saw the ten-year anniversary of the Asahi Shimbun Displays at the British Museum. Located in Room 3, to the right of the main entrance, these displays have provided the opportunity to focus in depth on individual objects within the Museum’s collection. They were also conceived of as an experimental space, where the Museum could explore new methods of displaying and interpreting objects. Channelling this experimental spirit, members of the project team, Laura Purseglove and David Francis, engage in a critical dialogue in this blog post about the Asahi Shimbun Displays and the relationship to trends within museological and cultural theory.

DF: One of the most innovative things about the Asahi Shimbun Displays has been the opportunity to tell stories about individual objects, which we wouldn’t have the space for in the permanent galleries. In Room 70, the Roman Empire gallery, the Meroë head of Augustus is one of hundreds of objects and there is only scope to present the head as an example of Roman portraiture and tell the story of Augustus’ rise to power.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (11 December 2014–15 February 2015)

DF: For The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome (2014) display, we were able to go into much more depth. This display explored Rome’s relationship with the African kingdom of Meroë and the story of the object’s discovery in the build-up to the First World War. It even made comparisons between the beheading of Augustus’ statue and the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Iraq in 2003. In many ways this use of a single object to tell a wider historical narrative can be seen as a precursor to the A History of the World in 100 objects series broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010. That in turn has popularised an object-based approach to history – now objects are used to tell the story of lots of things, from baseball to Doctor Who.

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Marketing poster for The Asahi Shimbun Display Made in Africa (2005)

LP: Yes, from a fine art perspective, which is my area of expertise, it’s been interesting to see this renewed focus on objects, as opposed to context, in humanities scholarship and in our museums and galleries. You might say that the first display in 2005, Made in Africa, reflected this idea by consciously aestheticising three stone hand axes, encouraging visitors to engage directly with the objects’ physical properties rather than seeing them as illustrative of a wider historical context. The hand axes themselves were presented as things to be experienced rather than ‘read’. This approach is mirrored in cultural theory, for instance in the ideas of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who used the term ‘affect’ to frame the art object as a bundle of ‘sensations’ activated when perceived.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (12 August–10 October 2010)

DF: In archaeology and anthropology as well, you have what’s known as ‘the material turn’ – a focus on a thing’s materiality as opposed to treating objects as ‘texts’ to be read. I’m an interpretation officer and so my focus is very much on an object’s relationship to text. This involves creating accessible text for a non-specialist audience, and also using objects to construct narratives about the past that allow us to better understand the present. At the same time, there are some things text alone cannot capture. The display Akan drum: the drummer is calling me (2010) told the story of the oldest African-American object in the Museum. Made in West Africa and collected in Virginia, this leather drum was brought to America as part of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. As well as interrogating the terrible practices of the slave trade the display also looked at the transmission of musical heritage from Africa to America. We created an accompanying soundtrack, tracing early African drumming to the development of call and response and gospel music, and its development into jazz, blues, RnB and hip-hop. If you were to tell that story through text alone so much would be lost.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (12 May–10 July 2011)

LP: Right, by not relying solely on text to explain an object we acknowledge that objects can’t necessarily be reduced to their more ‘textual’ properties, they are more than the sum of their parts. For the display Xu Bing: Background Story 7 (2011) we experimented with a white cube display style, which privileges experiencing the object over explanation. The design encouraged viewers to encounter the object directly, with text positioned to the side so as not to interfere. The back of the installation revealed the materials Xu Bing used to create the illusion of a traditional Chinese scroll painting – debris and plant materials. We relied on the power of the object to draw visitors to the back of the screen. Signposting, on that occasion, would have detracted from the experience of encountering the work in an unmediated way.

DF: You mentioned using a white cube approach and I think it’s interesting how different disciplines have their own styles of display. If you think about the one object in a room approach, it can be seen as rooted in the tradition of the modernist art gallery. Although I suppose it has its origins in the treasuries of the medieval church, setting aside a relic or icon to be encountered and venerated. However, such an approach can limit the meanings of an object, especially when it’s entangled within a wider network, or assemblage of objects.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (19 June–17 August 2014)

DF: Since the publication of Edmund de Waals’ The Hare with the Amber Eyes, netsuke have been popularly conceived as object d’art – tiny, beautiful things to be collected and aestheticised. But this is only one aspect of their story. They’re also part of a network of objects designed to provide a specific function. Japanese kimonos have no pockets and so, in the Edo Period, small personal items – such as tobacco or money – would be carried in a small pouch. Netsuke were used as toggles that allowed these pouches to be hung from the belt of the kimono. It is only by displaying the netsuke alongside a kimono and other accompanying male accessories that you can really understand their purpose, as well as appreciate their aesthetic qualities and idiosyncratic personalities.

