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November 21 2011

Tiny Tyneside church beats Canterbury cathedral and Gormley in arts competition

Engraved glass so delicate that frost can change its nature helps scoop top prize for Northumberland. The Northerner's arts monitor Alan Sykes reports

A tiny church high above the Tyne valley has beaten off competition from the likes of Canterbury Cathedral to win this year's Art in a Religious Context award from the charity Art & Christian Enquiry.

The biennial award was made for two commemorative stained glass windows commissioned for St John's church, Healey, in Northumberland, by artists Anne Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin.

Anne Vibeke Mou was born in Denmark and graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art in 2005 before moving to Newcastle. She has shown in Denmark, Prague and London as well as at the National Glass Centre at Sunderland University. Her work for St John's, which lies between Hexham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a sheet of glass covered with thousands of tiny impact marks made by hitting the glass with a tungsten point, creating swirling, cloud-like forms which can be seen from the outside of the church as well as from its interior. A hard frost can affect her window, giving it an extra layer of depth.

James Hugonin was born in county Durham and graduated from the Chelsea School of Art in 1975. He has shown at the Baltic and Kettle's Yard in Cambridge as well as in London, Edinburgh and Germany. He is shortlisted for this year's Northern Art Prize which opens at the Leeds City Art Gallery on November 25th. His window is made of small rectangles of glass, some transparent and some translucent, mainly red, blue, yellow and green. Although totally abstract, a double helix form can be made out in the patterns of colour.

The two windows were commissioned as a memorial to his parents Julian & Virginia Warde-Aldam by local landowner, Hotspur magazine editor and churchwarden Jamie Warde-Aldam, a relation of the Quaker Robert Ormston who built the charming neo-Norman church in 1860 (at the third attempt, the nave having collapsed twice during the building process). Jamie says:

Everyone in the parish is delighted with the award. Working with James and Anne Vibeke on the project for a year has been a deeply rewarding, educational experience. They both have the highest standards, are meticulous in their respective methods and showed a sensitivity to each other's work as well as for the character and fabric of the church. Without their generosity, patience and friendship, this commission would not have happened.

The prize is worth £4,000, with £1,500 each going to the artists and £1,000 to the church. Other finalists for the award included sculptor Antony Gormley, who created another of his human figures, this time made up of old iron nails, for Canterbury Cathedral, Jonathon Parson's grid-like Cruciform Vision for Guildford Cathedral, Thomas Denny's Transfiguration stained glass window for Durham Cathedral, and Katy Armes' NoThing for Hellington Church in Norfolk. The judges were chaired by the Dean of Chichester, the Very Rev Nicholas Frayling.

Laura Moffatt, Director of Art & Christian Enquiry, comments:

This year's ACE Awards have once again revealed the depth and diversity of artistic practice among faith communities in the UK. Our short-lists included an Islamic Hall of Remembrance and a major new stained glass window in a cathedral, as well as some very high quality works of art and architecture in small rural parish churches. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 24 2011

British Library digs out decorative paintings to brighten up dark ages

Library will display treasures such as illuminated royal transcripts and a 13th century pilgrimage route map as part of new show

They may have been called the "dark ages", but a new exhibition at the British Library will aim to show that there were medieval artists producing work that was as remarkably colourful as it was beautiful.

The library has announced details of a winter exhibition that will display, on a scale never seen before, some of the treasures from its collection of illuminated royal manuscripts.

The show's curator, Scot McKendrick, said on Wednesday that the 1,200 manuscripts it owned was "a remarkable inheritance". He added: "They are some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries."

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most luxurious of all artefacts from the middle ages, and ones produced for English kings and queens are among the most stunning.

McKendrick said the state of preservation was "truly remarkable, truly spectacular" and the vibrancy of the colours seem as fresh now as they would have been when they were first painted.

One level of the show will be a rare opportunity to see glorious art contained within books that are normally stored away. Another will shine light on to the evolving relationship between English monarchs and the Christian church from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor times.

One section will focus on a monarch who should be better known – Edward IV, who ruled between 1471-83 and who succeeded in reviving the fortunes and finances of England. He was a great collector of illuminated books and some of the best were from Bruges and the Low Countries. "They are large, very colourful and focus on subjects both secular and religious," said McKendrick.

A highlight of the exhibition will be a route map or itinerary for any 13th century pilgrim preparing to journey from London to Jerusalem. Drawn by Matthew Paris, a historian and an advisor to Henry III, it is almost a rough guide to getting there through Kent, France and Italy to the boat in Apulia, showing the must-see landmarks en route. It is all the more surprising since the only foreign country Paris is known to have ever visited is Norway.

There will also be a contemporary illustration of a 10th century king, a rather jolly-looking Edgar, celebrating the introduction of Benedictine rule at Winchester. Another exhibit, from 600 years later, will be Henry VIII's psalter, in which he has made intellectual annotations in Latin.

