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Photo: Museum of London Archaeology via Hyperallergic.
A necklace found in a UK burial site probably belonged to an “elite woman who wanted to highlight her Christian identity, says Hyperallergic.

Archaeology reminds us that there will always be surprises to uncover no matter how much we think we know. A necklace found in a medieval burial site and considered a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery is one recent surprise. Michael Levenson wrote about it for the New York Times.

“A 1,300-year-old gold-and-gemstone necklace that was recently discovered in an ancient grave site in England may have belonged to a woman who was an early Christian leader, according to experts involved in the discovery.

“The ancient jewelry was unearthed in Northamptonshire in April [2022] during excavations that took place ahead of a planned housing development. … The 30 pendants and beads that once formed the elaborate necklace were made from Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semiprecious stones. The centerpiece of the necklace, a rectangular pendant with a cross motif, was also among the artifacts that were discovered.

“ ‘When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant,’ Levente-Bence Balázs, a site supervisor at the Museum of London Archaeology, [said in a statement announcing the find]. …

“X-rays of soil blocks lifted from the grave also revealed an elaborately decorated cross featuring unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver, the statement said.

“While the soil is being investigated more closely, ‘this large and ornate piece suggests the woman may have been an early Christian leader,’ the statement said, adding that she might have been an abbess, royalty or both. The site also contained two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish.

“The skeleton itself has decomposed, with only tiny fragments of tooth enamel remaining. But the Museum of London Archaeology said it was almost certain that a woman was buried there because similar necklaces and lavish burial sites were almost exclusively found in female graves in the period.

Scholars said the discovery pointed to the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of early Christianity.

“ ‘The evidence does seem to point to an early female Saxon church leader, perhaps one of the first in this region,’ Helen Bond, a professor of Christian origins and head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, wrote in an email. ‘We know from the gospels that women played an important role in the earliest Christian movement, acting as disciples, apostles, teachers and missionaries,’ Professor Bond wrote. ‘While their role was diminished later on at the highest levels, there were always places where women leaders continued (even sometimes as bishops).’

“Amy Brown Hughes, a historical theologian at Gordon College, who studies early Christianity, called the necklace, which has been traced to the years 630 to 670, an ‘absolutely stunning’ artifact from a volatile period when Christianity was becoming established in Anglo-Saxon England.

“Noting that women have often been left out of narratives about Christianity, Professor Hughes said the necklace provides material evidence that ‘helps to reorient our assumptions about who actually had influence and authority.’ …

“Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, said the fact that the woman was apparently buried in a village far from a main population center ‘testifies to the troubled times in this region of Britain in the 7th century.’

“ ‘Perhaps she was on a journey, or fleeing,’ Professor Taylor wrote in an email. ‘It was a tough “Game of Thrones” world with competing royal rulers aiming for supremacy. It was also a time where Christianity was spreading, and abbesses and other high-status women could play an important role in this.’ …

“The artifacts [will] be featured in an installment of the BBC series ‘Digging for Britain.’ “

More at the Times, here. See also Hyperallergic. More photos, no firewall.

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Photo: DiverseAbility.
After leaving academia, Alice Sheppard “began exploring the techniques of dancing in a wheelchair and learning how disability can generate its own movement.” 

An unusual and dramatic entertainment took place in Chicago in May. It was the brainchild of Alice Sheppard, a fearless risk taker in a surprising sequence of careers. Today she is a choreographer, but as recently as 2004, she had never considered that dance could be compatible with her disability. According to DiverseAbility magazine, “she was a professor in medieval studies at Penn State.” Then a dancer with one leg dared her to try a dance class.

Lauren Warnecke says of Sheppard at the Chicago Tribune, “Alice Sheppard does not shy away from a challenge. In devising her latest dance, ‘Wired,’ she and her Bay Area disability arts company Kinetic Light had to first write the rule books for wheelchair aerial dance.

“Kinetic Light’s mission is to create art that centers disability. Sheppard and the rest of the company are disabled artists who make work for disabled performers. Key to that vision are questions and advocacy around access — who ‘gets’ to dance and who ‘gets’ to watch or experience art? Since the company’s founding in 2016, Sheppard’s work consistently explores the intersections of disability, race and gender. ‘Wired,’ premiering May 5-8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, is no exception, though it’s the first of Kinetic Light’s growing catalog to incorporate aerial dance.