LP: Yes, the example of the Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion (2014) display does point to the limits of the single object, unmediated approach. It’s an example which demonstrates that sometimes objects need to be understood through their relation to other objects, but also that sometimes their meaning lies in their relationship with people.

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The Asahi Shimbun Display Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (12 March–25 May 2015)

LP: The Sikh Fortress Turban (2011) display presented a dastaar boonga turban as an example of a living tradition. It was co-curated by members of the Sikh community in London and placed their voices and experiences at the centre of the story. More recently, the Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi (2015) display, an installation by the indigenous Australian artist, defined the piece in terms of its relationship to the artist and his cultural heritage. A short film showing the artist talking about the work demonstrated that what makes the piece so special is its connection to the artist’s personal and clan histories, as well as the relationship to the landscape of Arnhem Land.  But, that said, visitors could still enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship inherent in the work without watching the film. So perhaps this leaves us in agreement; the Asahi Shimbun Displays are at their best when they reveal the ways in which our objects connect to the wider world but don’t reduce them to mirrors of their contexts. It’s the beautiful, strange, sometimes baffling nature of ‘things’ that makes us want to visit museums, isn’t it?

The Asahi Shimbun Display Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 21 February 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

 

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Copts of the Nile: the Coptic community in Egypt today through the lens of photographer Nabil Boutros

Sarah Johnson, Curator of Islamic Collections, British Museum

The exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, examines religious identity in the first millennium AD, when Egypt became first a majority Christian population and later, Muslim. Today, Egyptian Christians, or Copts, are a significant minority. The extraordinary collections of the British Museum allow us to explore religious identities in Egypt up to the present, here through contemporary photography.

In 1986, the artist, Nabil Boutros, decided to return to Egypt after living in France for ten years to explore what it meant to be Egyptian. He had trained as a painter but he decided to take up photography because he found it more useful in studying his identity as an Egyptian.

“The camera was and remains for me an instrument that allows me to go to places where I would not go otherwise. Of course, the point is to collect images; that is the compensation. Without photography, I would not have made the exploration, and I would have not had those contacts…”

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Salam, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.5-7

Boutros grew up in a Coptic Christian family and decided to document the community in Egypt in order to better understand his own roots and to highlight the modern aspects of Coptic religious practice. Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, the church was founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (r. AD 54–68). Today, Copts make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population with a large diaspora living elsewhere.

Boutros spent seven years, from 1997 to 2004, photographing the Coptic community around Egypt. He visited major historic sites such as the Monastery of Saint Paul (founded 5th century AD) and Deir El-Maymoun (founded AD 361–363), and attended ceremonies that have continued for thousands of years. As a Copt himself, he wanted to highlight the contemporary individuals who visit and worship at these locations, or as he says, “to get as close as possible to the quotidian.”

He always includes people in his photographs, noting that Western photographers often depict these monuments without figures, as if they are no longer in use. His photographs often only show one or two people, even in the midst of large ceremonies. For example, he portrays a single woman in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary at the pilgrimage to Deir Dronka, near Assiut, which draws thousands of people in August each year. In this way, he draws attention to individual worship and personal stories.

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Vendredi Saint, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of four photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.1-4

“I knew it was a part of me, from my upbringing and my culture, but to be able to make the connection between things from the distant past with more contemporary things strengthened me. To know the history of things that I experienced personally, to understand the historical links allows me to find the foundation; that comforts me a lot, fulfils me.”

Boutros arranges his photographs in the same way as they are found in the screens of Coptic churches where Biblical stories are depicted (polyptychs). However, unlike church paintings, his compositions do not form a clear narrative. Instead each photograph in a composition is taken from a different time and place. Boutros explains that his photographs are not meant to be documentary but instead resist the viewer’s preconceptions about the Coptic community. In his early photography exhibitions, he presented his photographs individually and allowed researchers to add text. However, he found in this case that the researcher’s words took over the images and did not convey his original intentions.

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Prière, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.8-11

“This experience was a good lesson for me: I understood that if I did not engage in a discourse with the images, the written discourse would take the place of my intent. After that, I started to reclaim my photographs – on Copts, the city, etc. – and to create new compositions working with polyptychs. I also started adding titles, to indicate what I was talking about, but I could no longer content myself with the image alone…I started to complicate things, first by combining groups of black and white images, and then by introducing strips of colour photography in-between the black and white photographs.”

