A Weekend in Durham – Pick of the week by Catriona Grant

In preparation for a paper I am taking this term on Romanesque Art and Architecture, I travelled up to Durham for a weekend to see some of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture in Britain.

Durham Castle

We started at the castle, now an amalgam of architectural styles due to years of modifications and extensions.  It is now the home of students of University College – a very grand setting for student digs! Beneath the castle is a Norman chamber – most likely a chapel (though this is debated). The quirky capitals feature animals, plants, figures, and vignettes from stories such as the story of St Eustace. Eustace was a Roman general, who whilst hunting a stag in a forest, saw a vision of the crucifix between the animal’s antlers, and instantly converted to Christianity. By alluding to this story in the chapel,  whoever built it was sending a message to the laity that Christianity was accessible, and paradise was within reach of all who believed in Christ.

The Norman Chapel

The nearby cathedral is a spectacular feat of Medieval engineering. It is a hugely impressive space, with ornate decoration and some of the first rib vaulting in Europe. Principally it was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, whose body was brought from Lindisfarne, a holy island attached to the coast of Northumberland by a causeway, and cut off at high tide. The Cathedral also houses the tomb of the Venerable Bede, a doctor of the Roman Catholic church and a hugely important early theological historian.

Durham Cathedral

The cathedral is of great artistic importance as the earliest surviving example of stone vaulting on such a large scale. The development of the stone vault can be seen within the architectural scheme itself, from the semi-circular arches, to the pointed arches which allowed stonemasons to build higher, spreading the weight and strain of the stone more efficiently.

Stone vaulting in the Cathedral

Some of the marble used for the columns is beautifully patterned with ancient corals. These scattered fossils incased within the stone pre-date the dinosaurs! Also worth noting are the beautiful stained glass windows throughout the cathedral – some contemporary interpretations of Biblical narrative, others stunning Medieval stories. A window close to the great entrance commemorates the night Durham was saved from bombings during the Second World War. Hitler had planned on destroying much of Durham during a large attack on the north of England, but that night a grey mist descended and shrouded the city, preventing the bombs from dropping.


Our final view of Durham comprised of a long walk along the river bank opposite the cathedral on a chilly but beautifully sunny Sunday morning. The path gave a spectacular view of the cathedral on the edge of the hill, silhouetted against the bright blue skyline, and emphasized the achievements of 12th-century builders in such a grand feat of engineering.

A view across to the Cathedral

To anyone who hasn’t been, Durham is definitely worth a visit – its a lovely town of winding passages, cobbled hills and bridges, as well as stunning historic architecture and examples of medieval art, stonework, stained glass and manuscripts.


Images courtesy of http://www.durhamworldheritagesite.com/ and http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk


The Joy of Discovering Lost Art, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

“This is a very, very special morning and you’re seeing a very, very happy director in front of you”.

These were the words of the Van Gogh museum’s Axel Rueger when he confirmed the authenticity of Sunset at Montmajour, the first full-size Van Gogh to be discovered in 85 years. Mr Rueger was not alone in his elation. I certainly felt a surge of joy on hearing the news, and I am sure I was not the only one to feel excited from afar. It is an odd type of happiness that accompanies the discovery of a lost or unknown artwork, however, and one that varies depending on the details of the case.

Sunset at Montmajour, for example, was not really ‘lost’ in the literal sense, but rather misattributed. The piece was long believed to be a fake, and so remained in the attic of a Norwegian collector for decades before it could finally be declared genuine. In a situation like this, the long road to verification leaves one feeling happy for the artist himself – authentication being a posthumous vindication of a work long misunderstood. In a similar vein, Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman With Red Hat was ‘lost’ for years in the basement of a museum – mislabelled, unappreciated and kept from public eyes until it was tracked down by the head of an auction house. This type of discovery of lost art is satisfying, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Not only has the world been blessed with a ‘new’ Van Gogh piece, but a beautiful artwork is also finally getting the credit and exposure it deserves.


Picasso, Seated Woman with Red Hat

This being said, it is certainly more romantic when a lost artwork is discovered hanging on the wall of a modest family home, rather than the basement of a museum. The story of the recovery of Martin Johnson Heade’s Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth is a wonderful example of this. A man from Indiana bought the 19th century work for ‘next to nothing’ to cover a hole in his wall, where it stayed until he noticed the similarity between it and a painting in the art board game Masterpiece. After verification, he sold the work for $1.25 million.

