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Around the Ashmolean Oxford in 12 objects

The quest continues to create the condensed travelers' guide to heritage sites. This time exploring the Ashmolean in Oxford and using their "spotlight trail" as a guide but as ever there are so many distractions along the route.......

So let's get started, entrance is currently free to most galleries with additional charges in place for special exhibition events.

Egyptian Mummy Journeying to an afterlife

Djed-djehuty-iuef-ankh (whose name means ‘The god Thoth says “May he live”’) was a member of a family of priests from the city of Thebes, where he served the warlike god Montu. This spectacular nest of three coffins containing his mummy was found in 1895, together with that of his mother, buried within the grounds of the temple at Deir el-Bahri.

The outermost rectangular coffin has a vaulted lid, symbolic of the sky. Painted wooden figures of falcons representing the sky-god Horus sit on the posts of the outer coffin, which represent the supports that were believed to hold up the sky above the earth.

A painted statuette of a jackal representing the god Wepwawet, who guarded the dead and led them to the Afterlife, sits at the foot of the outer coffin lid. Inside the rectangular coffin are two anthropoid (mummy-shaped) coffins, each with a human head wearing a striped wig, a beaded collar and a beard. The innermost coffin holds Dejed-djehuty-iuef-ankh’s mummy, which is covered with a network of faience beads.

When ancient Egyptians like Djed-djehuty-iuef-ankh died they believed that they would undertake a journey to the afterlife. Complex funeral preparations and rites were thought to be needed to ensure this happened safely. Examining his body using CAT scans revealed that Djed-djehuty-iuef-ankh’s internal organs, including his heart, have been removed and replaced with a homogenous material, perhaps sawdust, before the mummy was wrapped in multiple layers of linen bandages. A collection of small amulets were included below his chin, intended to protect Djed-djehuty-iuef-ankh’s mummy in the underworld.

Knossos Octopus Pot An octopus at home in a palace

Standing at an impressive 75 centimetres, this three-handled jar depicts an octopus with six arms swimming in an abstract seascape. It was presented to the Ashmolean in 1911 by the government of Crete through Sir Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean from 1884 to 1908. The jar comes from the palace that Evans had excavated at Knossos and belongs to a culture he called Minoan, after the legendary King Minos.

In the centuries after 1900 BC, Minoan civilization reached the height of its prosperity and influence and major palaces were built at Knossos and Mallia in the northern part of Crete, at Phaistos in the south, and at Zakros in the east. After 1500 BC, however, there was increasing influence from the Mycenaean culture of the Greek mainland and, around 1450 BC, widespread destruction on the island. Whether this was caused by invading Mycenaean warriors is unknown, but Greek influence on Crete certainly becomes even more pronounced.

Pottery from the period following the destruction shows a blend of Minoan and Mycenaean stylistic traits. The shape of this jar is typically Mycenaean and, because the contents of such vessels – oil, wine and other commodities – were in much demand, examples have been found widely. An octopus had been a popular motif on Minoan pottery where animals were depicted with an extraordinary accuracy that came from a close observation of nature. The Mycenaean approach, however, was – as here – to take naturalistic motifs and abstract them, eventually to the point at which they are almost unrecognisable.

Guy Fawkes’ Lantern Remember, remember

Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this iron lantern when he was arrested in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4–5 November 1605. Fawkes and his conspirators planned to ignite barrels of gunpowder concealed under firewood in the cellar during the state opening of Parliament when the King, Commons and Lords would all have been present in the Lords’ Chamber – the aim of the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ being to blow up the chamber and kill the Protestant King James I. Thanks to an anonymous warning, the cellars were searched, Fawkes was discovered and the plot failed.

The lantern was given to the University of Oxford by Robert Heywood who had been a Proctor – an official responsible for ensuring the rules of the University are observed. His brother, Peter Heywood, had accompanied Sir Thomas Knyvett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, in his fateful search of the cellars and is credited with taking the lantern from Guy Fawkes during the initial struggle and preventing him from detonating the gunpowder. The lantern seems to have been passed to Robert sometime after an assassination attempt in 1640 left Peter mortally wounded. Robert then passed the lantern to the University in 1641.