The details came as BBC4 also announced a three-part tie-in series called The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.

• Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination will be at the British Library from 11 November-13 March. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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April 27 2011

Did Holbein engineer a royal wedding?

In an age where kings would make marriage decisions based on the beauty of a portrait, artists had real political power

The most infamous royal art commission in British history is Hans Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves. In 1539 king Henry VIII, in his late 40s and already married three times, was considering a proposal to this lucky, lucky princess. The marriage had political attractions, but Henry had to know the princess was beautiful. Verbal reports were glowing – but Henry needed something more, so he sent Holbein, the King's Painter, on a mission to paint Anne from life.

The story goes like this: Holbein painted a beautiful picture of Anne of Cleves, and his art made her seem beautiful in herself. Evenly balanced, almost heraldically flat, laden with jewelled colour, the picture gave her features a harmony that Henry fell in love with. The marriage was made, the princess came to England – and the fat, sick, ageing king rejected his bride as not good-looking enough for him.

This is the anecdote that has come down through the ages, retold by biographers and art historians alike. But what about the notorious portrait itself? To see it you have to go to the Louvre, where it hangs not among British, but German paintings, near a Venus by Lucas Cranach, court painter of Saxony, who dodged the Anne of Cleves commission due to illness.

Holbein's German princess is portrayed in subtle, regal colours: rich red velvet, honey gold, a green background. Yet you cannot really say he flatters Anne of Cleves – rather, by stressing her clothes and jewels, he makes it explicit that he is showing someone at their best. Her face is nice but her eyes are dull – this is not Holbein responding to Renaissance ideas of beauty but Holbein doing his best to balance honesty and decorum. To see this, you just have to compare Anne of Cleves with his portrait – also commissioned by Henry for the same purpose – of another potential bride, Christina of Denmark. This painting of the one who got away and avoided marriage with Henry VIII is much more beguiling. It is in the National Gallery. Christina looks out of mourning robes with a Mona Lisa smile.

Obviously, to compare potential Tudor brides in this way is to speak an archaic and pernicious language of beauty. But this was the Renaissance: it invented the myth of beauty. The fascinating thing about Henry VIII and his bridal portraits is that classical ideals, revived in Renaissance Italy and taken to new heights in the art of Leonardo and Raphael, become a political issue. International diplomacy mingles with the visual language of the most modern art of the day. At moments like this we see how much higher the status of artists was in the Renaissance than it is today – no royal has ever asked Lucian Freud for this kind of help.

The historian David Starkey argues there is no real evidence that Holbein's portrait influenced Henry's decision to marry Anne of Cleves. There is no record of his reaction to it (unlike Holbein's Christina of Denmark, which delighted him so much he had musicians play all day, so he could feast on the food of love). Instead, claims Starkey, it was the verbal testimony of influential courtiers that won him over to marry Anne of Cleves rather than Christina.

This would at least help answer the obvious question the traditional tale leaves hanging in the air – how did Holbein get away with it? If his painting seduced the king only for the old monster to be disillusioned, why was Holbein not savagely punished?

When you contemplate the painting, it is hard to believe that Holbein's eye counted for nothing. Without portraying Anne of Cleves as a Renaissance beauty he does picture her as a true princess, modest, stylish, quietly capable. He does not make her look like a Raphael. But he does make her look like a Holbein. And at least this unfortunate royal has that historical victory. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2011

Leo Steinberg obituary

Art historian and critic known for his elegant investigations of Renaissance paintings

Leo Steinberg, who has died aged 90, was one of the most brilliant and original art historians of his generation. He wrote as persuasively about the great Renaissance masters as he did about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His best-known work was The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983).

I was lucky enough to meet Leo in 1955, and over the decades we continued to see each other – in New York, where he lived for most of his adult life, or on his visits to London. He was impatient of small talk or gossip; conversation was always about particular works of art, which he would discuss intensely. What he said was charged with a sense that art was of overwhelming importance: "anything anyone can do, painting does better".

That passionate involvement with a specific work, and the intelligence which fed it, made him not only an engrossing interlocutor but also a dazzling lecturer (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, tickets for his lectures sold out on the day they went on sale). He was invited to deliver the prestigious Mellon lectures at the National Gallery in Washington DC (1982) and the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University (1995-96).

He was a devoted teacher, concerned about his students, whose careers he followed. From 1961 to 1975, he was professor of art history at Hunter College, in New York, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Benjamin Franklin professor until his retirement in 1991.

Though firmly identified with the New York art scene, Leo was born in Moscow, where his father, Isaac, a distinguished lawyer, was briefly Lenin's minister of justice. Isaac's radical views (he wanted to shut down all prisons) soon led to his dismissal and emigration to Berlin after threats of assassination.

Leo's childhood in Berlin left him with a barely noticeable German inflection to the otherwise impeccable English formed in his adolescence, since the arrival of the Nazis forced another displacement – to London. There, he finished his schooling and studied sculpture at the Slade. He moved to New York with his family soon after the end of the second world war.