In response to an attack on a Coptic church in December 2010, Boutros and the artist Moataz Nasr, created a poster using another series by Boutros called Egyptians, in which he portrayed himself with different identities throughout the year. The poster included the slogan “We are all Egyptians” (كلنا مصريون), and was popular in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

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Nabil Boutros and Moataz Nasr, All Egyptians, 2010 (© Nabil Boutros)

Nabil Boutros was born in Cairo in 1954. He studied decorative arts in Cairo and then painting at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1973). He worked as a painter and lighting designer for theatre before committing himself to photography in 1986.

 

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

Exploring the First Gaster Bible: a British Library Hebrew manuscript

Ilana Tahan, M.Phil. OBE, Lead Curator of Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies, British Library

The Hebrew Bible, commonly termed in the Christian West as ‘The Old Testament’ but known to the Jews as the Tanakh, is a literary mosaic made up of tales, laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, speeches, royal chronicles, decrees and much more. The Tanakh’s three main divisions are: the Torah (i.e. Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im meaning Prophets, and the Ketuvim or Writings. The word Tanakh is in fact an acronym based on the first consonantal letters of these principal sections.

In antiquity the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was penned on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Bound books with pages known as codices (singular codex) appear in Judaism around the 8th century AD, although they may have been in use before then. Codices of the Hebrew Bible became abundant in the 10th century AD, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

The First Gaster Bible currently displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, shows visible signs of wear and tear. Its parchment pages boasting fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded decorative motifs, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What would have originally been a complete codex of Ketuvim (Writings), the third main division of the Hebrew Bible, has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just sections from the Books of Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ruth and Daniel.

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Psalm 71 with palmette (top left) and ornamental fillers. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.17r © British Library Board

When turning the manuscript’s pages one’s eye is caught by the small script annotations that accompany the biblical text. These are collectively known as the Masorah from the Hebrew root msr denoting to hand down. The Masorah is a body of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the scriptural text that ensured the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th century AD. The Masoretes’ greatest achievement was the compilation of a system of vowels and signs that established in writing the exact way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously riddled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation both of which have been penned in the First Gaster Bible: the large Masorah (masora magna) which is inscribed at the top and at the foot of pages, and the small Masorah (masora parva) which is written between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from modifications. The latter is ampler and includes lists of entire passages from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other peculiarities.

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Psalm 102 with divisional motifs and a decorative chain executed in Islamic style; the masora magna in very small script can be seen above and beneath the textual columns. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Named after its illustrious last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was created most probably in Egypt around the 10th century AD. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript supplying facts about its production – is missing, thus nothing is known about the original commission. Its date and place of production have therefore been established through comparison with extant Hebrew Bibles written in Egypt and/or the Middle East between the 9th and 10th century.

It is interesting to note that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving oriental Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th–11th centuries are incomplete. The Aleppo Codex copied c. AD 930 – the oldest and most authoritative extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that was proofread and vocalised by Aaron ben Asher, one of the greatest Masoretes from Tiberias – is held in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The manuscript is incomplete, having lost apparently 196 of its 491 original pages. The oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex. Copied most probably in Egypt and dated to around AD 1010, it is preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg.

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Section from the Book of Ruth (3:14–4:7) with masora parva penned between the columns and marginal decorations in Islamic style. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9879 f.23v © British Library Board

Nineteenth-century scholars argued that the early masoretic bibles were created by Karaites. Funded by Anan ben David (c. AD 715–795 or 811) in Babylonia, the Karaites were a Jewish sect who split up from mainstream Judaism accepting the Tanakh as their only norm of religious authority. Some scholars went as far as maintaining that the most prominent Masorete Aaron ben Asher may have been a Karaite. Recent scholarship has firmly rejected this view claiming that he was in fact a rabbinic Jew. An illuminated specimen of a Karaite biblical text is displayed in this exhibition.

It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript is a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art. Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is clearly functional.  Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include undulating scrolls and spirals, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and golden chains.

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Section from Ecclesiastes (2:24–3:12) with masora magna and masora parva (above and between the columns of text) and Islamic style embellishments. The First Gaster Bible, Or. 9789 f.32v © British Library Board

The First Gaster Bible is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Faith after the pharaohs: Egyptian papyri conservation

Bridget Leach, Conservator: Pictorial Art, British Museum

Working in the paper conservation studio 1

Examination under the microscope (prior to repair) of the Egypt Exploration Society’s papyri.