For many years it was on display in the Bodleian Library’s Picture Gallery but was transferred to the Ashmolean in 1887 as part of a reorganisation of the University’s collections.

At this point came a distraction....

A leather patchwork shoe said to have belonged to John Bigg, reputedly one of Charles 1's executioners. Bigg later became a hermit and lived in a cave. The spurs are said to have belonged to Charles 1's as well.

Adjacent to the display of the shoe and spurs is the steel-reinforced hat worn by Lord John Bradshaw for protection as he presided over the trial of Charles 1 in 1649

Anyway back to our chosen 12....

Powhatan’s Mantle First encounters in North America

Powhatan’s Mantle, is a large deer-hide hanging with shell beadwork decoration that dates to the first period of contact between Indigenous North American peoples and British colonists. It was probably made in the early 1600s in the southern Chesapeake Bay region of North America, by the Algonquian speaking peoples of the Powhatan Confederacy.

It is named for Wahunsenacawh (around 1550–1618), the powerful paramount chief of the Powhatan people, who was known to the English as ‘Chief Powhatan’. He is also known as the father of Pocahontas (Matoaka), the famed North American woman who married one of the English settlers, and visited England in 1616 –17.

The Mantle consists of four hides of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that have been trimmed and sewn together with sinew. The shell beadwork consists of a central standing human-like figure flanked symmetrically by two opposed four-legged animal figures in profile. One of these figures has claws, short ears and a long tail, and has been interpreted as a wolf. The other has hooves, larger ears and a shorter tail, and may be a white-tailed deer. The three figures are surrounded by thirty-four circles.

The meaning of the three central figures is unknown, although it is thought that the human figure might either represent a deity, or Powhatan as paramount chief. Researchers believe that the circles represent settlements, as they do on south-eastern Indigenous American maps of that time, and that they probably represent the tribal nations of the Powhatan Confederacy.

The mantle is unique with no known parallels. It is beautifully constructed, and the design executed with precision. It represents a major investment of artistic skill and labour, and must always have been prized.

The Mantle is first recorded as being in the Tradescant collection in London in July 1638, but exactly how they acquired it is not known. The most widely accepted explanation is that it may be one of the gifts presented by Powhatan in 1608 to Captain Newport for King James I.

Indian Bronze Wielding an axe with grace and elegance

South Indian bronze sculpture reached its highpoint of artistic and technical achievement under the Chola dynasty (9th–14th centuries). Many of the finest works from the period are standing or seated images of the major Hindu deities, each one a unique creation as the lost-wax casting method requires the individual mould to be broken.

The Chola rulers idolized Shiva in particular, and images of the god and his family entourage were made in considerable numbers and installed as permanent icons in temples. Being portable, these images were also often carried out in ritual processions on festival occasions.

This refined bronze depicts the youthful saint Chandesha or Chandikeshvara, who is worshipped in south India as Shiva’s foremost devotee. Born into a Brahmin family – the caste from which Hindu priests are drawn – the boy was so single-minded in his devotion that on one occasion he used up the village’s milk supply in anointing linga images of Shiva that he had made from sand.

When his father, chastising him, kicked one of the lingas, the boy is said to have thrown a stick which became an axe and cut off both his father’s legs. Shiva himself then interceded, blessing both son and father.

In this tenderly observed and finely modelled image, Chandikeshvara stands in an attitude of humble devotion to Shiva, a faint smile on his lips and his hands joined in the gesture of respectful salutation. His body sways slightly in its triple-flexed (tribhanga) posture, and his axe rests in the crook of his arm.

Islamic Lamp The light of the heavens

In the Islamic world glass oil lamps were used to light the interiors of public buildings such as mosques, madrasas (Qur’anic schools), khanqahs (hospices) and mausolea. Arranged in rows, these fragile vessels were suspended from the ceiling by means of long chains attached to the glass loops on their sides.

The production of such glass furnishings became popular under the Mamluk Dynasty (1250–1517) of Egypt and Syria. Earlier Islamic rulers of the region had depended on slave (Arabic: mamluk, literally ‘owned’) soldiers who eventually established their own rule. Rapidly, the Mamluks created an extensive empire with its capital at Cairo which became the economic, cultural and artistic centre of the Arab Islamic world.

