Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday 4 March 2024

Policing morals at Cambridge University - and at Oxford

The tradition of the Proctors policing the streets of Cambridge and in particular their concern to keep loose women off those streets and to protect male undergraduates from being led into temptation is discussed in an article on the BBC News website which can be seen at 'When to be poor, pretty and petulant was a crime'

Given the fallen state of human nature such efforts, however superficially successful, were no doubt unavailing. 

I noticed that this was under an Elizabethan statute. The sixteenth century appears to have been part an age of a ‘moral panic’ which possibly began in the last years of the fifteenth century, and which took in all forms of digression from what was considered the social norm. Sexual morality was but one aspect of deviance that attracted the attention of the relevant authorities across Europe. The concern with heresy and witchcraft, of political dissent, as well as reinforcing perceived hierarchies in families and communities was shared across Catholic and Reformed traditions. The conventions inherited from previous centuries were now enforced in a way that went from the occasional to the routine.

I am not sufficiently informed as to the history of Cambridge as to the minutiae of such policies there. Medieval Oxford was known to have areas noted for prostitution outside the city walls and had one very explicitly named street in the very centre - now re-named. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the St Thomas’ area was notorious for its houses of easy virtue and the great Tractarian Canon Chamberlain from the parish church was a vigorous opponent of them. Regular parish visiting to the houses of ill-repute helped to close them down and he faced down physical threats from the girls’ ‘protectors’.

If the University students were traditionally catered for in these matters - and certain streets and street corners were well known to be meeting places up to the 1960s - then the advent of military bases in the twentieth century opened up new possibilities. I recall being regaled by a retired Oxford policewoman I worked alongside with stories of staking out a brothel in the St Ebbe’s area which provided ‘services’ for the USAF in the 1950s…

Saturday 2 March 2024

Hoping to save a twelfth century ivory for the nation

The Financial Times has a report about the attempt to raise £2million to keep an ivory carving of the Deposition of Christ from the Cross in the country. The carving was originally part of a larger scene, and arguably part of a triptych or five fold reredos, and is ascribed to a York workshop of the 1190s. As such it is a precious survival of a school or tradition of which we now have so little.

The article then goes on to look at British regulations regarding art exports, and compares them with those in France, Germany, and Italy about safeguarding heritage objects and preventing their loss overseas.

The History Blog also reported on the carving in Met acquires rare Romanesque Walrus ivory carving; UK bars export

However when I was looking further into the story to write this article I was absolutely fascinated to find that the carving has a very close link to my home area. That was certainly not well known when I lived in the area, and indeed unknown to me. 

The other surviving fragment, of Judas eating the morsel at the Last Supper, from the reredos was found in Wakefield in 1769 and is now in the V&A. It can be seen to have survived through deliberate moves to secret religious art in the town in the mid-sixteenth century. Where the reredos was before that terrible time of tragedy is unclear - possibilities include the parish church - since 1888 the Anglican cathedral - or the castle at Sandal just south of the town, the Hospitaller Preceptory at Newland to the east, or even one of the four  chantry chapels that were on the main roads into the town. Another possibility, if less likely, might be that it came from a church 
further afield.

The historical background is set out in excellent detail by Apollo at The V&A is by far the best home for this medieval sculpture and by the Independent at The story of the walrus and the English artwork at risk of being sent to the US

There is another article with valuable insights from the magazine Artdependence at V&A launches Fundraising Campaign to acquire Rare 12th-century Medieval Walrus Ivory Carving

Given that connection to where I was born and raised, and formed as both a historian and as a man of Catholic belief I obviously hope very much that the money can be found to keep this exquisite carving here, with the other fragment - one would not wish it to suffer the exile in the Met that has been the fate of the Bury St Edmunds Cross.

Images: The History Blog

Friday 1 March 2024

Gearing up for the next election

No, despite the events in Rochdale yesterday and the current surfeit of speculation and polling both in the UK and abroad, I am not going to write about secular politics in this country or anywhere else ( well, not in this post anyway ) but rather to link to a story on LifeSite News

Their article is about an opinion piece looking to the next Papal election. That election will undoubtedly be of crucial importance to the Church. Written by a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals it is about what the author believes is necessary to be addressed for the next Pontificate. The author, wisely no doubt, conceals his identity behind the pseudonym of Demos II. Demos I, who wrote a not dissimilar article about the current Pontificate a couple of years back, was subsequently revealed to be the late Cardinal George Pell.

The unredacted text can be read on the Daily Compass website at A profile of the next Pope, writes Cardinal

Thursday 29 February 2024

Mantegna’s ‘Triumph of Caesar’

The website of Antiques and The Arts Weekly has an article about one of the many glories of the Royal Collection, Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar. Six of the nine paintings are currently on display in the National Gallery until next year whilst their usual home at Hampton Court is renovated.

