Five Must See Masterpieces at the British Museum
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this week’s post, we are traveling to London to look at five must see masterpieces at the British Museum. Established in 1753, it is one of the most comprehensive collections of human culture in the world. And, with the museum being in the news as of late, I thought it was an appropriate time to discuss the institution.
As mentioned above, the British Museum was founded in 1753. It was actually the first public, national museum in the world! The base collection was formed with over 71,000 items donated by Irish scientist and physician, Sir Hans Sloane. (He was also the inventor of chocolate milk!) The items consisted of books, manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and other items. This donation gave a great head start to the institution that would become the British Museum.
Today, the British Museum houses over eight million objects! They date from the earliest moments of human existence to the present day. Over six million people visit the museum each year, making it the most popular museum in the United Kingdom and the 6th most popular in the world.
However, it is not without its controversy. Many of the items in the British Museum's collection were acquired as a direct result of colonialism. Many nations including Greece, Egypt, China, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Chile, have requested that specific items be given back to their original countries. It has caused a lot of heat in recent years, but so far, no solution has been reached.
No examination of the British Museum would be complete with the Rosetta Stone! This unassuming rock is, arguable, the most important artifact ever discovered in connection with Ancient Egypt. Standing at around 4 feet high, there are three sets of texts inscribed into it. Each set is written in a different language: Greek, Demotic (Egyptian words written with Greek letters), and hieroglyphics. When it was discovered by Napoleon’s expeditionary force in Egypt in 1799, they knew they had stumbled upon something special. Since the 4th century CE, the ability to read hieroglyphic text had been lost to history. So, despite finding thousands of artifacts, nobody was able to read or understand them.
For the next several decades, linguists and historians worked diligently to decode the hieroglyphs. Because ancient Greek was well known, and Demotic was somewhat understood, they were able to work backwards to figure out the meaning of the symbols. Finally, an entire civilization was unlocked.
After Napoleon’s defeat, the Rosetta Stone was given to the British as a part of his surrender. It was then placed in the British Museum’s collection for the public to enjoy. However, in 2003, Egyptian officials called for the return of the stone to the country. They argued that it was a part of their cultural identity. To this day, the stone has not left London, but in 2005, the museum did send a fiberglass replica to Egypt for display.
The Parthenon Sculptures (Elgin Marbles)
The Parthenon is one of the most famous buildings in the world. Not only is it a symbol of Ancient Greece, but it is one of the best surviving monuments dating from the classical period. It was built in the mid 5th century BCE as a temple to the patron goddess of the city of Athens, Athena. The Parthenon sits on the Acropolis, a sacred hill that overlooks the city. It was a representation of the glory of Greece.
These sculptures once decorated the outside of the building: on the frieze, pediments, and metopes. (In layman's terms, this was the top of the temple.) They covered a variety of subjects: myths such as the war between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, a religious procession, the Trojan war, just to name a few. For many art historians, they represented the zenith of Classical Greek art. With their ideal proportions and sense of movement, it’s easy to see why. However, it’s easy to forget that they were once painted in brilliant colors and would have not been the plain white we see today.
Once again, these sculptures are the center of a major controversy. They were taken from Greece to England under less than ideal or legal circumstances. Essentially Lord Elgin (where the name comes from) was the British ambassador to the Turkish court. They ruled over Greece in the early 19th century. He convinced the court to allow him to take the marbles for preservation's sake. A deal was reached and Lord Elgin took the sculptures out of the country. A few years later, he sold them to the British government and this was when they were installed in the British Museum. Since 1832, when Greece gained its independence, they have been attempting to get the sculptures back. In 2014, UNESCO offered to act as mediator. But, obviously, nothing has come of it.
Holy Thorns Reliquary
Around the 1390’s, a beautiful reliquary was commissioned by Jean, the duc du Berry. He was the brother of the King of France, Charles V. He needed a vessel to hold one of the thorns of Jesus’ crown from the Crucifixion. Their ancestor, St. King Louis IX, had brought it back from the Holy Land, and it was one of the priceless treasures of the French monarchy. This reliquary is made of gold, jewels, and enamel and is one of the most beautiful surviving pieces from the Middle Ages.
Standing at about a foot tall and weighing just over three pounds, this reliquary is made up of three different scenes. The bottom shows the Resurrection of the Dead, a common theme in medieval times. In the middle, Mary and St. John the Baptist kneel in front of Christ. Jesus displays the wounds of the Stigmata and this is where the holy thorn rests. (The duke’s personal saint was John the Baptist, so this is most likely why he was included) Finally, at the top, God is surrounded by a circle of the 12 apostles. In total, there are 28 individual carved figures. They are all unique and intricate. This reliquary is an astounding piece of medieval religious art.
Standard of Ur
The Standard of Ur is a mysterious object discovered in southern Iraq in the 19th century. Although it is called a standard, its true use is unknown. This piece was clearly important in ritual use because it was discovered in an area believed to be a royal graveyard. Historians have been able to determine that it was made around 2600 BCE.
Another reason we know this piece is important is because of its materials. The Standard of Ur is decorated with mosaics made of lapis lazuli, red limestone, and shells. These items were costly, so would have only been used by the upper members of society. In addition, the subject indicates a royal origin. One side features a battle, while the other shows the victory feast. The king is the largest, and therefore, the most important figure on both sides of the standard. It is clear that the Standard of Ur, whatever its true purpose was, is an important object from the Ancient Near East.
The Lewis Chessmen are some of the most unique items in the British Museum. They date from the 12th century and were rediscovered in 1831. Someone digging on the Outer Hebrides Island off the coast of Scotland discovered them buried along with a few clothing items, like buckles. Because they were made of walrus ivory and whale teeth (not wood), they were able to survive centuries underground. Due to their lack of wear and tear, most historians believe they were lost by a dealer who came to sell his wares. They also believe that this dealer came from Norway, due to several stylistic choices, especially in the clothing.
To the modern eye, the chessman appears to be slightly comical because of their exaggerated facial expressions. But, in the 12th century, it would have actually been the opposite. These expressions would have been seen as signs of strength. Although today, they appear to be a soft cream color, a few of them bear traces of red paint. This was likely to differentiate the different sets for a game. Today, we use black and white pieces.
These are only 5 of the amazing pieces held at the British Museum. This institution tells the story of humanity from its earliest days until the modern era. However, despite its merits, it's important to remember how these objects came to be housed in the museum and not forget or ignore their original homes.
Sir Hans Sloan. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Rosetta Stone. CC 4.0 Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons
Metope from the Elgin Marbles depicting a Centaur and a Lapith fighting. CC 2.0 Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons
Holy Thorn Reliquary. CC 4.0 Geni Wikimedia Commons
Standard of Ur. CC 2.0 Denis Bourez Wikimedia Commons
Lewis Chessmen. CC 2.0 Andrew Dunn Wikimedia Commons