Museum Asks For Your Help Reassembling Medieval Cross

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Replica of the stone, image courtesy WIkimedia Commons

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is asking for your help in reassembling an early medieval carved stone.

The Hilton of Cadboll Stone was carved in Scotland around 800 AD by the Picts, a mysterious people who have left little in the way of a written record but created some incredible art. The stone was carved shortly after the Picts converted to Christianity and includes one of Scotland’s earliest representations of Jesus.

This particular stone has had a rough time in the past 1200 years. At some unrecorded date it was snapped off from its base, then later defaced by Protestant reformers. In 1676, the Christian cross on one side of the stone was chipped off and replaced with an inscription commemorating a local man, Alexander Duff, and his three wives.

While one side is still impressive, as you can see here, it seemed the rest of the stone had been defaced beyond all hope of restoration until a recent excavation at the original site uncovered the stones’ base.Unfortunately it’s smashed into some 3,000 pieces, and that’s where you come in. The museum has put every piece through a 3D scanner and is launching a website where you can try your hand at reassembling it.

The project is part of the museum’s upcoming exhibition Creative Spirit Revealing Early Medieval Scotland, which will open October 25. It focuses on the Early Medieval period (around 300-900 AD), an time between Scottish and Viking influence and marking the arrival of Christianity and emerging powerful elites. The online reassembly will begin on that date at the special website Pictish Puzzle.

The museum is especially calling for gamers to help out because, they say, gamers are better at manipulating 3D images and finding patterns.

Might be a fun break from killing zombies.

Mysterious Rosslyn Chapel Gets Facelift

Rosslyn Chapel
Sean McLachlan

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland has been the center of conspiracy theories for at least a century before Dan Brown wrote it up in The Da Vinci Code. This private chapel less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh has an interior filled with carvings that many believe have symbolism linked to the Masons and the Templars.

In recent years the 15th century chapel has suffered from damp that has been corroding the sculptures and undermining the integrity of some of the windows. The BBC reports that the owners of the chapel — the very same family that built it — have now finished a 16-year conservation project.

In 1997 a steel roof was put over the entire chapel in order to shelter it from rain and let it dry out. It stayed in place until 2010. Workmen also repaired the stonework and windows and made the roof watertight. Now all scaffolding has been removed and visitors can see the chapel unobstructed for the first time in 16 years.

I visited Rosslyn Chapel earlier this week and was impressed by the quality of the restoration. The chapel itself, however, left me underwhelmed. While attractive and filled with detail, it doesn’t contain any more symbolism than any other heavily ornamented medieval church. Go to Notre Dame in Segovia or the Romanesque churches of Segovia and you’ll see what I mean. The 9 pound ($14) entry fee and the rule against taking photos inside also rubbed me the wrong way.

I left with the impression that conspiracy theorists had decided this place was special and have spent generations overanalyzing it. More enjoyable for me and my family was a country walk to the nearby ruins of Rosslyn Castle set above a glittering Scottish stream. Much more picturesque and with far fewer people.

Gorizia: Italy’s Overlooked Historic Border City

Gorizia, Italy
Sean McLachlan

Visitors to Italy tend to skip Gorizia. Tucked away at the northeast edge of the country on the border with Slovenia, this small city tends to get bypassed on the way to Trieste or Slovenia.

I would have never gone there myself except that I was a guest author at the city’s annual history and book fair, the èStoria Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival is drawing visitors from all over Italy. International visitors are few because the talks are mostly in Italian; mine was translated by a shockingly intelligent fellow who grew up speaking four languages and went on to learn a dozen more.

When I wasn’t needed at the fair I took some time to slip away and check out what the city has to offer international visitors. I found that this overlooked destination is definitely worth adding to your itinerary.

The city is situated in the verdant Isonzo river valley. Slovenia is just to the east, marked by steep green hills. Heading upriver towards the Julian Alps, mountains rise precipitously from both banks. It was here that the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought the dozen Battles of Isonzo in World War I. Several tour operators offer visits to the battlefield and we’ll be looking at it in the next post.

The most obvious attraction within Gorizia can be seen from all across the city. Gorizia Castle sits atop of hill in the center of town and was the residence of the Counts of Gorizia and Tyrol, a powerful dynasty that owned much of the territory hereabouts. The first castle was built in the 11th century and was constantly expanded and updated, most recently to accommodate artillery. The castle got badly knocked about in World War I and was lovingly restored in the 1930s.

%Slideshow-86%From the battlements you get a fine view of the surrounding countryside and the distant snowcapped Alpine peaks. Inside the castle you’ll find the usual arms and armor as well as an excellent little museum on medieval music. Some of the rooms are adorned with faded frescoes showing religious themes. In the hamlet adjoining the castle you’ll find an excellent First World War Museum, the Museum of Fashion and Applied Arts, a picture gallery and the Archaeological Museum.

If the climb up the hill made you hungry, you’re in luck. Gorizia has several fine restaurants serving both Friulian regional cuisine as well as Slovenian dishes. Friuli is the northeastern region of Italy and as such was influenced by the cuisines of Hungary and Austria. Meals tend to be heavier, with more emphasis on meat. There’s plenty of pasta and pizza too, though. Slovenian cuisine has its own distinct style that I’ll get to in a later post as I explore that fascinating little country.

My favorite restaurant in Gorizia is Alla Luna at Via Oberdan 13 with its cozy interior crammed with local arts and crafts and its menu of regional dishes. Tre Soldi at Corso Italia 38 is a more formal affair that also serves regional cuisine. If you want pizza, try La Tarantella at Corso Italia 99/101 with its dozens of varieties. You can even order a “surprise pizza” and see what you get. For something more informal, try La Cicchetteria ai Giardini at Via Petrarca 1/A. It offers salads, paninis and other snacks. It’s a great place to go in good weather because they have outdoor seating right next to a park, where you can see the sun shine through the leaves and listen to the laughter of children at a nearby playground.

So if you’re looking for a quiet, undertouristed Italian destination with some good attractions, consider stopping off at Gorizia for a day or two.

Search Is On For Another Lost Medieval English King

medievalIn the wake of the media blitz around the discovery of King Richard III’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester, England, archaeologists have announced they’re looking for another medieval English king.

The Times reports that archaeologists are seeking permission to exhume an unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, Winchester, that they think contains the remains of King Alfred the Great.

Alfred ruled from 871-899 and helped consolidate the patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unified country. He spent much of his reign fighting off the Vikings and establishing a legal code.

Alfred’s remains were buried in Winchester Cathedral and later moved to nearby Hyde Abbey. In the 19th century, an amateur archaeologist explored the altar of this abbey and dug up what he thought were Alfred’s bones. The vicar of St. Bartholomew’s later bought them for ten shillings and reburied them.

Records show there are five skulls and various other bones in the grave. While radiocarbon dating them and determining the age and sex is a simple affair, proving that one of them is Alfred will be a lot more difficult. In the dig in Leicester, the archaeologists were able to find direct descendants of Richard III to supply DNA for testing. Alfred lived centuries before Richard, however, and this makes it tricky to find a direct descendant.

The Diocese of Winchester said in a statement that the matter is being looked into.

Alfred left an enduring mark on the English consciousness. Many places bear his name, including places he probably never visited such as Alfred’s Castle on the Ridgeway Trail. It’s said Alfred defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact the “castle” is a hill fort dating to about the sixth century B.C. If you’re in Oxford, go to the Ashmolean Museum and check out the Alfred jewel, made by order of the king himself and shown here courtesy John W. Schulze.

Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilpeck_Sheelagh_na_Gig.jpg
Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”