The author does not point out as clearly as he might have the fact that the Rubens Roman Triumph from the National Gallery collection very clearly derives from Mantegna’s great cycle. Presumably Rubens saw the paintings in England when they were bought by King Charles I in 1629.

I believe I am correct in saying that the nine paintings were not amongst those sold in 1649 but were retained and decorated the court of the Cromwellian Protectorate. Their size may have militated against a quick sale. As it was they remained here and were saved for King Charles II and his successors.

The loss of the Ovetari Chapel is indeed grievous, and, let’s be honest, inexcusable. As I understand it the fragments of the frescos were gathered up and restorers are still trying to piece them together with a view to a restoration. Wikipedia has an account of the chapel and what survives at Ovetari Chapel

Mantegna is noteable for his research into classical architecture and settings for his commissions as the author mentions. He participated in the burgeoning antiquarian spirit of a number of scholars in mid-fifteenth century Italy, such as Cyriacus of Ancona, and anticipated research into discoveries in sixteenth century Rome. Such a tradition was by no means new and can be seen in various parts of Italy in the thirteenth century under the Emperor Frederick II, the Pisan sculptural tradition and in the Rome of the 1280s in respect of painting.  

Wikipedia discusses the sculptural background of this painting in a substantial article about the artist at Andrea Mantegna.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Recreating the face of Dante

The Mail Online website has an article about a new reconstruction that has been made of the face of Dante. It is based on details of his skull as recorded in 1921 during an examination of his remains as well as a more recent study in 2007.

The illustrated article can be seen at Meet the architect of hell: True face of Dante revealed

The article is of course wrong to state that Dante was the first to write about the state of being and topography of the afterlife. That theme was a not infrequent subject for medieval writers, but Dante’s skill led him to create what has become the definitive literary account, as well as codifying literary Italian in the process.

Whilst reading it do look at the linked article reconstructing the horrendous accident which befell Phineas Gage in Vermont in 1848. I came across his story some years ago and it stayed in my memory. That someone  could survive that at all is quite amazing. That subsection can also be seen directly at Meet the man who was shot in the head with an iron rod - and SURVIVED

Pesellino reassessed

As the exhibition celebrating his surviving work at the National Gallery approaches its end next month Pesellino receives another profile in the arts press, this time from Apollo.

The intention of the exhibition was to create a greater awareness of Pesellino as an artist and restore him to his proper place in the history of Florentine art. The article gives a good summary of his life and works, and seeks to makes its positive assessment of his contribution. It can be seen at Pesellino is restored to his rightful place in art history 

Monday 26 February 2024

Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

I have a few years ago linked to a website which has offered facial reconstructions of the Roman Emperors from Augustus through to Constantine the Great. This has now been reissued or revised.

The portraits are based on surviving busts of the Enperors. For the few for whom there are no known surviving sculptures the site includes excellent coinage portraits.

The complete website can be viewed at The Faces of Roman Emperors-Augustus to Constantine

As the comments on it point out some of the more degenerate, depraved or bizarre manage to look amongst the more normal or indeed attractive of this decidedly mixed bunch. As a group they could be candidates for any forthcoming election, or colleagues, or neighbours. With just one portrait it does not allow for aging, although Augustus was never shown to have aged in his images over a very long reign. Some of the others were, by contrast, hardly in power long enough to be commemorated in sculpture.

That said for several of the more well known Augusti the view of later centuries does often reflect the prejudices of those who successfully recorded their lives and reigns, and who thereby determined the judgment of future ages. These are matters which today are legitimate points of discussion amongst historians. That is also true of political leases of later centuries. It is also true that judging leaders on the basis of notions such as “handsome is as handsome does” and “judging a book by its cover” or, indeed, of their inverse, is not usually the best way of assessing character or achievement.

Preserving the patois of Sark

The Daily Telegraph reports on a successful initiative by a Czech academic to record, and thereby preserve, the distinctive Norman French dialect of the island of Sark. This originated with the speech of those who were brought in to the island by the first Seigneur in 1565 and up to at least the eighteenth century English was not spoken. Today however there are only three surviving speakers of the dialect, all of whom are elderly. The hope is that by recording it the tradition can be not only recorded but handed on and maintained by succeeding generations. 

I have read that in Jersey the local language has been in decline since the nineteenth century, and survives in formal rather than ordinary use.

I will add in passing that terming it ‘British’ seems rather odd - it is a French based language, the Channel Isles are not part of the British Isles, are not constitutionally part of Great Britain, and nor is ‘British’ a recognised contemporary language, unlike English. However sub-editors are increasingly a law unto themselves these days.

I could not help but think that the Telegraph reports this but that the paper never, to my knowledge, reported on the wicked campaign to undermine the traditional constitution of Sark by the Barclay brothers when they also owned the Daily Telegraph. Funny that. Unless of course, if you will pardon the pun, you think I am being sarky….