Europe Photoblogging Part 4: The British Museum, Part 2
By Dwip September 11, 2014, 12:58 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

This is that one statue of that discus thrower as seen on a staircase in the British Museum, of which this post documents the second half of my sojurns there, mostly in the Greek and Roman galleries rather than the ancient Egyptian and Assyrian ones.

This is the Neried Monument, a 4th century BC tomb that I’m showing you basically as a way to talk about the sort of scale the British Museum operates on. There’s an entire small Greek temple inside this building, people.

These are all 6th century BC terracotta figurines from Greece, made about the time they were starting to jump in boats and sail off to southern Italy and Syria.

Though it must be asked how anybody sailed anywhere with those T-Rex arms.

This guy is a Roman copy of a Greek statue of the god Dionysos, who as all you myth loving types know, was the god of festivals, wine, and frat parties.

He’s also representative of that age-old trend of copying marble statues, a very common sort of thing in the ancient world the logistics of which still sort of confuse me. Cool statue though.

According to the plaques, these two are supposedly but not necessarily Mausolos and his wife, of Mausoleum of Halicarnassus fame, which you may recognize as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Which, two things about that:


2. The Greeks sure were really good at making statues appear all lifelike, weren’t they? Even with pieces broken off, these two are quite something.

One of the things the central hall of the British Museum is used for is various sorts of temporary exhibitions about various things. These are all costumes from the movie Troy, which will feature again in our narrative. Remember it being ok at the time, but haven’t seen it since, so who knows. Right around this time as well I was reading my way through the Illiad for the umpteenth time (it’s my favorite of Homer’s two works and always has been), because may as well get the whole cultural immersion thing, right?

This is the central panel of the Hinton St. Mary Mosaic, which I did not realize until this very moment was part of an intact much larger affair. I feel somewhat robbed by this revelation. The linked pictures there make it look spiffy. In the event, this is the important bit, thought to be the earliest representation of Christ.

This is a good point to bring up two things that are going to be very important going forward.

First, Roman and Byzantine mosaic is arguably my favorite art form, and you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of it as we go forward, especially considering I saw a lot of it for my Roman Britain class. If you’re not a big fan of artistic pieces of glass, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Second, that XP thing above the head there is called a Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek that was particularly popular with Roman Christians. As long time readers of this blog know, I’m the next best thing to an atheist, but I do love me some Christian imagery, especially the Chi Rho, which combines my enjoyment of Christian art with my love of the Romans.

Man is a complex creature.

I’d love to tell you what these giant pieces of mosaic in this stairway are, but I was dumb and did not caption them properly. However, allow me to advance to you the idea that the British Museum is the sort of place where even the stairways have giant pieces of mosaic flooring as wall decor in the stairways. That’s kind of cool.

These are all late Roman gold rings probably made in Britian. It’s a bit hard to tell from this resolution, but much of the detail work is quite exquisite, with a number of interesting stones set into the gold rings.

This is all part of the Esqualine Treasure, a set of late Roman silver found in Rome in 1793. The main point I’d like to advance to you here is that the Romans were very, very good at detailed metalwork. That casket in particular is quite something, never mind that bowl up top there.

This body chain is Byzantine gold work from the 7th century AD. Apparently if you were going to be the fashionable Byzantine lady, you’d wear the thing as shown by the little terracotta statue in the bottom right.

Again, these guys were really good at their metalwork.

This epic horn is the Borradaile Oliphant, and 11th century horn made from an elephant tusk. It’s something of a mish-mash of cultural traditions, Byzantine with Arabic influences, probably carved in southern Italy or Sicily in the years before the Normans took the whole thing over.

This spectacular piece of late Roman silver is the Corbridge lanx, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a silver tray they found near Corbridge. The scene is from Greek myth, with Apollo and Artemis, in a sort of callback to the old ways that’s getting rarer and rarer in a Christian Roman empire.

Something I’d like to make note of here is that they found this thing near Hadrian’s Wall. You’re going to hear all about this later, but Hadrian’s Wall is the ass end of nowhere, and yet here’s this tray that puts anything in your house to shame.

This is a Roman funerary urn for Vernasia Cyclas, wife of the private secretary of one of the 1st century AD Roman emperors, who died at age 27. The inscription says it was set up by Vitalis, the loving and devoted husband in question.