“Actually, the first step for Sheppard was to read everything she could find about barbed wire. Sheppard, a dancer, choreographer and scholar with a doctorate in medieval studies from Cornell University, devoured the literature on this sharp-edged, steel wire’s fraught history.

“The initial spark for ‘Wired’ came from a visit to the Whitney Museum, where Sheppard viewed Melvin Edwards’ 1969 barbed wire sculpture, ‘Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid.’ …

“It led her down a barbed wire rabbit hole. Sheppard’s source material lends multiple metaphors to what has become her latest multimedia dance piece. Indeed, few pieces of steel are saddled with so much context. Barbed wire is primarily a strict form of forced separation, used in trench warfare and applied in the United States as a means of keeping incarcerated people in, for example, or livestock in and intruders out as ranchers in the American West increasingly claimed land as their personal property.

“Throughout the piece, the dancers wrestle with this unwieldy, unforgiving object, their bodies enclosed by a tangle of wires and barbs. As she continued to explore, Sheppard knew ‘Wired’ had to be an aerial dance. …

“Having never studied aerial dance before, Sheppard and Kinetic Light company members Laurel Lawson and Jerron Herman started from scratch. With support from some 30 artists and engineers with backgrounds in rigging, automation and flight, Sheppard, Lawson and Herman took to the air. …

“ ‘We are not the first disabled artists to fly, by any means,’ she said. ‘There is, of course, in circus arts, a deep and rooted history of disability and flight. That’s not random or new. And there’s a history of disabled dancers also doing aerial work in the UK, New Zealand and the U.S. Part of that history and legacy is to recognize that flight isn’t random. It is perfectly within the tradition and the culture for disabled dancers. What is new here is the construction of the show. It’s not a circus.’

“The process for ‘Wired’ started at Chicago Flyhouse in late 2019. Before the dance and other artistic elements could even begin to take shape, Kinetic Light was faced with huge technical considerations.

“ ‘Before we could even get to “here’s a pretty dance, here’s the choreography,” ‘ she said, ‘we had to get to, “how does this thing fly?” ‘ …

“Lawson, who is also an engineer, assisted in developing the chairs and harnesses needed for her and Sheppard safely ascend into the air. Company member and dancer Herman completes the cast of three and has yet another setup. Herman, who has cerebral palsy, dances sections of ‘Wired’ with a girdle-type harness used to suspend him above the stage. …

“Sheppard reiterated that she and Lawson are not the first disabled artists to fly ,,, but they are the first disabled dancers in the U.S. to explore a thorough compendium of techniques, which includes low flying on hard lines and bungees, as well as flight patterns suspended from joystick-operated, motorized cables. The pandemic enabled Kinetic Light to make connections with then-unemployed entertainment workers with expertise in automation who would not otherwise have been available.

“In a way, ‘Wired’ serves as a primer on wheelchair flight.

“ ‘Understand, this is not actually documented,’ Sheppard said. ‘There are no books. There are no teachers … All of these questions that are easily available to non-disabled aerial artists because there’s a history and tradition here — we just had to figure that out bit-by-bit.’ ”

More at the Chicago Tribune, here.

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Photo: Morgan Bible, 13th century, via Wikimedia.
In this meme, @artmemescentral captions the art thus: “When I’m drunk and try to take off a turtleneck.”

There’s something entertaining happening on Instagram lately. A goofy look at the art of the Middle Ages.

At Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler writes, “Medieval imagery wasn’t meant to be funny when it was made hundreds of years ago, but all over Instagram it has been remixed, captioned, and somehow reads as peak hilarious — depending on your sense of humor.

“One evening while wasting time on the addictive social media platform, I came across a meme of a medieval battle scene; on the right, a horse was giving the sword-wielding dude some serious side-eye,” she writes.

A perfect caption made her laugh “maniacally, posting it to my Instagram story and sending it to all my close friends. How could this seemingly arcane medieval imagery, previously confined to an art museum or, perhaps, a European crypt, feel so meme-able? …

“ ‘It’s funny for the same reason that Black American Vernacular English is so sticky — because it references a level of servitude that we don’t want to admit,’ said artist Kenya (Robinson), whose work often explores privilege, consumerism, and perceptions of gender, race, and ability. She noted that the text is written in Black American Vernacular English, also known as the language of social media. …

“That’s the text. But what about the image and the side-eye horse? It actually portrays the ‘Captivity of Jeholachin King of Israel, which isn’t particularly funny. Babylonians destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, then lead the Jews into captivity. (As a Jewish person, this makes the meme feel very unfunny, and more like a story my grandma, or bubbe as we say, might have told over a holiday dinner.) … 