In preparation for the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition five papyri, kindly loaned from the Egypt Exploration Society, came into the Paper Conservation studio. As papyrus conservator at the British Museum I have worked on a wide range of manuscripts held by our Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan over the years. The collection includes many fine examples of papyri from ancient Egypt such as temple accounts from Abu Sir dating from approximately 2400 BC, some of the longest and beautifully illustrated funerary rolls from throughout Egypt’s long Pharaonic history, as well as literary texts and day to day legal documents. Working on such material has always been fascinating but I was particularly delighted to be able to work on these five papyri as they were excavated at Oxyrhynchus. The story of this excavation had fired my initial interest in papyrus as a paper conservation student many years ago.

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A group of papyrus rolls as excavated. (Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford)

The ancient town of Oxyrhynchus, meaning ‘city of the sharp nosed fish’, modern al-Bahnasa lying 120 miles south of Cairo, was excavated between 1896 and 1907 by papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. This excavation began as part of a systematic exploration of the sites of Greco-Roman settlements and their discoveries were made in the sandy mounds on the outskirts of the town. The mounds turned out to be ‘drifts’ of rubbish tips which proceeded to yield approximately half a million fragments of papyri with ancient texts including early Christian literature. Grenfell and Hunt spent six seasons at Oxyrhynchus and their discoveries were by far the most exciting of the time in terms of quantity and range of the manuscripts found. Here was found several centuries worth of archives where official and private documents collectively provided a rare insight into the everyday life of this Roman town’s inhabitants during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. The papyri that came to the paper conservation studio included a rental agreement between two female monks leasing part of their home to a Jewish man (P.Oxy 3203) excavated in the first season, a small fragment containing the Greek Septuagint (P.Oxy 3522) and another depicting an informal drawing of Daniel in the lion’s den, both excavated in the fourth season. It is unknown during which season the last two papyri were found but they addressed matters relating to the Roman requirement for all citizens to sacrifice to the gods and include a Certificate of Sacrifice (P.Oxy 3929) and a letter from a Chrisitian man named Copres about a way to avoid the obligation (P.Oxy 2601).

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The Cyperus papyrus L. plant. 

Undoubtedly helped by the dry climate of Egypt, papyrus has proved to be a very durable writing material with remarkable powers of preservation. Made from Cyperus papyrus L., a sedge plant about four metres high that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile in antiquity, a sheet a papyrus was made from sections of the lower part of the stem where it was at its thickest. The outer rind is peeled off to reveal a spongy white inner pith which can be sliced longitudinally to make thin strips. These strips are laid side by side to form one layer before laying a second layer on top at right angles, then pressing and drying the whole. Individual sheets made in this way could then be joined to form a roll.

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A peeled section of the lower stem showing the pith inside being peeled into strips.

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Two layers of strips are laid at right angles over each other. The two layers are then pressed together to form, when dry, a sheet of the writing material.

The five papyri for the exhibition were in need of minor repair and all except the small fragment of Daniel were in need of remounting between new sheets of glass. It was decided to exhibit Daniel in a passe-partout without glass to try and enhance viewing for the visitor. Generally papyri are so fragile that glass mounts are necessary for their protection but in this case, the fragment being small and in reasonable condition, an exception was made for the duration of the exhibition.

1. Before conservation and remounting

The papyrus in it’s old mount.

2. With the papyrus removed, the density of the salt bloom on the glass is visible

The old mount with the papyrus removed showing a thick salt bloom.

3. After conservation

The papyrus in a new glass mount.

All the papyri were examined under magnification before opening the old glass mounts and starting any treatment. Once opened a bloom or ‘halo’ could be immediately seen on the old glass, in the case of P. Oxy 3203 it was very pronounced. This is a common feature with papyri enclosed in glass, particularly those found by excavating rubbish tips where they are found together with other material such as potsherds, ash, charcoal, rags, straw, and various kinds of kitchen waste. In this type of archaeological context papyri will absorb soluble salts. When later enclosed in glass, and even in conditions where relative humidity changes very little, the salts absorb small amounts of moisture from the surrounding air. As the air slowly dries out again these soluble salts migrate outwards and deposit themselves on the nearest surface which in this case is the glass. This can happen repeatedly over the years and a substantial ‘bloom’ can build up inside the mount making the papyrus quite hard to read. Scientific analysis has found the bloom to consist of mainly sodium chloride, common salt, and it can be wiped off the glass very easily. However the Oxyrhynchus papyri were all remounted in new glass for the exhibition.

Repairing fractured areas using small tabs applied with tweezers

Repairing a loose fragment of P.Oxy 3203 using small ‘tabs’ applied with tweezers.

