Souvenirs from the brutal assassination of an archbishop, sculptures depicting the fiery pits of Hell, a walrus-tooth chess piece, opulent jewels, and ancient war relics that echo Game of Thrones.
The may possibly of medieval Europe amongst 400 and 1500 is on show in Queensland.
By Monique Ross, photos by Tim Leslie
British Museum curator Naomi Speakman has spent the previous three years pulling with each other treasures that give a glimpse into life for both wealthy and poor throughout the Middle Ages.
The result is Medieval Energy: Symbols and Splendour, which has its world premiere today in Brisbane in a major coup for the Queensland Museum — also the only space in Australia that will display the collection.
Ms Speakman hopes her “labour of really like” shows the Middle Ages were about much more than the plague and superstition.
“The aim is to turn that on its head and show individuals that amazing objects had been made and it was a quite learned and cultured society,” she says, as she shares the inside story behind some of the most fascinating pieces.
“We also aim to show that many elements of modern day Europe have been also founded in the Middle Ages — not only in terms of kingdoms, but cultures, languages and just the way we do items.”
Ms Speakman says the Lewis chess king (above), portion of a set discovered on a Scottish beach in 1831 and dating back to the 12th Century, is the exhibition’s must-see.
“These tiny small chess pieces produced out of walrus ivory and some whale’s teeth embody the whole medieval planet in miniature,” she says.
“This one shows the two factors you had to have to be a great king: to lead your army into battle, but also to administer justice, which is what the throne represents.
“It is quite a violent image – he has the sword on his lap and he is gripping it quite violently, ready to spring out of his throne, draw his sword and defend his individuals.”
The tiny objects above relate to one particular of the most dramatic events of the Middle Ages – the murder of the archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170.
“That was rumoured to be at the hands of King Henry II. He complains at court, some thing like ‘will no-a single rid me of this troublesome priest?’, and four knights kill Becket while he is at prayer,” Ms Speakman says.
“The description is actually bloody – part of his skull is hacked off, brains are scattered across the floor of the cathedral – and it ripples across Europe.
“This cult springs up around Becket to visit his shrine or take home a bit of the brains mixed with water.
“These are tourist tokens and they are quite grisly. You could purchase a miniature version of the murder weapon that literally hacked his head off.”
She says the medieval fascination with death extended into a “genuine worry” about the afterlife and “what takes place to your physique in purgatory exactly where you atone for your sins by burning”.
“This is made of elephant ivory, and in the bottom correct corner we see quite morose-seeking heads crammed into Hell, and this demon crawling out more than the top of it,” Ms Speakman says.
“Near the gates of Hell there is these two small naked figures – nudity represents the soul – which are Adam and Eve getting rescued from purgatory.”
Ms Speakman says a private devotion to prayer and Christ’s suffering “almost became a fetish in the later Middle Ages”.
“Some folks have been obsessed with Christ’s wounds and imagined poking their finger into his wounds – quite grisly items,” she says.
“There was a cult-like obsession with relics, with saints’ bones, touching these bones and going to these sites, and carrying about those pieces with you.”
Most religious objects from the time have hidden meaning, and had been not just made to be beautiful.
“Every thing has a true function and a real power – it really is there to teach you, so it’s got religious iconography,” Ms Speakman says.
“It’s very well made so it shows off the glory of the church, the wealth of the institution.”
Ms Speakman says a “fascinating obsession with death and relics” meant men and women spent a “loads of income” on their funerals, usually planned nicely in advance of their deaths.
“He’s called a weeper,” Ms Speakman says of the object above.
“He’s 1 of what would have been a group around the base of a tomb. They are permanent stone mourners, so you’ve got individuals mourning at your funeral forever.
“He’s quite emotional, his forehead’s folded and he’s clutching his hand to his breast and he’s pointing up to remind folks to pray for the physique inside.
“It was a way of encouraging people to remember to pray, and that would speed your soul via purgatory.”
Knights featured dominantly in the medieval program, and oversized helmets on show allow guests to come face-to-face with soldiers of the previous.
“The knight is an critical warrior, a man of arms and a expert soldier. But also in the Middle Ages, he almost becomes an allegorical embodiment of the best man – the chivalric excellent, like Lancelot for instance,” Ms Speakman says.