“But the fact that the image suddenly appears hilarious in this remixed context struck me. …

“ ‘There’s something about the surprise of the medieval,’ said Sonja Drimmer, a scholar of medieval European art, and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. ‘One of the conceptions about the European Middle Ages has to do with blind piety, prudishness, but when people see imagery that defies that, the disjunction leads to laughter.’ …

“ ‘I think there is something about Western medieval art that seems like a safe target … some of the memes — like the side-eye horse, if it were sub-Saharan Africa — you could imagine meme-ifying it, and then imagine it becoming deeply problematic very quickly,’ said Erik Inglis, professor of Medieval art history at Oberlin College. ‘I think with the very white faces of Western medieval art, it seems innocent. We are pretty willing to condescend to the Middle Ages, [which is] not fraught as it is to condescend to other ages.’

“Most of the medieval art history memes come from broader art meme accounts, such as @artmemescentral or @classical_art_memes_official, though there are some discontinued accounts that focus only on medieval imagery. …

“ ‘Medieval imagery is so phone-friendly,’ explained Cem A., an artist and curator who runs the popular art meme page @freeze_magazine (no association with Frieze magazine), and curatorial assistant at Documenta 15.

” ‘For me, its style is more simplified, representational, and cartoonish than our classical understanding of painting. Figures in these images usually have exaggerated (and therefore easier to grasp) relationships onto which you can build a meme. Its aesthetics works better on the compact screens of smartphones.’

“At the same time, medieval imagery isn’t all just easy fodder for funny memes. It can ‘be racist and quite terrible, and ground zero for white supremacy, said Drimmer. 

“The mob that stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, carried … symbols associated with the Crusades. The far Right’s use of medieval iconography gained steam after the September 11 attacks, with white supremacists picturing themselves as ‘modern Christian warriors fighting to preserve the idea of America as a white, Christian nation,’ according to a report in Teen Vogue

“This is an even more troubling connection for academics and those who study the era, but also speaks to the layers upon layers of racialized remix culture that make up the ever-pervasive American visual pop culture that keeps on spreading. There’s also an impulse to turn almost anything into a meme these days.

“ ‘The funny thing about retroactively searching through history to identify memes is that you start to see memes where they might never have existed before,’ noted Daniel Shinbaum, a Berlin-based cultural critic and memes researcher. ‘Almost anything can start to look like a meme.’ ”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Early Music America.
Catalina Vicens often performs on an organetto replica built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany.

For something a little different today, let’s look at a forgotten medieval instrument that a few enthusiasts have brought back to the world’s attention: a handheld pipe organ.

Kyle MacMillan reports at Early Music America last week, “Attend a few organ recitals in a church or concert hall and you’ll know that the instruments can vary widely in size — from behemoths with several thousand pipes to moveable, chamber models with just a handful of stops.

“Almost completely forgotten, though, is that an even smaller kind of pipe organ once existed. Called an organetto, it was typically played perpendicularly on a performer’s lap and was one of the most popular instruments in the 13th and the 14th centuries.

“A contemporary reproduction of this tiny organ will be front and center this week when the Chicago-based Newberry Consort presents Music Fit for the Medicis, featuring works that would have been heard at the powerful family’s court. Showcased will be 14th-century songs and dances taken from manuscripts found in the library of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). …

“Featured as the Newberry’s organetto soloist will be Chilean-born Catalina Vicens, an internationally known historical keyboard performer and teacher who lives in Basel, Switzerland, and Bologna, Italy. She is artistic director of the Museo San Colombano, housed in a former monastery in Bologna, which dates to the Seventh Century. She also serves as curator of the Tagliavini Collection, the museum’s prize holding and one of the largest historical keyboard collections in Europe. …

“The organetto fell out of fashion by the 16th century. ‘They weren’t use in anymore, as far as we know, and they didn’t survive,’ Vicens told me.

What experts know today about the organetto comes from its depiction in hundreds of medieval paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows, and well as the literature of the period.

“The instrument is mentioned, for example, in the Roman de la Rose, a famous medieval poem written in Old French, and the organetto playing of Francesco Landini, a famed 14th-century Italian composer and organist, is described in a novella by Giovanni da Prato.

“Today’s organettos, which are based on this historical imagery and documentation and technical knowledge drawn from larger extant medieval organs, typically have 28 pipes in two rows spanning just beyond two musical octaves.