This one is a bit nicer than your average run of the mill Roman grave marker, but not by much. Again, I want to advance to you the idea that the Romans operated on a scale of intricacy and detail we don’t often see these days.

This is a set of Roman statues. The bust of the guy on the left is Antoninus Pius, fourth of the Five Good Emperors of Rome who ruled in the mid-2nd century AD and is famous for his lengthy peaceful reign.

The woman in the middle is some unknown woman from about the same time as Antoninus Pius over there.

The standing guy on the right is the man, the legend, the emperor Hadrian, predecessor to Antoninus and one of the most famous Romans who ever lived.

These all came from Cyrene, a prosprous city in what’s now Libya that gave its name to the whole region of Cyrenaica. The two imperial statues are also the equivilent of hanging the President’s picture up on the classroom wall – let everybody know who the boss is. Unlike all those Assyrian propaganda pieces, though, these guys are kinder and gentler – Hadrian’s offering up to the gods there – despite having the means to more effectively kill everyone in the area than the Assyrians ever did.

Point to be made there, maybe.

I call this guy Sad Augustus, although apparently it’s real name is the Meroe Head. Augustus, of course, is somebody you ought to know.

The plaque here is fun:

Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus
Roman, probably made in Egypt
about 27-25 BC
From Meroe, Sudan

The statue was decapitated by Meroitic tribesmen who raided Roman forts in Egypt. The head was taken beyond the imperial frontier and buried under the steps of a temple commemorating the successful raids.

I realize that Augustus was never really the most cheerful dude, but I like to imagine that the facial expression on this head is a result of him being really bummed out by the whole decapitation thing.

Moving on from the Romans (of whom we shall hear more later, let us be sure), this is the Mold cape, a piece of Bronze Age ceremonial dress from somewhere in the 1900-1600 BC range, proving that there were folks that were really good at this metalworking thing way before the Greeks and Romans showed up.

Too, it must be said that the ancients really knew their bling.

Continuing on with pre-Roman Britain, this is the Battersea Shield, a Celtic votive shield. It’s actually made of bronze, but looks like it’s made of copper here because of the terrible lighting. In general, taking pictures in the British Museum was tough because of the large amounts of glare, reflection, and bad lighting, which is why you see me or random people reflected in many of these.

This is all Kentish work from the 6th-7th century AD. We’re well into the post-Roman period now, but this is pretty spectacular stuff for the Dark Ages. You can also see the difference between Roman work and later Germanic work – the later stuff is a lot more enamored of gemstones over metal, which is pretty typical.

Jumping even further ahead, this is a Carolingian ivory panel from the mid 9th century, depicting this story where Jesus turns water into wine. Once upon a time it decorated the cover of a set of the Gospels.

I keep saying this, but these guys were much better at this stuff than we normally give them credit for.

This is a set of silver plaques from 14th century France, with enamal paintings from the life of Christ. I’ll just quote the caption here:

Eight silver plaques decorated with translucent enamel, with scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ
Paris, about 1340-1350

The plaques originally decorated the sloping upper surface of a rectangular object, perhaps the base of a small altar tabernacle. From the bottom, anticlockwise, the scenes depict: the Baptism; the Entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; the Footwashing, and the Agony in the Garden; the Arrest of Christ, and the Flagellation; the Way of Golgotha; the Crucifixion; the Entombment; the Resurrection.

This is a totem pole made by the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest. It’s so tall, it goes floor to ceiling in a three level tall staircase, and I’m just showing you the top part. The link gives you an idea of just how enormous these things really are.

This is the Amida Buddha, depicted in a giant Chinese marble statue from 585 AD that once upon a time was part of a larger temple. Again, this is an example of how out of control stairway decor in the British Museum. It’s also an example of a much, much larger Asian collection that I am unfortunately not going to show you many pictures of because they all came out terrible. That’s unfortunate, because there’s some really spectacular stuff in there.

These are all medieval Indian statues from the 13th century AD. The captioning on these is confusing. The lower two are probably Vishnu, the upper two may or may not be either planets or Shiva and Parvati. Either way, they’re examples of a much, much larger collection of artifacts from all over Asia on display.

These are 16th century Ottoman ceramics from Iznik in Turkey. For about 200 years, patronage from the Ottoman court allowed craftsmen in this one town to create a massive number of stunning ceramics for members of the Ottoman court and other wealthy types.

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