This type of story resonates in a different manner to the Van Gogh authentication. We like it when a potential Michelangelo is found down the back of a sofa in Buffalo because it feeds into a common fantasy we have of being plucked from obscurity and catapulted to stardom. It says not to take things at face value, that the strange $5 painting bought from a thrift shop could be a Jackson Pollock, and that the ugly plaster statue of Buddha could be solid gold underneath. If the joy of the Van Gogh discovery is in the justice of verification, with these stories it is in the romance of speculation. The beauty of possibility.

The Golden Buddha reminds us that discovery of lost art takes many forms. The chance discovery of the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings by four boys and a dog in 1940 seems a world away from the sophisticated verification of Sunset at Montmajour, for example. Likewise, the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, was found by accident by a peasant digging in his field on a Greek island in 1820. More recent is the excavation of the sunken city of Heracleion. Lost for 1,200 years, it was considered legend for centuries, before being rediscovered in 2000. The images demonstrate how magical the rediscovery of long-lost treasure can be.


A diver at the excavating at the lost city of Heracleion

While this article has mainly dealt with the thrill of discovery or the justice of proper attribution, this overlooks the (admittedly geeky) joy of the detective work inherent in finding and verifying an important work. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has certainly added to interest in locating Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, believed to be hidden behind a Giorgio Vasari fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. While this search, with cryptic clues, endoscopic cameras and hidden cavities continues, the recent discoveries of works entitled La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi appear to offer a greater chance of authenticating a genuine lost Da Vinci artwork. While the debate over these works is less ‘Dan Brown’ than the search for the Battle of Anghiari, an array of books, articles and lectures arguing both sides have been produced in the pursuit of verification. The desire to figure out the final piece of the puzzle is strong in human nature, and the potential discovery of lost works by great artists offers the perfect opportunity.

Leonardo's 'La Bella Principessa' and 'Salvator Mundi'


Whether the particular joy of the recovery of a lost piece of art comes from the justice of attribution, the improbability of the discovery or the puzzle of verification, there is always one common factor: that a work of beauty once lost, is now found. Having written for this blog before on artworks being stolen and defaced, it restores hope to witness what is essentially the opposite happening in Amsterdam right now.

“Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” at the British Museum

Outside the British Museum’s long-awaited “Pompeii Exhibition” I ran into a family beating a hasty exit, their crying five or six-year-old in tow. On the surface there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about this: museums are noisy and bustling, exhibitions often akin to a game of cultural sardines with strangers. For some reason, however, this image struck a chord: there was something poignant about encountering so much distress immediately before exploring the last preserved moments of an entire civilisation.

The opening tableau, set aside from the main exhibition, has already been analysed in detail – Fiorelli’s cast of a guard dog beside a charred table from Herculaneum, two drinking lovers immortalised in fresco between. The scene is set with sensitivity, the visitors invited as audience to an abandoned stage set – ‘all the men and women merely players.’ Heads nodded knowledgeably and one studious visitor correctly announced the fresco’s provenance, avoiding the caption to one side. It struck me that the cast of the guard dog, contorted in obvious agony, was precisely at the eye-level of a child.

Ornate wood and iron strongbox

The exhibition certainly benefits from the limited space offered by the Reading Room. Crowded it might be, but in these sprawling villas of the first century AD public affairs were inextricably bound up with private life. Domestic space was adapted to accommodate the needs of a wealthy patron and his constant flow of clients. The atrium was the space in which this relationship was most exploited; here, the head of the household would give audience from his sella curulis (bronze folding-stool) surrounded by large chests boasting the family’s wealth.

On a critical note, the (perhaps necessary) decision of the curators not to scatter the most sexually explicit material throughout is rather at odds with their striving for realism. These pieces are set aside (in an alcove to the right of Boscoreale’s spectacular Garden room fresco, for those interested) with a clear warning about the nature of the content.

The public of the eighteenth century were incensed that one ancient had boldly displayed the violation of a nanny goat by the god Pan in the centre of his garden. In the twenty-first century the marble has been hushed into a corner. In contemporary Pompeii these ‘indecent’ images were everywhere, penises were painted on walls and carved into roads. Mary Beard offers the explanation that they are timeless emblems of masculine power but outside their historical context they are faintly comical.

Detail from a garden fresco found in The House of the Golden Bracelet at Pompeii

In the past few months we have been bombarded with media about Pompeii and its environs. For the interested there have been documentaries from Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Margaret Mountford, among others. For the conscientious there is also Mary Beard’s 2009 ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ (recently available in a snazzy Folio Society edition). The public has been coached and coaxed into searching for the golden artefact – party pieces like the Garden room frescos familiarised as website banners, bags and smartphone covers. What’s more, the layout of the main exhibition is perfect for an ex-AHA student, Classicist, intrepid tourist: designed to transport those familiar with the streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum back to the shells of the houses they will have passed on their travels.