Prosperity was generated by an east–west trade in silks and spices and this supported the Mamluks’ lavish patronage of architecture and decorative art; glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork and textiles were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe. The 13th and 14th centuries, in particular, saw the climax of enamelling and gilding, the techniques used to decorate this and most surviving examples of glass lamps.

Blue enamel highlights the two inscriptions – an excerpt from a chapter of the Holy Qur’an known as the surat al-Nur (24:35), comparing God to light, and a dedication to the patron, Sultan Muhammad Qala’tun (r. 1294–1340), who founded a number of public and pious institutions. Red, green and yellow enamels, applied in finer strokes and alternated with gilding, are employed for the decorative bands.

Samurai Armour for a period of peace

This suit of Japanese armour was made during the peaceful Edo period (1600–1868) when samurai – members of the military nobility and officer caste – wore armour only on ceremonial occasions to show off their rank and wealth. It is a type developed in the 11th century known as dōmaru, in which the chest armour wraps around the body and is fastened on the right side. During the Edo period older styles such as the dōmaru came back into fashion.

Many different craftsmen, including blacksmiths and lacquerers, weavers and leatherworkers, were involved in the creation of this suit of armour. The body armour and skirt are made up of small plates of lacquered metal. These plates are laced together with silk cords that are dyed different colours to form a vivid pattern on assembly. The armour is tough, flexible and much lighter than a European steel suit.

The helmet, made of 62 iron plates riveted together, carries the inscription that dates it to 1560, though the rest of the suit dates to the 18th century. It is crowned with a pair of imposing antler-like projections, originally worn to distinguish generals, but widely adopted later as a decorative feature. It is also adorned with a lacquered wooden crest in the form of a shishi lion dog. Fierce animals were often incorporated into samurai armour design to symbolise the power of the wearer.

The armour was given to Magdalen College by Prince Chichibu (1902–53), who had studied there in the 1920s, and is on long-term loan to the Ashmolean Museum.

Alfred Jewel Made for King Alfred the Great

The Alfred Jewel is a masterpiece of goldsmith's work formed around a tear-shaped slice of rock crystal. Its inscription: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN – 'Alfred ordered me to be made’ – connects the jewel with King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) making it among the most significant of royal relics.

Alfred ruled the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and is famous for opposing the Vikings and unifying southern England. He is also credited with being a learned man, commissioning translations of religious texts from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. Some of these manuscripts were distributed throughout his kingdom and were accompanied by aestels, or pointers used to follow the text. It is thought that the Alfred Jewel may be one of these aestels.

The dragon-like head at the base of the jewel holds in its mouth a cylindrical socket, within which the actual pointer – perhaps made of ivory – would have been held in place by a rivet. The figure represented in delicate colours in cloisonné enamel on a plaque protected by the rock crystal may represent the sense of sight, an appropriate image for an object intended to help with reading.

The jewel was ploughed up in a field at North Petherton, Somerset, in 1693. The site is only a few miles from Athelney Abbey, the stronghold in the marshes from which Alfred launched his counter-attack on the Great Army of the Vikings. This ultimately led to his crucial military victory at Edington in 878 and the expansion of his authority across the southern half of England.

Hunt in the Forest Perspective Masterpiece

Paolo di Dono was celebrated in his lifetime as a master of perspective, and of animals and landscape; his nickname, Uccello (‘Bird’), alludes to his depictions of the natural world. He was a versatile designer, working at times on mosaic and stained glass commissions and all of these interests are fused in this masterpiece.

As a nocturnal landscape and as a brilliantly structured composition, The Hunt is a highly original painting. In its size and shape it is a spalliera painting, to be viewed at shoulder height – whether as a backboard of a decorated chest or set in the panelling of a room. The original client is unknown, but the painting was clearly intended for a luxurious domestic setting, perhaps in Urbino where Uccello worked for a time from 1465, or in Florence about 1470. Gold flecks in the foliage of the trees would have complemented the bright colours of the figures against the dark forest, making the painting even more beautiful when viewed by candlelight.