Before remounting some conservation work was undertaken on the manuscripts. This involved laying back loose or twisted fibres and repairing along fractures. Repairs – in this case small pieces of Japanese paper, used for its strength and quality and toned to a sympathetic colour – are applied to the papyri with starch paste. The newly mounted papyri now take their place in the exhibition alongside the other fascinating objects that tell the story of faith after the pharaohs.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

 

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

The makers of Codex Sinaiticus

Cillian O’Hogan, Research Fellow, University of Waterloo, formerly Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies, British Library

Most books from Graeco-Roman antiquity only survive in fragmentary form – scraps ranging in size from a postage stamp to (if we’re lucky) a few leaves from a codex, or a long section of a papyrus scroll. For books to survive in anything close to their original form is very unusual. It’s with that thought in mind that we should approach Codex Sinaiticus, currently on display in the British Museum’s Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition.

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the complete New Testament. Dating from the middle of the fourth century, the manuscript originally contained some 743 leaves (1,486 pages), each measuring some 380 x 345mm – a massive book even by today’s standards. Remarkably, over half of these leaves survive today. The book’s scale was only made possible by the use of parchment (animal skin) rather than papyrus, and the fine quality of the manuscript indicates that substantial resources lay behind its production.

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A rare occurrence of striation (bunching of the animal skin that can occur in the parchment-making process). Codex Sinaiticus, Q64 F4v (Proverbs 7:27–8:34). © British Library Board

Who were the people involved in commissioning and producing this manuscript? Although we will probably never know their names, the detailed research conducted as part of the Codex Sinaiticus Project has shed new light on its creators and scribes. For instance, close examination by conservators revealed that the material chosen contains very few imperfections (which could be caused by ticks or skin diseases, or could occur during the treatment of the animal skin). The scarcity of such imperfections is remarkable. It tells us that the animals were raised with considerable care, that there was some selectivity in deciding which skins to use for parchment, and that the workers who manufactured the parchment were highly skilled. All of this points to considerable resources lying behind the production of Codex Sinaiticus, and suggests that the manuscript was created in a location where skilled workers were already present and accustomed to producing high-quality parchment.

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Offset of the ink on the facing page visible towards the right-hand edge of the column. Codex Sinaiticus, Q63 F3r (1 Maccabees 12:28–13:3). © British Library Board

After the parchment had been prepared came the exacting task of writing out the text. As a result of the transcription of the entire manuscript for the Codex Sinaiticus Project, four distinct scribes can now be identified in the manuscript. They are referred to as Scribes A, B1, B2, and D. Each scribe appears to have been responsible for producing his own ink, since the differences in degradation of the inks imply that a slightly different preparation recipe was used by each individual scribe. Based on the surviving leaves, it has been suggested that Scribe A copied the bulk of the manuscript (some 995 out of 1,486 pages); while the other three scribes shared the remaining pages roughly equally (scribe B1 copying slightly more than the other two). The scribes also corrected their own work (some also correcting the work of others), and some books within the Codex were clearly worked on by more than one scribe. Based on the patterns of correction, it has been suggested that Scribe D, though he copied relatively few pages himself, was the head scribe, directing the work of the others and correcting it as needed – he appears to have been the most competent of the four scribes.

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Reading of ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ in the fourth line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q74 F8v (Matthew 13:41–14:15). © British Library Board

Copying a manuscript is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and there are naturally errors that occur in a scribe’s work. Two particularly intriguing errors in Codex Sinaiticus, however, have often been taken as evidence of where the manuscript itself was copied. Both occur in New Testament pages copied by Scribe A. The first, at Matthew 13:54, reads ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of the correct reading, ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ (‘to his homeland’). Antipatris, the placename introduced by Scribe A, is the name of a (relatively minor) town about thirty miles from Caesarea. The second error, at Acts 8:5, gives us ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ (Caesarea) instead of the correct ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ (Samaria). (Both readings were corrected by later readers of the manuscript.) When scribes make mistakes, it is often because their minds wander, and it is not uncommon to find words from daily life entering a manuscript instead of what should have been copied. Do these two errors, then, reveal that the manuscript was copied at Caesarea? This would fit with other evidence, such as the fact that the manuscript contains what is known as the ‘Eusebian apparatus’, a method of numbering the Gospels devised by Eusebius of Caesarea probably in the AD 320s. Some have gone even further than this and linked the manuscript with the workshop of Eusebius himself, by pointing to the famous evidence provided in the Life of Constantine (4:36), where Constantine asked Eusebius to provide him with fifty copies of ‘the divine Scriptures’ (θείων γραφῶν). On the other hand, there are counter-arguments to such a hypothesis (most recently set out by Harry Gamble in his contribution to the new book Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript) and we cannot, after all, discount the possibility that the manuscript from which Codex Sinaiticus was copied was the one that contained these errors. Regardless of what one thinks about where the manuscript was produced, however, such errors, along with the many other habits of individual scribes, remind us of the human figures behind the production of this great manuscript.