I, on the other hand, am more interested in what it does for the uninitiated – someone who has never been to Pompeii; a mathematician; a child. The Guardian’s review acknowledges just how far the ancient Pompeians ‘are such an intimate mirror of ourselves’. What this exhibition does, and successfully, is to remove that mirror and set the public (sometimes uncomfortably) face-to-face with their ancient counterparts. Essentially, you don’t need to have consumed every gobbit from the experts – perhaps Pompeii is best experienced through a child’s eyes? We have an enormous amount of literature analysing a site which has not been a sealed archaeological deposit for two millennia, and so to walk around and wonder what it is that intrigues and overwhelms the most inquisitive of minds is not another act of scholarship but one of artistic expression.

Go and sit in front of the front door of the reconstructed atrium and listen to the muffled soundtrack of footfall, carriages and commerce, viewing the milling tourists not as a barrier between you and the captions but as Pompeians of the twenty-first century. Don’t simply recognise Herculaneum’s carbonised cradle from a poster in the newspaper but imagine the child it once held, perhaps one immortalised in the plaster effigies of the last labyrinthine hall.

Never has the public had the chance to get so close to these artefacts; Fiorelli’s casts are mere inches away and frescos have been purposefully freed from cases. There is plenty here to excite and disturb every age, but it is the synthesis of these elements which gives the exhibition much of its tremendous impact.

‘The Muleteer’: Recreating the dead in plaster was a technique pioneered by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 19th Century


Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum runs until 29 September 2013 – book now!

Arch and Anth Museum, Cambridge: encounter something new


European art is so often the focus of our attentions. In museums, dominating university courses… it is fascinating but so much non-European art goes unnoticed. I certainly had my eyes opened a few weeks ago when a bunch of us at uni were lucky enough to have a private tour of the Arch and Anth museum in Cambridge by one of the current researchers.


Art and objects, objects and art… one thing that is clear when looking at the huge collection of anthropological artefacts in the museum is that there is a real blur between the two. There is an aesthetic as well as ethnographical value to these pieces.


Something that stands out most clearly in my mind are the Maori paddles that are a part of the founding collection in the museum. These artefacts were handed over by indigenous Maoris to Captain Cook on 12th October 1789. This was the first time that the Maori people had encountered Europeans and as recorded by the ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, the Maoris’ “very soon enter’d into a traffick with our people for [Tahitian] cloth… giving in exchange their paddles (having little else to dispose of) and hardly left themselves sufficient number to paddle a shore.”


Maori Paddles


The artefacts have an aesthetic value that is clear to see. The intricacy of the patterns on the wood are incredible as is the smooth carving of the wood itself. But they can tell us so much more…. They tell us what materials these people had available to them and the origin of the patterns can give a great deal of information about customs and beliefs. Furthermore, the manner of acquisition of  items  such as these by  European tribes is crucial. That these men were willing to exchange the beautiful paddles says something about the value they placed on them… and also their penchant for Tahitian cloth! In addition, it can say something about this indigenous community and their attitude to other human beings. This was their first encounter with men very different to themselves. Suddenly, there were large ships, men of a different racial background and dressed in totally different attire. Yet this Maori community did not attack… they took the opportunity to negotiate. Perhaps an example of early consumerism!


Most enlightening in all this is how these objects can be used as evidence of collaboration between European and non-European, ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ (I use speech marks here are these are contentious terms with their own loaded meanings). This gives a rather different portrayal of encounter- it was not necessary one of domination and destruction by European explorers and ‘colonisers’.


Going beyond written sources and delving into the study of material culture gives a more multi-dimensional view of the past and human relationships. It takes me back to the piece I wrote on the value of material culture in studying the medieval past (see John Baret- redeem me?) and once again underlines how valuable the material and visual sources are to our understanding of the past.
This can be applied to any object, regardless of its aesthetic value (although a bit of beauty is always good for the art historians among us). If you have a chance in Cambridge, take 30 minutes out of your day and have a look in the Arch and Anth museum and consider the artefacts in front of you in a way that looks beyond the surface. The number of anthropological artefacts in the museum are vast but the current exhibition taking place, ‘Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji’ is a great place to start. Like those explorers on Captain Cook’s ship in the 18th century, you never know what you may discover!





