Ashmolean Museum In Oxford Receives Major Gift Of Renaissance Art

Ashmolean Museum
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has received a major bequest in the form of nearly 500 works of Renaissance gold and silver from the collection of Michael Wellby (1928–2012), the museum has announced.

Wellby was a well-known antiques dealer specializing in German and Flemish silver of the 16th and 17th centuries. He ran a shop in London for many years. As is typical with antiques dealers, he kept some of the best pieces for his personal collection.

Some of the pieces were made for royalty, like a silver gilt ewer made in Portugal c.1510-15 that bears the Royal Arms of Portugal. Another stunning item is a lapis lazuli bowl with gold mounts made in Prague in c. 1608 by the Dutch goldsmith Paulus van Vianen. Many of the pieces incorporate exotic materials such as ostrich eggs and nautilus shell, items that were just becoming available to the wealthy of Europe through the new global trade routes.

The collection will go on display in a temporary gallery this month and will remain there until a new permanent gallery is opened to house the collection. The Ashmolean already has an impressive collection of Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern art, including a large display of English silver.

The Ashmolean, like the equally famous Pitt-Rivers, are both free museums, making Oxford a good budget travel destination.

[Photo copyright The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford]

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

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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.”

Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder


There’s something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it’s the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity’s works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.

Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine’s high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.

Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.

Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with “crystal” chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.

%Gallery-158467%The guided tour takes intrepid travelers on a 1.9-mile route through various tunnels, rooms and even an underground lake. Constantly descending, the group makes their way through dozens of decorated rooms. As this video shows, it’s an unforgettable experience. Also check out the photo gallery for some excellent images of this odd attraction.

The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.

Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.

New trail for medieval church paintings in England

medieval church paintingsThe church of St Mary the Virgin in the little village of Lakenheath, Suffolk, England, contains a treasure trove of medieval church paintings. They were discovered 130 years ago when Victorian workmen were cleaning off centuries of grime and lime wash from the walls.

What they found was a series of detailed paintings of religious subjects painted from c.1220-c.1610. The church was repainted five times in that period.

A few years ago it was noticed that exposure to air, light, and moisture was destroying the paintings, and a painstaking restoration project was launched. The Lakenheath Wall Paintings Project has since restored the paintings and interpreted all five periods. Reconstructions of how the church looked during these periods can be seen on the website, as well as a rich gallery of closeup shots of the paintings.

They’ve also designed a cool Suffolk Wall Painting Trail that you can download for free. Suffolk is especially rich in wall paintings with several churches clustered together, making them easy to visit.

To learn more about this style of art, check out my review and photo gallery of the book Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches.

It was not possible to obtain permission to use one of the Lakenheath photos at press time. The above photo, of souls sheltering under the cloak of the Virgin Mary, is from the church of St John the Baptist, Byford. It’s similar in style to the paintings at Lakenheath.

The tombs of Rome–where art meets death


If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!

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