Hunting was an aristocratic pastime with its own rituals (the crescent moon, symbol of Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, appears in the horses' trappings) and the idea of a hunt by night is playful or symbolic rather than realistic. Uccello mapped out a grid on the panel's surface, fixing a central vanishing point. The devices of the huntsmen's spears, the cut branches and logs and the area of water denote this coherent space, inhabited by the receding forms of men and animals; our gaze is drawn deep into the forest.

The Great Bookcase Creating a medieval world that never was

Enormous, elaborate and highly decorated, the Great Bookcase was made to hold art books in the London office of William Burges (1827–81), the eminent Victorian architect and designer. Work on it began around 1859 and was completed by 1862, when it was included in the Medieval Court at the International Exhibition in London.

Although the design was based on surviving medieval furniture, the bookcase remains a purely 19th-century creation. Burges believed that, in addition to serving a practical purpose, furniture should also tell a story. Here the emphasis is on the painted scenes and decoration. Fourteen leading artists worked on the Great Bookcase: Edward Burne-Jones, John Anster Fitzgerald, Henry Holiday, Stacy Marks, Albert Moore, Thomas Morton, Edward Poynter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Rossiter, Frederick Smallfield, Simeon Solomon, William Frederick Yeames, Frederick Weeks, Nathaniel Westlake and Burges himself.

The decoration is divided into Christian themes on the left side of the cabinet and pagan themes on the right side. The large number of artists who worked on the Great Bookcase was unprecedented. Although the paintings are of the highest quality, the cabinet-making evidently was not: the bookcase collapsed in 1878 and had to be substantially rebuilt. Despite acknowledging that the bookcase was ‘not acceptable to present day taste’, Kenneth Clark, then Keeper of the Western Art Department, purchased it for the Ashmolean in 1933.

Turner’s High Street A view of Oxford’s High Street

Acknowledged as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time, Turner (1775–1851) knew Oxford extremely well and, from childhood, made numerous drawings of the streets and colleges and the picturesque views surrounding the city. One his most important early commissions was for two watercolours to be engraved for the Oxford Almanack, the annual calendar published by the University Press.

They were so successful that he eventually completed ten watercolours between 1798 and 1804, and later painted two oils for the local print-seller and frame-maker, James Wyatt, including the celebrated High Street, Oxford (1810).

The painting is one of the most fully documented of all Turner’s works because Wyatt kept his correspondence with the artist which was included in his posthumous sale. The original purpose of the commission was to have the design engraved. Wyatt settled on an oil painting, instead of a watercolour, half the size of Turner’s normal canvases, at a cost of 100 guineas. The artist worked on the painting over the winter of 1809–10, consulting Wyatt on the details of the architecture included in the view. The final stage involved the introduction of figures, members of the University and clergy, and some women ‘for the sake of colour’. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812.

When, in the 1830s, Turner was choosing views of Oxford for his greatest series of watercolours, he rejected the High Street. He felt that in this painting he had achieved an unparalleled view of technical mastery that he could not repeat.

Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus Portrait of violinist Fanny Claus

After twice failing the entrance exam to train as a naval officer, Édouard Manet (1832–83) went to Paris to pursue a career in the arts. By the late 1860s he was one of the most celebrated artists in the city. Manet was restlessly experimental, and by the late 1860s he was moving away from his personal interpretation of history painting towards subject pictures incorporating portraits of his friends and relations.

During the winter of 1868–9 Manet worked on Le Balcon (‘The Balcony’ now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). In his Paris studio, Manet asked a number of friends to pose for him. Fanny Claus (1846–77) was the best friend of his wife, Susanne Leenhoff. A talented violinist, Mademoiselle Claus married the artist Pierre Prins (1838–1913) in 1869. The other figure in the painting is Berthe Morisot (1841–95), another of Suzanne Leenhoff’s close friends.

As was his usual practice, Manet began his composition by painting directly onto the canvas, without making preparatory studies. His first idea of the picture included only two figures, Berthe Morisot standing on the right and Fanny Claus seated on the left. While working on the painting, Manet decided to revise the composition completely. He took up a new canvas which was eventually completed and exhibited as Le Balcon.

The first picture was bought by the American artist, John Singer Sargent, and at his death passed to the family of his sister from whose descendants it was acquired by the Ashmolean.

And that is the around the Ashmolean in 12 objects....

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