In New York, he worked as a freelance writer and translator, studied philosophy and taught life drawing at Parsons school of art. He embarked on a doctoral thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. His study of the diminutive and intricate Roman baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Francesco Borromini, set out the formal devices employed by the architect to engage the passerby's unsuspecting attention.

While working on his thesis, Leo published criticism in arts magazines and became the most articulate spokesman of the rising New York School of painters. His early advocacy of Rauschenberg and Johns was committed but jargon-free, and he was one of the few critic-historians whose essays were eagerly read by artists for their clarity and elegance. His criticism was collected in a book of essays, Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art, in 1972.

But for all this involvement, he was not really acquisitive and lived rather frugally. In 2002, he donated his collection of 3,200 prints (mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, but also works by Picasso and Matisse) to the museum of art at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1986 he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship (known as the "genius" grant).

He continued to be prolific, writing with equal enthusiasm about Pontormo and Picasso. The examination of a work was never approached on merely formal terms – although he was a painstaking analyst, always meticulous in his attention to detail, to the way brushwork was used to fragment or to mould space; he would even investigate the implications of words pasted on the printed scraps of collages (treated as abstract patterns by most art historians) in his search for clues to the artist's intention.

Leo was impatient with any criticism which merely analysed the object presented to the spectator, since what really interested him was why the artist had wanted to do it in the first place. This is the key to The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. The book is concerned with what Leo termed "ostentatio genitalium", the display of the genitals which often figured in devotional paintings or engravings of the Renaissance and which had been "tactfully overlooked for half a millennium". He argued that the prominence of Christ's genitals was a presentation of incarnational theology explicit in the sermons and pious literature of the time, in which the blood shed at the circumcision is considered the first offering of the redemptive sacrifice.

It was the embodying of an idea which historians, oscillating between prudishness and pornography, found embarrassing or far-fetched. The book was received with bemused deference at the time; however, it has recently been reprinted with an account of the controversy and has transformed our understanding of Renaissance art, while his reading was confirmed in an appendix to the book by the Jesuit theologian John O'Malley.

Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were the artists who preoccupied him in his later years; Michelangelo's sculpture of the naked Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, to which the church added a loincloth, was one of the key works discussed in The Sexuality.

His book Michelangelo's Last Paintings, on the frescoes of the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, in the Vatican, appeared in 1975. In 2001, he published Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, a subtle re-examination of the most famous of Renaissance frescoes, in which he pointed to the combining of the forewarning of betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist which followed it.

When I visited him last year – we both knew we might not meet again – he dismissed the matter of his health in the first few minutes, but for an hour and a half we talked of Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, a circular painting of the holy family, in the Uffizi, Florence. We discussed the affectionate embrace of the figures, and the naked youths who people its background. He was writing an extended essay on the painting and thought that he would leave it unfinished, a fragment.

Leo was twice married, first to Dorothy Seiberling and then to Phoebe Lloyd. Both marriages ended in divorce. In his later years, he was much helped by a devoted assistant, Sheila Schwartz. He is survived by his nephews and nieces.

• Zalman Lev ("Leo") Steinberg, art historian, born 9 July 1920; died 13 March 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 03 2011

Tomb raiders

Judging by reports from Cairo, the west does not understand that one of the greatest antiquity collections on Earth is in danger

If petrol bombs were being thrown in St Marks Square in Venice, or outside the British Museum, what would reports say? We would never stop hearing about the threat to humanity's cultural heritage. Yet, as I scan the news sites for the latest reports from Cairo, it is strange how little stress has been placed on the unique importance and fragility of the contents of the Egyptian Museum, which stands at the very heart of the unfolding tragedy. That is why I must reiterate my previous attempt to draw attention to this silent witness and victim of events.

No, works of art are not people. The violence to protesters who had been so peaceful is nightmarish. But a nightmare scenario is also unfolding for the antiquities of Egypt. As I already stressed earlier this week, the collection of the Egyptian Museum is one of the greatest on Earth. This is where the golden mask of Tutenkamun is kept; the mummies of the pharaohs, and so much more.

The image that has haunted me all week is of a very ancient and very spooky tomb statue in the museum: it keeps coming to mind because I have seen nothing like it anywhere else – and because it is made of wood. Old, dry wood. All these treasures could vanish in smoke so easily.

My initial assumption was that the western media were downplaying the museum because it seemed less important than the lives at stake and the future to be won. It was even being said that to draw attention to looting was to do the propaganda work of the regime. But now I am starting to wonder if people in the west even know or care what is in that building. It is a great museum. And it is in peril. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 16 2010

Richard II relics found in gallery

Skull drawings could be used to recreate true likeness of king who died in 1400 after being deposed by Henry IV

Researchers sifting the contents of long-unopened boxes at the National Portrait Gallery have discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king.