Exciting New Controversy Surrounding the Turin Shroud, by Anna Fothergill

For many centuries, the Turin Shroud has been cloaked in mystery and debate. The single piece of cloth shows an image of a skeletal like figure, with wounds consistent with someone who was crucified. Is this iconic image really that of Christ? The image is certainly much clearer in its black and white negative, adding to its divine nature. For many years, devout believers have flocked to the relic, despite scientific speculation, and it has proved to be a source of sacred comfort.

The scientific story of the shroud has in recent months taken a new twist. The Shroud has undergone numerous tests in chemical, biological and optical image analysis. Original radiocarbon dating tests of the Shroud, placed its creation back to the Middle Ages, and it was therefore written off as a medieval forgery; another relic whose origins had been glorified through myth and propaganda. In 1978, a team of American scientist tested some strands of the cloth, claiming to find no solid evidence that it was in fact a forgery. The question about how the image appeared on the length of linen was still a mystery. However, since 2005, suggestions were made that the samples used had in fact been damaged fragments from a fire the Shroud survived in the Middle Ages. This caused an even greater increase in the interest of the Shroud’s murky history. However, in recent months, new types of tests carried out by Giulio Fanti, (a professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at Padua University) have caused a stir in both the scientific and Catholic world. The tests were carried out through a form of radiation and have in fact, dated the Shroud back to the time of Christ, specifically 300 BC to 400AD.


Image pointing out wounds

This discovery is being disputed on every front for its scientific validity, however the tests have at last provided some kind of answer for the imprinted image. Mr Fanti was quoted in a recent Telegraph article as describing the stamp as being “caused by a blast of ‘exceptional radiation’”, more specifically, a blast of radiation from the inside out.


Image comparison of Christ

What does a discovery of this kind mean for the art and papal community? The Catholic Church has never confirmed or denied the authenticity of the Shroud, but have been greatly encourage by this new research.

Devotional Showing of the Shroud

The image of Christ is one that has long been established, the oval face with neat beard and parted hair. Despite the biblical commandment against creating idols, Christ’s face evolved from images that where supposedly not made by human hands. While many will defend vigorously that the Shroud is a fake, I wonder why there is such an aversion to considering the relic as authentic. Perhaps because of the divine and historical implications the Shroud would have if ever proved genuine. The thought that a man called Jesus might have been crucified and risen through a “blast of exceptional radiation”, is certainly an uncomfortable one to our society today.


John Baret, redeem me? By AHA alum Maddie Brown


My last essay of term was on material culture and late medieval lay religion in England. Exhausted, and with my brain saturated with all the information I had stuffed into it during the previous seven weeks of term, it sadly was not a good essay. I feel this is an opportunity to redeem myself. Here goes…


The study of material culture can be split into three categories: the independent study of artefacts, the study of material artefacts in conjunction with written documents (such as wills) and finally the study of written documents that shed light on pre-existing material culture of which a written record is all that remains.


For the purpose of this blog and to compensate for my withered essay, considering the surviving tomb of John Baret of Bury St. Edmunds is interesting. This case study underlines the fickle nature of late medieval religion but more broadly highlights the pit-falls involved in the study of material culture, something that we all (as art history enthusiasts) should be aware of.


The cadaver tomb with the haunting skeletal effigy is still there today in St. Mary’s Church. It appears to be a mark of John Baret’s humble acknowledgment that he was an unworthy individual with a penitential debt that at death, remained to be paid. It could act as a spiritual reminder to the viewer, that their death was not all that far away and thus they should convert with urgency and express their Christian devotion with greater fervour. It seems likely that Baret believed himself to be fulfilling his Christian role in encouraging conversion in this way. More immediately, it is probable that it was designed to evoke sympathy and pity on the part of the spectator in a bid to secure the help of their prayers in pushing Baret’s soul through the fires of purgatory and into the afterlife.



From this purely aesthetic exploration, the reduction of the man’s penitential debt is the central spiritual concern here; the tomb is a spiritual reminder to the Christian viewer and a reflection of the man’s humility, is it not? Considering the physical features of this tomb in conjunction with Baret’s will, a more nuanced view of the man’s thought-process can be built up.

In his will, it is evident that Baret intended for the church to be redesigned for the construction of his tomb – hardly an act of subtlety by a humble man. Furthermore, when it is known that he was a rich and powerful cloth merchant, it is easy to understand that such an individual may have also been concerned with projecting his wealth and worldly status in order to secure his legacy as a successful, prosperous and preeminent trader. Indeed, on closer inspection of the tomb, on the fascia below the reclining effigy, a smaller carving shows Baret in life, dressed in fine clothes and wearing the silver “Collar of Esses” which the Lancastrian kings had bestowed on him. A royal connection could not be a more emphatic projection of worldly status.

