Monday, 29 October 2012

The Primer Lapidario as window to the world?

            A couple of weeks ago I touched upon the topic of maps and the representation of the monstrous and the other within these visual objects. During my dissertation I came across an object that I would like to introduce today, and, in my opinion, is related to the corpus of maps, which thus far far has received little scholarly attention. The object I am referring to is the Primer Lapidario of Alfonso X. The manuscript is one of the many objects produced by the Alfonsine scriptorium for El Sabio, the Wise. The text, based on Arab originals, informs its audience of a great variety of gems, their location, their properties, their relation to the zodiacs, as well as informations on the constellations and their origin. These texts on the 118 leaves of parchment within the unfinished manuscript are accompanied by a total of 802 miniatures with additional drolleries. These illuminations consist of illustrated initials, drolleries and images of the zodiac signs. The former especially caught my attention These initials have in common that they are all concerned with the the mining of the gems described in the text. Some are shown to be found in the sea, others under the earth or in wells. Within this great variety of imagery, however, one specific type of scene is significantly dominant. This type always follows a specific theme: one figure is shown as the wise man, ordering another, the worker. The relationship between these two figures, to me, appears to be one of dominance and subjugation. The specific character of these figures, however, changes depending on the region where the stone is found. They mirror the concepts and ideas the audience associated with the respective locale.

             Several of the precious gems described can be found in the 'tierras de Arabia'. In these cases the initials frequently show figures wearing turbans and bears, thereby marking them as eastern, or rather as Muslim. In the majority of the images both the scholar and the worker are shown with these markers of Islam, however certain exceptions are striking. For example, in the case of Libya not two Muslims are shown, but a turban-wearing wise man and a worker that might very well be understood as a Christian figure. The image thereby creates Libya as land of Muslim dominance over Christians, an especially unsettling image for a medieval Spanish audience, considering their history and their ongoing battles with Muslims. Though an easily overlooked nuance, to me it seems rather plausible to suspect an ideological foundation beneath it.

             This seems all the more apparent when the case of the Argent vivo is considered in relation. This stone, according to the text, can be found in the areas of 'la tierra á que llaman Adracegen, et en la de Sennen, et en la de Espanna.' The illuminated initial appears to strongly reflect not only the text, but also the audience's identity. It depicts the wise man as figure that judging from his clothing refers to images of Christ and the Apostles rather than to contemporary Christian clothing (which in great detail can also be observed in the illuminated manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria). The worker here is almost naked, only a white loin cloth covers his body, while  his turban identifies him as a Muslim. The relationship of the figures clearly communicates the Christian dominance in the image. An aspect that cannot be considered a coincidence considering the Iberian origin of the manuscript.

              So, I wonder what can we make of this besides suspecting an underlying self-affirmative aspect in the manuscript that supports the Christian position in the world? Apart from showing the gems and how they are obtained, the illuminations show the land of their origin, though of course in a very fragmented way. Within these lands the mentioned position of the depicted figures in the world is clearly noticeable. The initial's similarity to maps seem to me quite astounding and I would suggest that these illuminated initials, in a way, become almost a kind of map in their own accord. Images that allow the audience to gaze to foreign territories and their riches, and not without visually commenting on the other that inhabits these regions. I think, therefore objects like the Primer Lapidario need to be considered along side other material that so far have not been brought into connection with these manuscripts of gems, such as the mappa mundi and the illuminated travel accounts. 


Thursday, 11 October 2012

Medieval, the NMS, and Nationalism

A colleague of mine, Tasha Gefreh, recently gave a seminar on ‘Brave-Art: Concepts of Medievalism and Artefacts’ for Edinburgh University’s Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society. Her talk explored the historic…er…issues of Disney’s Brave, treating on the issues of historical versus imagined time, academic responsibility, nationalism, and the inspiring if often misleading nature of popular conceptions of “medieval”. Tasha explored this connection between Pixar and the National Museum of Scotland, noting that the studio sent artists in 2006 and 2007 to see the museum and its artefacts. At one point, she showed one still from the movie that struck me. While arresting in its dramatic composition, Tasha drew our attention to a Pictish symbol, reminiscent of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, shown in the bottom right as part of the architectural structure of a building. This use of Pictishness and of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone is not anything new for the NMS and the use of the imagined medieval has been utilised by the NMS earlier than Brave as seen at during its reopening and its earlier acquisition of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone. 