To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement.

"It was very surprising, yes," said Krzysztof Adamiec, the assistant archivist at the London gallery who made the discovery. The relics, he said, at first "just looked like a simple, empty box of cigarettes". He added: "But when I opened it up there were strips of leather and pieces of wood. It was very exciting for me – it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history."

The wood is likely to be from Richard II's coffin, while there is compelling evidence that the leather is from his glove. There are also meticulously detailed sketches of the king's skull and bones, together with measurements which the gallery believes could be used to recreate a true likeness.

Scharf took charge of the gallery shortly after it was founded in 1857. After some detective work Adamiec was able to connect the relics in his archive with the decision in 1871 to open Richard's grave at Westminster Abbey.

The original intention was to clean the tombstones but, being inquisitive Victorians, those responsible decided that the coffin should be opened to try to establish how the king died in 1400 – after he was deposed by Henry IV – and whether it was because of an axe to the head. It wasn't.

Scharf, an enthusiastic witness, decided to pocket some mementoes, something which would be frowned upon now but was a "Victorian gentleman" thing to do. He was clearly a collector. Researchers have also found in the archive a pebble from the grave of Lord Macaulay, a piece of frame from a Raphael painting and the edge of a Van Dyck canvas.

The archive contains a huge amount of material, something like 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which the gallery is about to complete cataloguing. Adamiec said: "He was a very meticulous man; he recorded everything. Every day he would make a note of the weather, which direction the wind blew, what he ate, who he met. Sometimes he would draw the table plans of dinners he attended."

Scharf, born in 1820, inherited his love of drawing from his father, who would take him on drawing expeditions, including one in 1834, to the ruins of the Palace of Westminster after the devastating fire, also documented in several paintings by JMW Turner. In 1854, he missed out on becoming director of the National Gallery but three years later was appointed secretary to the new NPG.

He was a prominent member of the Society of Antiquaries and seems to have particularly enjoyed grave openings, among them Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York.

The Scharf archive catalogue is now available online, joining the papers of other gallery directors including Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Michelangelo's penis battle

My love for microhistory inspired me to uncover Leonardo da Vinci's attempt to shroud the greatest nude statue ever

So, I gave the last talk in the 2010 tour of my book The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance, at the National Gallery the other day – which in my eyes was a bit like ending it at the art critics' Wembley – and in the middle of the talk, I found myself recommending a book: someone else's. Since I have offered the same bibliographic recommendation to other audiences at book festivals, perhaps I should take the opportunity of what I promise is my last book-related posting of the year to recommend to you the very same beloved work.

It is called Montaillou and its author is the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. It came out in English in 1978, and is still available in paperback. This is my idea of a magical and liberating history book because it breaks down the barriers of time and space. It allows us to meet, as living and speaking human beings, a rowdy and fascinating company of 14th-century French villagers. Normally such people vanish completely from the historical record. The peasants of Montaillou have names, and their personalities can be glimpsed, because they were interrogated by an inquisitor hunting down the last traces of the Cathar heresy.

I fell in love with this book in the 1980s when I was getting ready to read history at university. I also fell in love with the genre of "microhistory" that it made famous. Today there is a vast field of popular writing about history. But before that, there was microhistory. What I realised while working on The Lost Battles was that the simple, humane project of history books like Montaillou – to bring to life the texture of everyday reality in another place, another time – is actually what I want to do for art and artists.

Thus, a crucial chapter of The Lost Battles is based on a transcript of a meeting that took place in Florence in 1504 to decide where Michelangelo's newly carved David should be put. Artists including Botticelli, Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci were at this meeting and their words were recorded word for word by a clerk. Gold dust! In the transcript, Leonardo says the statue needs "decent ornament" – which I take to mean it needs decently covering up, for only in recent times has the notion of decency lost its connotations of Christian modesty.

Since the book's publication in April, no reviewer has disputed this reading of Leonardo's recorded words. Indeed it seems so natural that you may think I got it from some other book – but in fact this obvious reading of Leonardo's speech has been assiduously avoided by art historians who, I suppose, did not want to mention penises and great art in the same sentence.

So, I can claim to have brought a bit of microhistory to light. Great artists are people, too. And in this miraculously preserved bit of his real speech, Leonardo da Vinci is caught out spitefully attempting to emasculate the greatest nude statue in the history of the world. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 24 2010

Pharaoh enough

Manchester's Tutankhamun exhibition is full of fakes, but no less inspiring for that

"What can you see?" asked the people behind archaeologist Howard Carter as he peered through a newly dug hole into the tomb chamber of the boy king Tutankhamun in 1922. "Wonderful things!" gasped Carter. And it was true.

