Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

 

Bargain Sale Patriarch: A Tale of the Sad Decline of Art Collecting

I was surprised to read the news that British investment banker Jonathan Ruffer is to open a new public gallery dedicated to his collection of religious art, focusing on the period known as the Spanish Golden Age of the 17th century.  Ruffer famously purchased the monumental series of paintings known as “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” (c. 1640-1644) by Francisco de Zurbarán a few years ago for the bargain price of £19 million, and then gave them back to the Anglican Church, which had owned them for the last two centuries.  However Mr. Ruffer has been accumulating many other works for his personal collection for years now.  The reason he is able to do so, frankly, is overall rather a sad one for the world of art collecting.

Creating an art collection like the one which will form the nucleus of this new museum in County Durham, focusing on major works from the Counter-Reformation in Spain, is not an easy thing to do.  The majority of the art of this period is now housed in publicly-owned museums, rather than held by individual collectors.  The fact that someone could still, just within the last 20 years, assemble a group of works of the level we’re expected to see in this new, public-but-private museum, is truly remarkable.

The fact that Ruffer chose not to hold on to the Zurbarán paintings, which would have been the star of this new museum, surprised many, but then there are many surprising things about these pictures.  The story of how “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” ended up in England in the first place, for example, is pure speculation. The generally accepted theory is that they were captured as booty by British privateers, stolen on their way to a monastery in the New World from Spain.  They were then brought back to London and auctioned off quayside.

What is known for certain however, and which is rather fascinating, is that at some point the paintings entered the collection of James Mendez, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had come to England as the personal physician of Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II.  As the Mendez family wanted to get along with the Anglican gentry, they discarded what they perceived as more overt aspects of their Jewish culture.  Although these paintings were painted by a Catholic for a Catholic institution, their Jewish subject matter and monumental scale probably seemed too overtly Jewish for a family trying to mingle in English high society at that time, which was often blatantly anti-semitic. Thus they eventually passed into the collection of the Anglican Bishops resident at Auckland Castle.

Today the stigma of being a lover of religious art has spread to become a kind of general malaise throughout the world of art collecting.  When a group of thirteen magnificent, beautifully made religious paintings like these, from one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, sells for around $30 million, while a hideous monstrosity like this sells for $142 million, something is very wrong.  If you wanted proof that our present society prefers ugliness to beauty, not just aesthetically but in everything else, here at least is some compelling evidence advancing that theory.

Of course, the flip side to this downturn in taste is that it is a great time to be a collector with an eye for beauty and meaning, as Mr. Ruffer clearly is.  The paintings and sculptures that are being overlooked, by the pursuers of the new and lacking in nuance or skill, do not fetch as high a price.  So of the saleable stock remaining from the world of Western Civilization before its decline into incontinence, should you have a few million sitting around, there are still some lovely things to be had.

Detail of "Jacob" by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644) Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

Detail of “Jacob” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

 

 

 

Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)