British Museum blog

East meets west in Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi

Dr Caroline Campbell, interim head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, National Gallery, London

One of the most remarkable objects in the British Museum’s extraordinary BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China isn’t Chinese at all. It’s a quiet, subdued painting, made by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1490s, probably in the north-eastern Italian city of Mantua. It is in the exhibition because of the delicate blue-and-white porcelain vessel held by the oldest of the three Magi, who kneels bareheaded before the tiny infant Christ, humbly proffering his gift of gold coins.

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Mantegna (1430/1–1506) is one of the most extraordinary talents of the 15th century. He trained as a painter in Padua, the pulsating university town near Venice, at the time one of the most exciting places in Europe to live and to learn. Indeed, Mantegna was such a remarkable artist that Jacopo Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of his day, arranged a marriage between his daughter Niccolosa and Mantegna so that the Bellini family workshop could benefit from his genius. The marriage endured, but the benefits to the Bellini were short-lived: Mantegna moved to Mantua, where he spent the remainder of his life as court painter to the city’s rulers, the Gonzaga family. Mantegna was one of the first artist-printmakers, and his inventions spread throughout Europe in the form of prints by him and his students.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

We know that Mantegna had a life-long passion for antiquities. It’s a feature of much of his surviving work as both a painter and graphic artist, and it evidently permeated his life. One of the most famous anecdotes about the artist – which also happens to be true – concerns a boat trip he made to Lake Garda in 1464, together with the scholars Felice Feliciano and Samuele da Tradate. Not only did they search for and copy old Roman inscriptions, they dressed up as classical Romans and made ancient music as they worked – ‘Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant’. We can see Mantegna’s response to Greek and Roman forms, such as survivals of antique sculpture and architecture, in an engraving such as the ‘Battle of the Sea Gods’, a vigorous, lively, and very un-classical recreation of ancient sarcophagi and friezes.

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery London (NG1145)

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery, London (NG1145)

Many of his works also meld classical form with 15th–century function, but perhaps none do this as beautifully as the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah of around 1500. It has been painted to look like a cameo, a miniature relief carved in the different strata of a precious stone by Roman gem-cutters. Such objects were much admired and collected in Mantegna’s circle.

But Mantegna also recreated lost forms of classical art. Although he had never seen an ancient Roman painting, his highly-coloured pictures ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ made for Francesco Gonzaga around 1485 (probably his greatest achievement, now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court) were inspired by written accounts of Julius Caesar’s military celebrations in Rome, as well as surviving Roman antiquities.

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

It is in the context of Mantegna’s interests in antiquity that we should view the blue-and-white porcelain cup in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Chinese ‘export ware’ wasn’t directly traded with Europe until the 16th century, but the potteries of Jingdezhen were producing Ming porcelain that made it to Europe in the previous century. The bowl in Mantegna’s painting is decorated with a delicate floral motif which is typical of some bowls and cups produced in the Imperial factory in Jingdezhen, still the symbolic centre of China’s porcelain industry, during the Yongle reign (1403–24). Interestingly, Mantegna’s bowl was not a new object by the time he painted it in the late 15th century.

How had it come to Mantua? Chinese ceramics, highly valued for its rarity and beauty, are recorded in European collections as early as the 14th century. During Mantegna’s lifetime, only a few major gifts of Chinese porcelain were made to European rulers, such as the twenty objects sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, in 1487. Several examples are recorded in Mantua – there are four mentioned in the 16th-century inventory of Isabella d’Este’s possessions – but none are for certain the bowl depicted in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

What we can be sure of is that these were highly valued objects, often embellished with European metal mounts, and found either in princely collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. These collections were also often home to other luxury objects from outside Europe, from the far closer Eastern Mediterranean, including carpets, fabrics, metalwork and glass. These could also be set into mounts or ‘Europeanised’ in some other way, and many were also celebrated for their connection with the Holy Land. As objects made in the geographical regions where Christ and his disciples had lived, they could have a sacral value. But as some scholars, particularly Alexander Nagel, have argued persuasively, they could also, legitimately, be considered ‘antiquities’, even if they were made in more recent centuries. Their foreignness could make Europeans think of them as objects made in a distant time, which was far removed historically as well as geographically.

Could the same be true of the Ming bowl in Mantegna’s picture? Its very rarity and value manifestly adds dignity and prestige to Mantegna’s elderly Magus, but it also serves to situate the sacred story of the Magi’s discovery of Christ as taking place outside of historical time, as well as to accentuate how exotic he and his companions were. Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ may seem a simple retelling of a familiar story, and a straightforward depiction of a Ming bowl, but, in fact, nothing is quite as it seems.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

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Conserving the pottery, terracotta and tablets from Ur

Duygu Camurcuoglu, conservator, Ur Project, British Museum

My job is to assess the condition of the objects from Ur being studied as part of the Ur digitisation project, conserve them if necessary, and guide the project team on handling and safe storage of the objects before/during photography and further digitisation work. I joined the project in August 2013 to lead the conservation and my first responsibility was to assess and conserve the terracotta objects and the clay tablets with ancient cuneiform inscriptions on study loan from Iraq.