Up to then it seemed that all the tombs of the pharaohs of Egypt in the Valley of the Kings had been ransacked by graverobbers long ago: archaeologists found mummies, but no gold. Somehow this young ruler's tomb had never been touched. Carter found its treasures piled around the walls inside the secret chamber, perfectly preserved in the sealed vault, just as they looked the day the tomb was closed. Now you can see them, quite as perfect, in Manchester – with one catch.

The exhibition Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures, which opened at the Trafford Centre on Friday, boasts the very room that amazed Carter 88 years ago. Golden beds, chairs, chariots, chests and portraits are heaped as they were when he peeked through that tiny aperture: the death mask of Tutankhamun, one of the most astonishing works of art on earth, is here. The only trouble is, none of it is real. All the marvels are reproductions, modelled with digital technology and expertly crafted to mimic the originals, at a cost of £4.4m.

Does it matter? Is this exhibition a con, a delusion, a postmodern joke? Is it not a bit rich to sell tickets to a display that is really no more authentic than a horror film with mummies chasing screaming actors through digitally created pyramids? But to get lofty and highfalutin about it is to forget the history of "Egyptomania", the fascination with ancient Egypt that has long gripped western culture. People have been faking Egyptian artefacts for centuries, and mixing those fakes with real relics, in a way that was not stupid, but rather inspired curiosity, discoveries, learning. In the 17th century, sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini stuck an ancient obelisk on the back of a stone elephant, mixing real archaeology with his own art. In the age of Napoleon, every fashionable house had a faked-up, Egyptian-style chaise longue. In Regency London you could visit the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, a simulated Egyptian temple complete with colossal columns and statues, run as a profitable enterprise (today Harrods has its own Egyptian Hall).

The Manchester event is in this tradition. If it inspires, it inspires. You can visit the British Museum's Book of the Dead show next month to see how real Egyptian relics match up to its illusions. Egyptomania thrives on sensation, and museums and diggers have benefited from the popularity of this most amazing of ancient cultures. Egyptologists learned long ago that fakes are fine, so long as they generate enthusiasm for the real thing. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2010

Carola Hicks obituary

Art historian and biographer, her work infused large, iconic subjects with new life

Carola Hicks, who has died of cancer aged 68, was a glamorous academic and a serious populariser of art. She created something new in the world of contemporary biography, writing the life stories and afterlives of iconic works of art such as the Bayeux tapestry and the stained-glass windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. She swept the dust off old masterpieces, explained their cultural contexts and infused them with life for a new public.

Her first book to reach a wide general audience was the acclaimed Improper Pursuits: The Scandalous Life of Lady Di Beauclerk (2001), a gripping account of an 18th-century aristocrat, an earlier Lady Diana Spencer. This Lady Di defied convention: she abandoned her husband, the second Viscount Bolingbroke, for a secret liaison with Topham Beauclerk, concealed her illegitimate child, divorced, remarried and earned her living by becoming an accomplished painter. Carola's biography illuminated 18th-century artistic life and exposed the consequences of transgressive behaviour by women.

Her next book, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece (2006), was the first of her innovative biographies of works of art. Carola brought fresh insights to this medieval strip cartoon and instrument of political propaganda. Most groundbreaking was her investigation of the afterlife of the Bayeux tapestry: its rediscovery by 18th-century antiquarians, its survival though the French revolution, its reinvention by the pre-Raphaelites, its skewed interpretation by over-reachers from Napoleon to Heinrich Himmler.

She followed this success with The King's Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art (2007), which Radio 4 serialised as its Christmas book of the week. As Henry VIII's queens disappeared, they were erased from the stained-glass windows of King's College Chapel. When he replaced orthodox Catholicism with his own Supremacy and Reformation, the glass was adapted to reflect this, too. The magisterial images were made by immigrant craftsmen handling tiny pieces of luminous glass. "This book is in part a hymn to their light, with glass of beryl and amethyst, sapphire and emerald … in miniature the story of the nation," Peter Ackroyd wrote of it.

Born in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, Carola was the daughter of actors, David Brown and Margaret Gibson. After her father died on active service in North Africa in 1943, Carola was brought up by her mother, who continued her stage career. Carola was educated at the Lady Eleanor Holles school at Hampton, Middlesex, and then at Edinburgh University, where in 1964 she took a first in archaeology, and was one of the stars of the department.

True to her thespian inheritance, she played Olivia in Twelfth Night on a student tour of the Highlands and Islands. During one exploit, she and fellow actors constructed a Loch Ness monster out of hessian, wire and newspaper and faked a sighting, reported in the national press. After acting in repertory and television, Carola returned to Edinburgh and gained her PhD, in 1967, on "the animal style in English Romanesque art".

She worked on Reader's Digest and Woman's Own and for the Council for British Archaeology before becoming a researcher in the House of Commons library. Carola said you could always tell what MPs were really like by the way they treated their staff. She met her future husband, the lobby journalist and now fellow author, Gary Hicks, in the Strangers' Bar. They married in 1969.