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Reading of ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ instead of ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ in the third line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q87 F3v (Acts 7:55–8:25). © British Library Board

Further information about Codex Sinaiticus can be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, and in two books published as part of the project: Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, by D. C. Parker, and Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by S. McKendrick et al.

 

The Codex Sinaiticus is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

 Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

An interview with manga artist Nakamura Hikaru

In the final of our three interviews to celebrate the Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations An Van Camp, Curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints, interviews the up-and-coming manga artist Nakamura Hikaru. Her series Saint Onisan follows the adventures of Jesus and Buddha as two young men on their gap year in Japan and has already garnered a cult following.

Combining metaphysical dilemmas with playful humour, this manga sees the two divine beings confronted with the problems of everyday life in suburban Tokyo. Individual episodes see them negotiating the Tokyo Metro during rush hour and exploring how Christmas is celebrated in Japan. In this interview, Nakamura Hikaru talks about her inspiration for the series, the effect digital technology has had on her work, and the possibility of Jesus and Buddha visiting the British Museum.

Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha drawing manga. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. Digital print, hand drawn with colour added on computer, 2014. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha drawing manga. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 10. Digital print, hand drawn with colour added on computer, 2014. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

An Van Camp: Can you tell us how you came up with the concept of a young Buddha and Jesus sharing a flat in Tokyo?

Nakamura Hikaru: I was asked to create a four-page manga using an inspirational figure for Morning 2 in August 2006. I immediately thought about Jesus Christ. But realised it would be best to depict him with another figure having fun in Tokyo. I did not want a disciple, so Buddha came to mind. I believed this manga would be a one off, so I just enjoyed creating it. I chose Tachikawa (a suburb of Tokyo) as I am from a rather rural Shizuoka and my older sister went to university in Tachikawa. For me Tachikawa was the big city.

An: What has been the reaction to your manga in Japan?

Nakamura Hikaru: I have had surprisingly positive reactions to my manga. Most letters are from religious specialists, university professors, Buddhist priests and Christian clergy. I have also had requests to use my manga in universities for teaching purposes. The readership seems quite broad judging from the letters from young adults to people in their sixties.

An: How do you create your story lines? What is your inspiration?

Nakamura Hikaru: I plan everything out seasonally and also through yearly events, such as Christmas or Halloween. I think about what would surprise them about what they saw occurring in Japan and how they would interpret what was occurring around them.

An: Will Buddha and Jesus visit the British Museum?

Nakamura Hikaru: They would of course like to but they have no funds at the moment to do so sadly. Perhaps if they win the lottery…

An: How does technology affect the way that you create your manga?

Nakamura Hikaru: Recently technology has made a big difference in the creation of my manga. For the first eleven volumes I drew each individual sheet and when colour was needed I scanned the sheets to the computer and coloured them by hand. But from volume twelve onward I create the manga entirely on a tablet or computer. This is because the G pen has become much more sensitive and easy to use. There is no smudging and mistakes can be redrawn. The resolution is amazing and even small marks can come out crisply in print. In addition the whole process is in fact much quicker.

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Nakamura Hikaru (b. 1984), Jesus and Buddha  seated at a low table eating dinner. Cover artwork for Saint Oniisan vol. 7. Coloured digital print, 2011. (© Nakamura Hikaru/Kodansha Ltd)

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 15 November 2015. Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

The cover illustration for volume 7 of Saint Oniisan is on display in the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries from October 2015 until April 2016. 

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

An interview with manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu

In the second of our interviews to celebrate The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations Nicole Rousmaniere, the IFAC Handa Curator of Japanese Arts, interviews the manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu. A specialist in science fiction and mystery manga, Hoshino Yukinobu has recently created a new series Rainman, first published in Big Comic in June 2015. The display features a portrait of Rainman’s protagonist Taki Amamiya, who, through an accident of birth can unintentionally see the dead.

One of Hoshino Yukinobu’s most enduring characters is the crime-fighting anthropologist Professor Munakata, who appeared in his own British Museum adventure in 2011. In this interview Hoshino Yukinobu discusses his creative process, connection to the British Museum and the inspiration behind his new series Rainman.