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq.  (ME 127443)

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq. (ME 127443)

There are over a thousand terracotta objects from Ur in the British Museum’s collection, primarily reliefs, figurines and models. Although some are skilfully modelled, the majority are rather crude and mass-produced in moulds. My initial task was to assess each one, selecting those that needed treatment and completing the work before they could be handled and photographed. In the image above, you can see me assessing the condition of one of the important objects from Ur, the fired clay mask of Humbaba, a fearsome monster slain by Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian literature. During the process, colleagues from ceramics and glass conservation joined me to complete the assessment work on the objects, while I undertook the actual conservation treatments.

Following the terracotta objects, I assessed the condition of the pottery from Ur. This large collection comprises over a thousand ceramic vessels in various sizes, shapes, colours and fabrics. This was a huge challenge! Every day, my colleague Gareth Brereton and I went to one of British Museum’s storage areas where the pottery from Ur is housed. We set up a small working area in this room for object assessments, photography and registration. There were a large number of cupboards to go through, so Gareth and I worked almost every morning together, assessing the condition of each pot so that Gareth could handle, photograph and register them. We had plenty of exercise going up and down the ladder each morning as some of the objects were stored very high up in the shelves.

Most terracotta objects and ceramic vessels from Ur are in good condition. They sometimes require conservation work, since they have unstable fragments, flakes or cracks on their surfaces. This is very normal due to the age of the objects, most are which are about 4,000 years old. It is crucial that the necessary treatments are undertaken. When unstable objects are not treated using proper conservation techniques and materials, further problems may occur during storage and handling, such as loss of surfaces and decoration, cracks, breakage of fragments that can make it difficult to study and learn more from the objects.

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

I identify any cracks and/or unstable flakes on the surface of the vessels before stabilising them using conservation grade materials. I often use a fine brush or a micropipette for this work. Once the treatment is completed, I enter all my treatment records onto the British Museum’s curatorial database, Merlin, so that the information is accessible across the Museum and the world via the collection online.

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

I have also been assessing and undertaking conservation on the cuneiform tablets from Ur. It is particularly important to prevent the loss of surfaces from tablets, because that would mean loss of the text.

Apart from undertaking remedial ‘hands on’ work with objects, I am also responsible from supporting the Ur team when they have any questions about handling the objects safely, as some are very fragile. I also monitor the environmental conditions in the Ur project lab and storage cupboards, using digital sensors which we place in different areas. This is important because fluctuating temperature and relative humidity can severely damage archaeological objects. For example, soluble salts in the ceramic and clay fabrics can react very quickly with the fluctuating conditions, resulting in delamination and loss of object surfaces, which can contain elaborate decorations, pigments and reliefs.

When I have completed the conservation work on the pottery and the cuneiform tablets, I will move on to the conservation of other types of objects and materials from Ur, in order to prepare them for digitisation and further study. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Read more about the Ur digitisation project in Birger Helgestad’s post in July.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Filed under: Conservation, Ur Project, , , , , ,

Amara West 2012: meanwhile, back at the house….


Elisabeth Greifenstein, University of Wuerzburg and Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva

Our team of archaeologists and osteologists excavating in the houses and graves of Amara West unearth a wide variety of finds – nearly all of which are brought back to the expedition house on the afternoon of discovery, even when very heavy

What then happens with all these objects?

The expedition house is very busy during the day. Marie Vandenbeusch registers the finds and is responsible for their storage in the magazine; Elisabeth draws pottery and objects, while Marie Millet is responsible for the ceramics, helped by Sallah who washes the masses of incoming sherds. Sallah, who lives nearby on the island of Ernetta, is also being trained to sieve botanical samples, which will provide insights into the food that the town’s inhabitants were eating.

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

All this work is providing us with a better understanding of the settlement of Amara West, and helps us date and interpret the buildings, features and objects we encounter.

For example, Elisabeth’s drawings have helped confirm the reading of the royal name at the end of the eroded inscription on a sandstone doorjamb (F990) found exposed on the surface east of the town wall. The signs written in the cartouche were not readable until seen in a variety of different lights, but also with a torch during the dark hours of the early morning. We are now confident it bears the name of Ramesses II. The jamb is likely to come from the town’s temple, or perhaps a smaller chapel, but could have been re-used in a house.

 

The anticipation builds as the excavators return to the house at around 2.30pm each day…

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
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Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition - until 30 November. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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