” ‘From iconography, we see mostly instruments with fewer pipes,’ Vicens said. But balancing historically informed instrument building with modern performance needs, she points out that, ‘for us, it is very convenient to take those models with more pipes, because we want to be able to play more notes.’

“Air is produced by a bellows operated with the left hand while the right plays the instrument’s keys. … Because no original organetto exists, it is impossible to know exactly how the medieval instruments sounded. The aural qualities of today’s organettos vary depending on the builder and are affected by the pipes, which can be made of such materials as copper, wood, or a tin-lead alloy.

“ ‘It does sound like a small organ,’ Vicens said of the instrument, ‘but to the ears of many, also suggested by how it looks, it sounds more like a bagpipe. Or I’ve even gotten people who think it sounds like an accordion.’

“Vicens often performs on an organetto built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany, with pipes in a high-leaded alloy made by Winold van der Putten in the Netherlands. ‘I have sort of a custom instrument by different builders,’ she said. …

“While a student of harpsichord performance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Vicens became fascinated with the instrument’s sound and how it was produced. That curiosity led her to study the harpsichord’s origins, including how instruments from several centuries ago were constructed and what early repertoire was written for them. Her interest in turn motivated her to learn about other historical instruments like the organ and fortepianos. Drawing on this background in historical performance and her knowledge of the organ and harpsichord, Vicens taught herself to play the organetto in 2009 and 2010 and soon got regular requests to perform on the instrument across Europe and beyond.

“The organetto poses two main hurdles for performers, starting with playing the keyboard with just one hand, which makes it difficult to convey different musical voices at the same time. The larger challenge is manipulating the instrument’s single bellows. ‘I have to breathe like a singer,’ Vicens said, ‘because with one bellow, you need to fill it every time you run out of air.’ “

More at Early Music America, here. Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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072619-unicorn-tapestry-Cloisters

I’m in New York for a few days to spend some time with my sister and brother-in-law. They indulged me in a trip to the Cloisters, an amazing castle that is part of the Metropolitan Museum. I hadn’t been there since childhood, when my family went to see the Medieval tapestries, especially the unicorn tapestries.

The Cloisters are way up north in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan, and it was a little challenging to get there. We decided not to take public transportation as my sister’s cancer has slowed her down somewhat. The taxi driver said that in his 35 years of driving a cab, he had never been to the Cloisters. But he seemed pleased to learn about it.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say. “The Cloisters museum in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York City, specializes in European medieval architecture, sculpture and decorative arts, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Governed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it contains a large collection of medieval artworks shown in the architectural settings of French monasteries and abbeys. Its buildings are centered around four cloisters—the Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie—which were purchased by American sculptor and art dealer George Grey Barnard, dismantled in Europe between 1934 and 1939, and moved to New York. They were acquired for the museum by financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. …

“The museum’s building was designed by the architect Charles Collens, on a site on a steep hill, with upper and lower levels. It contains medieval gardens and a series of chapels and themed galleries. …

“It holds about 5,000 works of art and architecture, all European and mostly dating from the Byzantine to the early Renaissance periods, mainly during the 12th through 15th centuries. The varied objects include stone and wood sculptures, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings. … Rockefeller purchased the museum site in Washington Heights in 1930, and donated it and the Bayard collection to the Metropolitan in 1931.”

We had a beautiful day and enjoyed walking around indoors and outdoors, listening in on guided tours and taking pictures. More here.

Update: I just added my brother-in-law’s photo of a beautiful Madonna, carved in wood. He was drawn to her because she looked so contemporary and because the weight of the world seemed to be on her shoulders. (The carved Baby Jesus didn’t survive intact through the centuries.)

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On twitter a while ago, Liz Devlin (@FLUXboston) highlighted a Vox video presenting an explanation of why snails appear in the margins of many medieval illuminated texts.

Vox reports that a Germanic people called Lombards, who had invaded Italy, were roundly scorned in the 1200s. Over time they became less warrior-like and more usurious. That is, they were money lenders, which gave them another kind of power. The theory is that the snail represents both the the hated Lombards’ lack of fighting ability and their power.

A group of librarians in the UK also looked into the research. They report as follows: “There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat. As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.

“In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’

“This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

“Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality. It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon.’ “

Read more at the British Library website, here. Lilian M.C. Randall’s study “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” can be found here, at the University of Chicago Press journals site. Watch the video, too. It’s quite fun.

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