Nicole Rousmaniere: Can you tell us how you go about creating a manga?

Hoshino Yukinobu: In an ideal world, I would like to create manga which I would like to read. But once I start, this ideal becomes difficult to achieve. It is not an easy task to surprise myself. After having selected many key elements required for the story and managing to begin the series, what I would like to read or draw do not seem to matter. You like it or not, the deadlines approach and surviving each of them pushes me forward.

An illustration from 'Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure'.

An illustration from Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

Nicole: How did you go about creating the story for Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure?

Hoshino Yukinobu: This story had to be part of the series which I had been working on so I could not begin with a completely original plot. I made a story based on my great admiration for the British Museum, to introduce the Museum and its history, collections and what goes on behind the scenes, which I myself had seen and learned first hand when I visited in 2008.

Nicole: Will Professor Munakata return to the UK and to the British Museum?

Hoshino Yukinobu: When there is an opportunity someday. Both Professor Munakata and I adore the United Kingdom.

Nicole: What do you feel about manga as an art form being displayed and represented in the British Museum’s collections?

Hoshino Yukinobu: Personally for me, I had never dreamed that my manga would have been displayed and collected at the British Museum. It is an honour beyond any words. I cannot thank those involved with the project enough. I also admire from my heart the British Museum’s spirit to accept Japanese manga in its collection along with other artistic objects from all times and places.

Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954), ‘Rainman’. Ink on paper, 2015. (© Hoshino Yukinobu)

Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954), Rainman. Ink on paper, 2015. (© Hoshino Yukinobu)

Nicole: What is your inspiration for Rainman?

Hoshino Yukinobu: For a long time, I have been creating manga with themes ranging from science and space to Japanese history. What I had been interested in even long before then provides the basis of the Rainman. That is to say the issue of human consciousness, the soul, life and death. No one can ignore these issues. It appears to me that the scientific and spiritual worlds are getting very close through quantum physics today. I am hoping to get these two worlds to connect in Rainman.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 15 November 2015. Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

‘Wayfinding’: The Bridget Riley Art Foundation and Central Saint Martins at the British Museum

Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer: Bridget Riley Art Foundation, British Museum
A new display entitled ‘Wayfinding’ has been put up in Room 90 as part of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation (BRAF) Programme at the British Museum. For this exhibition of 14 works I have paired the drawings of BA Fine Art students from Central Saint Martins with the works that inspired them during their visit to the Prints and Drawings Study Room. The display explores drawing as a tool that artists, both emerging and established, use to find their way. Their ‘way’ may be an examination of their artistic process, the development or destruction of a personal style or the path to a finished work. Regardless of what form the path takes, drawing is a method through which an artist can clarify their direction.

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The BRAF Programme is a three year project in the Department of Prints and Drawings that supports two posts: a project curator, Isabel Seligman, and myself as project officer. A key part of the programme is to research the drawing practice of emerging artists, specifically university art students. In the past year we have brought almost 500 students into the Prints and Drawings Study Room to take inspiration from drawings. We do this through curating and leading workshops, and selecting works from the Museum’s rich drawing collection, one that stretches from the fifteenth century to the present day. Responses from the students and tutors have been invaluable to our understanding of the role of drawing in contemporary arts practice and education. These insights have also contributed to Isabel’s curation of an exhibition of British Museum drawings that will tour the UK in 2016–2017.

Throughout the project, we have been privileged to work with many bright and engaged young artists, but we were particularly lucky to spend a significant amount of time with a small group of second year students from Central Saint Martins. Organised by their pathway leader Anne Eggebert and led by their tutor, artist Rachel Cattle, the course was entitled ‘On not knowing – drawing at the British Museum’. The title comes from Bridget Riley’s essay ‘At the End of My Pencil’, published by the London Review of Books in 2009. In the essay Riley states that, for her, ‘drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know.’

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The course encouraged students to discover more about their own practice through the journey of drawing rather than working towards a defined, end point. By recognising that they ‘do not know’, the artists were freed from any limitations that might stifle true exploration.

Over the course of three months, we witnessed the students’ drawing practice reveal new directions in their work, as they responded to artists exploring similar ideas. The following works are just a few examples.

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

Leo Claudon found resonance with Picasso’s idea that in the metamorphosis of a picture ‘one might discover the path followed by the brain’. Instead of working from a defined concept, Claudon lets his drawing unfold through a series of reactions to line and form. This allows Claudon to draw without restriction; the work that emerges is a response to the energy of the moment in which it was drawn. The raw, overlapping lines that construct the muscular energy of the boxer show the artist’s process, the metamorphosis of his picture.