Two things can be gleaned from this. Firstly, that late medieval lay piety was a fickle thing. Men were concerned with their spiritual well-being; fear of what the afterlife may bring and the desire to secure a place in heaven was central to Christian belief and practise. Yet at the same time, the projection and conservation of one’s worldly position was ever-present; a fascinating medieval contradiction.

Secondly and more broadly, this case study underlines the limits of studying material culture when focusing solely on the material artefacts that remain. Collaboration with documentary evidence is crucial as it allows the gaps in the historical jigsaw to be filled in with some confidence. Without scrutiny of this kind, the gaps would remain empty, and our knowledge of the past would be left similarly unfulfilled.

‘Collaboration’ seems to be the word to be stressed here. Collaboration between the art historian (for the deconstruction of the aesthetic qualities of artefacts) and historian, for this deconstruction to be given wider historical context and significance. Finally, collaboration here and now, between you, the reader and I, the struggling writer… have I redeemed myself?


Information source:

E.Duffy; The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional religion in England 1400-1580; 1992

Let’s Dig Up Some Dirt: Great Archaeological finds by AHA alum Maddie Brown


Word on the street, a carpark in Leicester…the site of one of the most exciting British archaeological discoveries in the 21st century? Really? Who would have thought it? On Monday 4th February 2013, scientists confirmed that they have indeed uncovered the grave of Richard III, the English king killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.


In response, I was asked to write this blogpost about some of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever. I’m a history student and as such I can appreciate the role of the archaeologist and their importance to the study of material culture. This should be easy…

I start chatting away to my friend who is studying archaeology and anthropology and ask her to give me some inspiration.

‘mitochonrial analysis…bipedalism…encephalisation’

I was lost… Quite honestly, I just had Indiana Jones in mind.

Ummm. Right. I suddenly realise that to pick a few of the greatest archaeological finds is going to be more of a challenge that I initially thought.

The possibilities are infinite. Just google it and you will see for yourself. After all, the study of the human past… there is quite a lot there.

So, to narrow things down, do I go with historical archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, biological archaeology, or do I stick with British finds? Browsing the Internet for just 10 minutes the discoveries I made were incredible. I have picked some of what I liked best.

Here are a few of the amazing finds that I have dug up (…sorry):

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls


A collection of 972 scrolls found on the shore of the Dead Sea between 1946-56. They consist of biblical as well as extra-biblical documents but are traditionally divided into three groups: ‘Biblical’ manuscripts (copies of texts that can be found in the Hebrew Bible), ‘Other’ manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period that were not included in the Hebrew Bible) and ‘Sectarian’ manuscripts (previously unknown documents that outline the rules and beliefs of groups within greater Judaism).

The manuscripts themselves have been dated to a timespan between 408BC to 318 CE.

Without going to deeply into this, consider the creation and circulation of these documents around 1000 years ago… Wow.




2) The Terra Cotta Warriors


This terracotta army was buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huan in 210-209BC in the hope that it would protect the emperor in the afterlife.
It was discovered in 1974 by local farmers in the Lintong District of Xi’an. Current estimates put the number of soldiers at over 8,000 and that doesn’t include the chariots and cavalry horses!

How long did it take to make all of these I wonder…?

3) The Mount Owen Moa


Found in the 1980s in New Zealand this is a complete foot of a Megalapteryx didinus. It was a form of flightless bird, native to New Zealand and it is thought that most, if not all, of the species had died out as a result of overhunting by the Maori by 1400.

This foot has been tested and is actually 3000 years old…. Yep. No need to say more. Amazing.


4) The Oldest Shoes

I love shoes. I look forward to the day when I have the money I can buy a pair of Christian Louboutins (keep dreaming Maddie).

Now it may not exude the style of some Louboutins but this 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe is extraordinary. Found in Armenia in 2010, it shows that even half a millennia ago, protecting the foot (and the importance of accessorising?!) was understood.






  1. 5. Oetzi the Ice man


Found in 1991, the whole genome sequencing of the human remain of Oetzi was completed in 2012. It is a mummified corpse of a man who was killed over 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps. Analysis of his DNA provided not only a unique window into Oetzi’s own life, but more importantly into ancient European migration patterns.

How they glean this information from analysis of a 5000-year old corpse is beyond me but the fact that we have such remains in our hands today is mind-blowing. Just think- 5000 years ago Oetzi was walking around like me and you!


I have no idea whether these are considered to be the greatest archaeological finds of our time but in a field all about discovery, the research for this blog was just that for me.

Have a look for yourself and see what you can uncover…