With the opening of the NMS on St. Andrew’s Day 1998, the birth of the museum coincided with the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament a year later.1 While David Clarke, Head of Exhibitions for the NMS attempted to ‘dissuade those who are determined to find endorsement of their own sense of national identity’ he was unsuccessful as Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, wrote just two years later that he hopes ‘these two key institutions [Scottish Parliament and NMS] will help to shape both the cultural identity and our constitutional destiny in the next millennium’.2 The work of McLean et al to determine the effects of the rebranding, reconstruction, and reopening of the NMS demonstrated a key interest in the creation of national museums, as one interviewee aptly stated ‘every country needs a national museum’.3        
             The Hilton of Cadboll Stone is a Pictish cross-slab dating around 800 C.E. The stone’s cross face is lost as a burial memorial was carved in its place in 1676. Additionally, the stone is broken in three sections, an upper portion, lower portion, and tenon. Excavations in 1998 to 2001 at St Mary’s Chapel discovered the previously missing lower portion and over seven thousand fragments. The stone is described as a playing ‘an iconic role in the production of a national story’ by Siân Jones and it is afforded pride of place in the Early People section of the NMS complete with a raised platform, dramatic lighting, and multimedia to explain the rich history, iconography, and cooperate interests arising from the stone. 4
            The upper portion of the stone was taken to Invergordon Castle in the mid-nineteenth century by Robert Bruce Aeneas Macleod and then offered to the British Museum in 1921 by his son Captain Roderick Willoughby Macleod. This was met with ‘widespread protest’ from politicians and antiquarians until Macleod withdrew his offer and instead donated the stone to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh in 1921. The stone became a symbol of Scottish identity, which a cursory walk through the Early People section of the NMS would imply is a mixture of Roman, Viking, Celtic, and Pictish ancestry. However, a conflict of ownership resulted in the find of the lower portion in 2001 as ‘where a museum has already acquired part of an object, as in this case, the integrity of the object is prioritised and new discoveries are usually allocated to the same museum’.5 While Hall’s work focuses on the formation of national identity as a ‘system of cultural representation’, Jones found that the people of Cadboll, displaying residual tensions over the removal of the upper portion of the stone and the uncertainty borne out of the Highland Clearances, were in fact creating these representative systems as well. Jones notes that the stone is spoken of as a living member of the community that has been taken from its home.6 Even if ‘a nation is a homogenous site for the production of an imagined cultural identity, that the authority of national heritage organisations over the management of such monuments should be accepted’ the people of Hilton expressively viewed their situation as one of oppression and misrepresentation. Issues surrounding cultural heritage, tourism, and national verses local identity can be seen played out in the Hilton of Cadboll stone.7
            While the situation of the Hilton stone is ultimately unresolved, the inclusion of the stone within the NMS allows it to function iconically as a marker of national identity at the cost of local identity. Because the actual stone is exhibited in the Early People section of the NMS, it can be seen that the ‘museum functions as an ensemble of narrative element which the able to rehears’ through the act of walking and associating like artefacts, such as the stone, with other Picitsh and thus Scottish elements.8


1. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 111
2. Clarke, David. 1996. ‘Me Tartan and Chained to the Past’, Museums Journal, 96: 75; Dewar. D. 2000. ‘Foreword’, Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (Shaftesbury, Donhead): ix
3. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 118
4. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 40.
5. Ibid, 41
6. Hall, Stuart. 1992. ‘The Question of Cultural Identity’, Modernity and its Features (Cambridge, Polity Press): 292
7. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 44
8. Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum (London, Routledge): 184

Brave ©Disney Pixar 
Hilton of Cadboll Stone © NMS