Finding great works of art buried in unlikely places is the dream of every armchair Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
Obviously everyone enjoys seeing some magnificent bit of carving or metalwork put on a display stand in a museum, because the discovery of such objects adds to our knowledge of art from the culture and time period in question. This is one of the reasons why I try to keep up on important archaeological finds as much as I do with developments in the art world, because the one often helps to inform a better understanding of the other. However, if you know anything about archaeology, you know that oftentimes what appears to be little more than a heap of garbage can have great significance, even if it doesn’t contain precious jewels, priceless statues, or the like. Such is the case with a recent archaeological discovery in the north of England.
The persecution of Catholics during the English Reformation is a well-known, if often conveniently brushed aside, aspect of history. From an artistic standpoint, perhaps the best book on the impact of that tragedy remains “The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy, which reads rather like a virtual horror story of iconoclasm in Britain. One of the key centers for what were referred to as “recusants” was Norfolk, where the Howard family and their supporters were able to remain Catholics despite the outlawing of Catholicism, albeit not without repercussions.
For those prominent Norfolk area families who were not quite as powerful as the Howards, keeping the faith was a bit more dicey of a proposition. For example, at their estate known as Oxburgh Hall, where they still reside to this day, the Bedingfeld family constructed a “priest hole”, where priests could be hidden when Elizabeth I’s spies came looking for them. Although this element of the property has been well-known for a long time, a recent discovery at the house has caused a great deal of excitement in the archaeological community.
As part of an ongoing renovation and restoration project at the house, workers at Oxburgh Hall were recently removing floorboards in the attic to get to the ceiling joists of the room below, when they stumbled across a rather remarkable cache. Hidden beneath the floor, along with the usual things that tend to slip between the cracks over the years, were thousands of fragments of paper and textiles dating from the late Middle Ages through to the Georgian period. It seems that, as the National Trust put it, the rats living in the ceiling had rather expensive tastes, for they made nests for themselves out of fine silks, velvets, brocades, and paper over the centuries, snatched from discarded bits of clothing, letters, and even pages of books.
A particularly interesting find in the hoard was an almost-intact copy of “The King’s Psalms” by St. John Fisher (1469-1535), Bishop of Rochester, complete with gilded leather binding. Since there’s no work by Fisher that goes by this title, I suspect it’s probably a copy of his commentary on seven of the Psalms dealing with the subject of sin and penitence. Fisher was executed by Henry VIII, as he was the only one of the English bishops who refused to sin by accepting Henry as the head of the Church, so owning a copy of a book by him would certainly have raised the red flag for his daughter’s investigators, and at the very least would have resulted in its confiscation.
One of the fragments described by ArtNet in their reporting on the story is a page from a 15th century illuminated manuscript, which bears part of the text of Psalm 39 from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. It probably came from a “Book of Hours”, a collection of readings from Scripture, prayers, and devotional texts that were often lavishly illustrated, and used throughout the day to pause for prayer and reflection. While in full context, this particular Psalm is mostly about avoiding sin and recognizing the brevity of life, in verse 1 it states, in part, “I will keep a muzzle on my mouth, as long as the wicked are in my presence.” It seems as though the Bedingfeld family took this advice to heart.
And with that said, let’s turn to some other stories of interest that popped up on my radar over the week gone by.
Despite the fact that they came to prominence at the same time, in the same place, and shared the same art dealer, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909) did not associate with one another in late 19th century New York. Now, a new show which just opened at the Denver Art Museum, “Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington”, explores artistic connections and parallels between the two great American artists, and the juxtaposition seems a particularly fascinating one. We often associate Homer with paintings of the ever-changing seascape of New England, and Remington with his famous bronzes of personalities from the American West, but as this exhibition demonstrates, Remington himself was also a masterful painter. We see this in his “The Fall of the Cowboy” (1895) shown below which, if not quite as profound as Homer’s famous “Fox Hunt” (1893) – which is also in the exhibition – painted two years earlier, shows that Remington understood how to convincingly paint a snow scene: something which, as any artist will tell you, is not as easy as one might think. The show runs through September 7th, Covid permitting.
An interesting architectural oddity has come back into vogue, thanks to Covid. As Art Daily reports, during the Renaissance in Florence, the Medici family granted homeowners the right to sell wine, spirits, and olive oil from the ground floor of their premises, via small arched openings known as “buchette” that were set into the exterior wall giving onto the street. Although selling limited quantities of food or beverages to the public via an opening has remained a tradition in certain places, such as convents and monasteries, for the most part the practice of pushing a glass of wine through a barred window fell out of use in Tuscany quite some time ago. With the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, many of these long blocked-up openings are being rediscovered and repurposed. One assumes that New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio would hate this, which is all the more reason to find a way to do it in more places, I reckon.
And returning to the UK where we began, coming in December residents of and visitors to London will want to book their tickets early for what promises to be a particularly spectacular exhibition to be mounted at the Queen’s Gallery, the public art exhibition space at Buckingham Palace. “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” will feature 65 works of art from the Queen’s personal collection, including works by Canaletto, Rembrandt, Titian, and Vermeer, among others, including the magnificent portrait of art collector Andrea Odoni (1527) by his friend Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1557). The motivation for the show is the ongoing renovation work at Buck House, which is having its ancient electrical and plumbing systems updated, and so rather than put these objects into storage, they will be put on public display until renovations are completed. The show opens on December 4th and is expected to run through January 2022, depending both on the progress of work at the Palace as well as Covid, natch.