Conversing to/about form and surface. - Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Conversing to/about form and surface. – Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Jordan Mouzouris was inspired by the pulsating rhythms of a drawing by Mannerist artist Bronzino. Mouzouris’s piece was created with a method known as concrete poetry. In this practice, the artist uses visual composition to guide interpretation of text. Mouzouris frequently works from this method, sketching and arranging word and image in his notebook. It is no surprise that the artist connected to Bronzino, an artist who was not only a painter, but an accomplished poet.

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Aurélie Poux drew Untitled shortly after working from a drawing by British abstract artist Paule Vézelay. Poux’s modulations of grey and subtlety of line are experiments drawn from what the artist has called ‘Vézelay’s silent delicacy’. The stability of Poux’s monumental figures is undone by the cracks and fissures that materialise from the drawing’s gradation of tone. Her meticulously drawn surface is intended to create an unsettling contradiction between youth and decay. Through exploration of Vézelay’s graphic mark-making and tonal variation, Poux found the artistic language she needed to confront the difficult subject of sickness and abuse through aesthetically pleasing form.

Beyond these artworks, visitors can also see the drawings of George Grosz, Frank Auerbach, Sol LeWitt and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena paired with responses from emerging artists Katherine Illingworth, Isabelle Cole, Pooja Patel and Rianne Owen.

The works in the display demonstrate the diversity of artistic experience that drawing can unlock. In drawing from drawings these artists were able to examine and explore their own artistic process from a different perspective. Much more than direct copying, their responses were pathways to discovery.

I hope this blog inspires people to come and see the display of student work and the works that inspired them. I also hope this inspires people to come and use the Study Room, where over 2 million works on paper can be seen first-hand. The display is in Room 90 through the first week of November. Appointments to draw in the Study Room can be made by clicking here.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , , ,

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In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum The roaring lions on the walls of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace represented the Babylonian king himself and were intended to astonish approaching visitors. Nebuchadnezzar commissioned major building projects in Babylon to glorify the capital of his empire. Glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were favoured for public monuments in order to emphasise both divine and royal power. These works displayed the might of the city and its king, who commanded unlimited resources.
Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum.
#lion #art #history #BritishMuseum Lions have perhaps been adopted as a symbol more than any other animal. They are seen as proud, fierce and magnificent – characteristics that made kings and countries want to associate themselves with these charismatic big cats. As well as being the national symbol of England and Scotland, the lion is in many ways the symbol of the British Museum. Lions guard both entrances to the building. At the Montague Place entrance are the languid lions carved by Sir George Frampton, and on the glass doors of the Main entrance are the cat-like beasts designed by the sculptor Alfred Stevens in 1852.
This lion can be found on the wooden doorframe at the south entrance to the Museum, and its nose is polished smooth by the many visitors who rub it for luck on their way in. Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum This colossal lion in the Great Court is one of the most photographed objects in the Museum. It weighs more than 6 tons and comes from a tomb in the ancient cemetery of Knidos, a coastal city now in south-west Turkey. The tomb stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the approach to Knidos harbour. The building was 18 metres high and the lion was on top of its pyramid roof. The hollow eyes of the lion were probably originally inset with coloured glass, and the reflection of light may have been an aid to sailors navigating the notoriously difficult coast. It is carved from one piece of marble, brought across the Aegean Sea from Mt Pentelikon near the city of Athens. Opinions vary as to when it was built. One suggestion is that it commemorated a naval battle off Knidos in 394 BC.
We’ll be sharing more lovely lions this week! Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum. Our next special exhibition will explore the remarkable story of Sicily. Discover an island with a cosmopolitan history and identity – a place where the unique mix of peoples gave rise to an extraordinary cultural flowering.
Norman Sicily was a centre of multiculturalism and its art reveals a unique mix of influences. The Norman kings invited Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople to decorate their cathedrals and palaces. Spectacular golden mosaics can still be found in Roger II’s palace chapel and the cathedrals at Cefalù and Monreale. This mosaic, depicting the Virgin Mary, is all that remains of the extensive mosaics that once decorated Palermo Cathedral.
Book now for #SicilyExhibition, opening 21 April 2016 at britishmuseum.org/sicily 
Mosaic of the Madonna originally from Palermo Cathedral. Sicily, AD 1130–1189. © Museo Diocesano di Palermo.
#Sicily #Italy #art #mosaic #exhibition #BritishMuseum
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