The exhibition also functions leather helmet wings that “had been used to show off, so you could be spotted if you have been in a tournament or melee”.
“When you look closely at this drawing of a mock battle, you will see they are wearing virtually ridiculous factors as helmet wings – a tree, a griffin, half a lady, a sprouting acorn tree, clockwork, scales – this is the entertaining side of being a knight,” Ms Speakman says.
For the duration of the 15th Century in England the Wars of the Roses erupted — what Ms Speakman describes as a “actually violent and turbulent time, and really a unsafe time to be alive”.
“These five badges are effectively emblems which relate to the coats of arms of a specific knight or lord,” she says.
Ms Speakman says the badges had been an straightforward way to display your allegiance, but “you could also take it off extremely swiftly if you came face-to-face with your enemy to defend your self”.
“This is type of where there is a connection with Game of Thrones – like the direwolf for the Starks, that animal almost becomes a personality of the loved ones, and we have that here as effectively,” she says.
“So the dog is for the Talbot family, and his collar has a small T and an A on it as properly.”
Not every thing in the show relates to war and death. One particular of Ms Speakman’s favourite pieces is the Wingham Brooch, which was found in a grave in Kent and dates amongst 575 and 625 AD.
“It’s so vibrant – it really is gilded silver, so it is valuable metal, and these vibrant red slivers of garnet just bring it to life, along with the blue glass and the shell,” she says.
“So you have this entire complex matrix of various material that would have come from different places and shows just how wealthy and nicely connected this kingdom was.”
The wealth and glory of the church was also shown off in opulent stone buildings which “showed God’s authority on Earth”.
“Visiting these sorts of buildings as a medieval person would have been such an overwhelming expertise. Most folks have been extremely poor and lived and worked on the land, and then you come into this developing which is gigantic and filled with candles and stained glass,” she says.
“These stone sculptures (above) give folks an thought of how they would have been decorated.”
The pavement under, from an abbey in England, shows how spirituality and myth were often intertwined.
Ms Speakman highlights objects from every day life at various points of the class scale.
One is a seal matrix, a “metal device that you press into wax, and use as your signature”.
“If a ruler died you would destroy their seal matrix as quickly as you can, otherwise documents could be validated on their behalf,” she says.
“In this, Henry VI has depicted himself as a strong, excellent knight – the horse is actually springing out into battle.
“Even so, he was truly a pretty rubbish military leader.”
She also draws attention to a crystal baton – which may by no means have been displayed ahead of.
“It is got gothic spires with seed pearls and this rod of rock crystal in the middle,” she says.
“In the Middle Ages it was thought that rock crystal was congealed water, or fossilised water, and it was thought to have the symbolic roles of getting extremely pure but also distorting the truth, simply because it could distort if you looked via it.
“This is the sort of baton that was carried by an ambassador to show who you are, in the same way a king would carry a sceptre. It really is such an opulent object, it is produced to truly show off.”
Ms Speakman says while many medieval objects have hidden symbols and meanings, some — like this nutcracker — speak for themselves.
“Just by means of the agency of moving, this functional object totally comes alive,” she says.
“When you open and close it, the beast’s mouth would crack the nut, the dog catches the bird and the man and the woman would kiss.”
One more fun item in the collection is a brooch which offers insights into early concepts of romance. It has inscriptions on both front and back.
“The inscription that men and women would see says “I am a brooch to guard the breast”, which is fairly good,” Ms Speakman says.
“And then on the other side, that no-1 would have observed, it says “that no rascal may possibly place his hand thereon”. So it really is practically saying ‘back off, she’s mine’.”
She winds down the tour by reflecting on an “insane” occasion that would never happen now – a plaster cast produced of the popular Bayeux Tapestry.
“This cast offers us an concept that it was actually in the 18th and 19th Centuries when folks started to get interested in medieval history once again,” she says.
“This is insane that this man, Charles Stothard, was permitted to plaster cast such an important textile – you’d never ever be capable to do it these days, and it’s incredible that it didn’t ruin it.”
Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour opens today at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane and runs till April 10, 2016.
Subjects: library-museum-and-gallery, arts-and-entertainment, art-history, history, brisbane-4000, qld, australia