She worked at the British Museum on the account of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, whose three volumes were published in 1975, 1978 and 1983, before becoming a research fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, in 1978 and writing her first book, Animals in Early Medieval Art (1993). For several years from 1984 she was curator of the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral. She became a fellow and director of studies in art history at Newnham College, Cambridge, where for more than 20 years she taught as she wrote, in a lively, accessible style that combined erudition with enthusiasm.

A keen gardener, amateur photographer, ice-skater and botanic drawing student, with a lifelong love of theatre, Carola was witty and irreverent, wrote wickedly funny articles for the Literary Review, and especially enjoyed Biographers' Club events. Days before her death she had almost completed Girl in a Green Gown, a "biography" of Jan van Eyck's enigmatic portrait The Arnolfini Marriage.

Six months ago, Carola was diagnosed with cancer, which she faced with clear-eyed dispassion. She died at home, stylish to the last, with a red rose from the garden on her pillow. She is survived by Gary and their children, Colette and Toby.

• Carola Margaret Hicks, art historian and author, born 7 November 1941; died 23 June 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 22 2010

Apostle images from 4th century found under street in Italy

New laser burnt away centuries of calcium deposits to reveal earliest known pictures of Andrew and John in Rome catacomb

Archaeologists exploring a Christian catacomb under a residential Roman street have unearthed the earliest known images of the apostles Andrew and John.

Using a newly developed laser to burn away centuries of calcium deposits without damaging the paintings beneath, the team found the late 4th-century images in the richly decorated tomb of a Roman noblewoman.

"John's young face is familiar, but this is the most youthful portrayal of Andrew ever seen, very different from the old man with grey hair and wrinkles we know from medieval painting," said project leader Barbara Mazzei.

Discovered in the 1950s and as yet unseen by the public, the St Tecla catacomb is accessed through the unmarked basement door of a drab office building, beyond which dim corridors packed with burial spots wind off through damp tufa stone.

The catacomb is close to the basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls, where bones discovered in a sarcophagus have been dated to the first or second century and attributed to St Paul.

Working under the supervision of the Vatican's pontifical commission for sacred archaeology, Mazzei first exposed images of fellow apostles Peter and Paul, as well as Jesus, and biblical scenes set against rich ochre, red and black backgrounds – colours commonly associated with imperial Roman art.

"The laser can be calibrated to remove certain colours, in this case the white of the calcium, which just fell away. We are used to finding faded colours, but here they are exceptional," she said.

As the calcium was burned off, John and Andrew appeared on the same ceiling panel as Peter and Paul.

"We already know earlier images of Peter and Paul from group paintings, but all previously known images of Andrew and John date to the mid 5th century," said Mazzei. "We assume it is them because they were the most important apostles after Peter and Paul and would have found space alongside them here."

Mazzei said the tomb was built by a noblewoman as Rome was switching from paganism to Christianity. "This catacomb was not a clandestine burial place, in fact they never were, that was an invention of Ben Hur," she said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Life on the canals of Coventry and Oxford

Coventry factory worker, Robert Longden took these photographs of working life on the canals in the late 1940s and early 1950s

June 18 2010

Letters: Art from the sublime to the ridiculed

A lot is being made of the 400-years-since-he-died stuff on Caravaggio's bones (Report, 17 June). Artist on the run from a murder etc. As though Rome wasn't a violent city in 1600. I suppose you could walk anywhere late at night etc.

The critics say he invented chiaroscuro, or dramatic shading never seen before. A lot is known about Caravaggio's studios, more than most of his contemporaries. They describe the dark walls and a hole in the ceiling (known because he was sued). A few people have made serious suggestions that optical projections were used, and as there are no known drawings, and no record he ever made one, the evidence is very strong indeed.

No conventional historian has bothered to ask how these paintings were made. They think it is of little interest. It is of major interest to us now. The similarity to today's Photoshop techniques is fascinating. This seems to me to make him a more interesting artist, not less. It accounts for the new kind of space he opened (like TV close-ups), it accounts for the dark walls and the hole in the ceiling. His bones are neither here nor there because of this – a minor event compared with the implications for our time of his new techniques.

Sometimes I'm not sure what "art history" really is. It ignores picture-making techniques, has never known how to deal with photography, and cannot connect the past with today very well. Look at it a little differently and there is a much bigger and more important story for us today than a bag of old bones.

David Hockney


• I agree with Mark Brown (Report, 9 June) that the figure wearing a lion's head in the restored Tintoretto must represent Hercules. But Hercules frequently symbolises Fortitude (see, for example, the campanile of the Duomo in Florence) and fortitude is closely associated with magnanimity, so closely according to Aquinas that magnanimity is simply one of its subordinate parts. Seneca describes magnanimity as the most resplendent of the virtues, to which Latini adds that one leading characteristic of the magnanimous is that they are careless about small expenses. Lorenzetti, in his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, offers a celebrated illustration of these ideas, showing the figure of Magnanimity crowned, with shining garments, ready to dispense gold coins. I wonder if this may tell us something about Tintoretto's crowned and shining figure to the right of Hercules, who is allowing gold coins to spill from the goblet at his feet?

Quentin Skinner

Department of history, Queen Mary, University of London

• Lucy Worsley is spot-on (Comment, 18 June). Just what we need – less intellectualism in history and more sexing up of flaky evidence (cue arched eyebrow and hanging question mark). I was particularly impressed by her hard-science pig-squashing experiment to prove that Henry VIII was a complete proverbial because of a bad joust day. I intend to drop my heaviest tome on my cat this afternoon in an attempt to confirm her findings. While wearing roller-skates.

Jim McDermott

Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire

• I have enjoyed the political caricatures created by Steve Bell and Martin Rowson for more years than I care to recall. Their cameo appearance on BBC4's excellent Rude Britannia (Last night's TV, G2, 17 June), where they discussed the history of 18th- and 19th-century English cartoon/satire, was fascinating. Why is there so little biting satire directed at the royal family today, unlike those times?

Dr Paul Clements

Goldsmiths College

• The statue of Eadgyth (Remains confirmed as those of a Saxon princess, 17 June) is surely one of the earliest examples of Rude Britannia. She is shown lightly caressing her bosom with her right hand while her left is daintily pulling up her skirt to reveal her right leg.

N Bailey

Saffron Walden, Essex

• Did anyone else notice the similarity between the photograph of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (G2, 15 June) and some of Monet's "water lily" paintings? Oil or watercolour? Or both?

Greg Hetherton

Hove, East Sussex © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 27 2010

Auction withdraws 'stolen' Roman sculptures

Bonhams auction house acts after claims that second century AD artefacts were taken during illegal excavations

Four Roman sculptures are to be withdrawn from auction tomorrow amid claims that they were stolen from archaeological sites overseas.

Photographs seized by police suggested that the sculptures – funerary busts and a marble statue of a youth from the second century AD – were illicitly excavated, archaeologists told the Guardian.

A spokesman for Bonhams auctioneers said: "Whenever a serious question is raised about an item's provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance."

Dr David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said that the four antiquities bore soil traces that indicated they were excavated during illegal digs. Images in the Bonhams auction catalogue show the same sculptures cleaned and restored.

Archaeologists remain concerned about illegal trading of antiquities and some believe insufficient checks are carried out into their provenance.

Lord Renfrew, the eminent Cambridge archaeologist, warned that "such sales are maintaining London's reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities".

Gill said the withdrawal was the latest in a series of such incidents in London.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a researcher at Cambridge University and formerly an archaeologist with the Greek ministry of culture, uncovered the evidence suggesting that the sculptures had been illegally excavated. They had been moderately valued, at about £40,000, but he is concerned about the impact of illicit excavations.

He said: "The destruction leaves objects out of context. Even if [an object] is a masterpiece, our duty is to give people history." It is a view shared by most archaeologists.

Since 2003, it has been a criminal offence to deal in "tainted cultural objects", punishable by up to seven years in prison. Renfrew called for auction houses to identify the vendors of antiquities. "That would be a step towards clarifying the problem," he said.

The style of the Roman busts suggests they are of eastern Mediterranean origin and were possibly dug up in Syria or northern Greece. The marble statue probably originates from Italy, archaeologists said.

The Bonhams spokesman said that the firm sends its catalogues for scrutiny to the Art Loss Register – a computerised database – to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold. "If they raise issues, we also withdraw items," he said.However, Dr Gill said that the Art Loss Register only dealt with stolen items, and not antiquities that may have come from illegal excavations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 03 2009

In this mist of antique loveliness, the object is all. For history go elsewhere | Simon Jenkins

I regard the magnificent new show at the V&A as essentially a taster – an invitation to voyage back from Kensington to origin

Every morning Britain's museum curators go down on their knees and pray: "Lord, save me from temptation. Let me not become a theme park." None does. The Almighty is merciful.

This week a new £30m museum – it is nothing less – opened within the Victoria and Albert in London to house a portion of its hoard of medieval and Renaissance objects. They glow, glitter, shimmer and dazzle, outshining such rivals as the Metropolitan in New York, the Cluny in Paris, the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

From Leonardo's notebook to Donatello's crucifixion, from the boar hunt tapestry to Giambologna's Samson Slaying a Philistine, the V&A can lay claim to be the outstanding showcase of pre-modern European antiquities (pre-1600). In Britain's hour of fiscal darkness it shows that the nation can still put on a stunning show, and at less than the cost of one lane of an Olympic pool.

The V&A's great central court is laid out as an Italian piazza, lined with statues and tombs, over which hovers a Renaissance screen from a Dutch cathedral. Beyond lies a cluster of Gothic effigies and altarpieces with, in the distance, the sanctuary of Florence's chapel of Santa Chiara. Flanking rooms drip with the riches of Europe, as if the curators of the V&A had been on a Napoleonic looting expedition. Stained glass torn from Low Country churches radiates with cleverly directed daylight. Florence is again denuded, this time of the Annunciation from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Fine-tooled suits of armour – described as "a cross between a Savile Row suit and a sports car" – jostle with a Tintoretto self-portrait, a Medici study, the Gloucester gold candlestick, the Becket casket and a Veit Stoss boxwood Virgin "clothed with the sun". The pages of Leonardo's notes, with translations of each page, can be turned by computer. Display cases are near invisible and works are at eye level, enabling the viewer to study the thread of a quilt or the glint of stained glass. It is admirably done.

There is, of course, no hint of a theme or a park in sight. There is no setting, no medieval chamber, no Renaissance wall or ceiling, cloister or loggia. This is the "new museum" in all its splendour. The object is all. The dominant colour is white. Context is left to book-learning and a cultured imagination. To the casual observer there is little after the dark ages to indicate chronology or narrative, apart from occasional vague headings such as "splendour and society" or "art and ideas".

No distinction is drawn between countries of origin, rather the stress is on the unity of European culture. The result can seem intellectually confusing, a jumble of imagery, half-Christian, half-classical in derivation, with no roots in time or place. The best response is to close down the brain and drift through a mist of antique loveliness.

The obvious reservation was put to me by a German visitor, an art dealer, who was fuming with rage. It was all too clinical. "Where is the atmosphere?" he cried. "Where is the sense of mystery of the middle ages? Why is everything of white stone? You could remove the objects and replace them with beds, and it would be a good hospital."

I restrained from the theme park response, and protested merely that the V&A was a museum, not a medieval church or renaissance palace. He said that was no excuse. The Cloisters in Manhattan had more soul. Historical works of art should be given some context and setting.

Certainly the new galleries contrast with the British historical collection on the other side of the V&A. Here objects are displayed in semi-enclosed spaces, conveying something of the intimacy in which they were enjoyed. The atmosphere is interior, that of corridors, chambers and chancels. There is darkness and detachment from the world outside.

To go from one side of the V&A to the other is thus an aesthetic shock – like passing from the classical side of Oxford's Ashmolean museum to its pristine new wing. There is no point in saying one is "better" than the other. The concept of a museum is artificial, with objects removed for purposes of study and display from their previous settings, and set on pedestals, literal and metaphorical. Fashion in museum presentation is always changing, and each era is different.

I share my German acquaintance's view that the new V&A is glaringly modernist, more than honouring the curators' message that the middle ages were not just about dirt, death and plague. There is something absurd in Paul Pindar's wooden house front, torn from its Bishopsgate birthplace and fastened high and alone on a brick wall to form a Golgotha of gaunt, blackened timbers, stripped of meaning. If the V&A can dress its objects in glass panels, steel rails and computer screens, then why not the gothic chambers of Cluny or enfilades of the Louvre, where tapestries, corbels and sculptures sit more easily on the eye? Why not a note of music?

I am sure the V&A regards this as theme-park talk. It suggests Ruskin's much-ridiculed nervousness that he might find Venice "so beautiful and so strange as to forget the darker truths of its history and being". Medieval beauty might indeed have been created amid violence and squalor, but how to convey this without lurching into ersatz Disneyland? Most of these works were owned by an ecclesiastical or political elite, but to enjoy them we need not invoke the Black Death or the massacre of St Bartholomew's Day. The historian Francis Haskell wrote of the danger of reading too much meaning into the "deceptive evidence of art".

This risks demanding a certificate in art history as admission into this exhibition. A more constructive response is that a museum cannot do everything. It is just a museum, an aesthetic orphanage of things lost, looted, bought, restored, analysed and pushed on stage for all to see. It is not a lesson in history or geography.

For those who prefer their relics of medieval and Renaissance Europe fixed in architectural time and place there is no lack of opportunity. For all the horrors which the 20th century inflicted on Europe's past, the continent remains the last on earth where respect is shown by authority for historic buildings, for extant reminders of the past.

Many have been defaced. I still wince to see objects that have been wrenched from old churches and carted off to museums. Will Venice one day reclaim the Madonna della Misericordia, hacked from an oratory in the 19th century and hailed on its arrival at the V&A as "a page torn from history"? But these things rarely happen today. The setting of medieval and renaissance Europe lives on in the cathedrals and churches of England, in the ancient cities of Italy, the walled towns of south-west France and the palaces of the Rhine and Danube. The V&A should supply a map showing where its exhibits can still be seen as once displayed.

I regard this magnificent show as essentially a taster, an invitation to voyage back from object to origin, from esoteric South Kensington to places beyond its imprisoning walls, where Europe's culture roams free in ancient streets and buildings, in the wood, brick and stone of history. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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