Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Wives of Akhenaten

Due in no small part to his infamous attempts to change the state religion requiring the worship of numerous deities to that of just one, the sun, Akhenaten has become one of the most celebrated and famous of all the pharaohs.  This infamy has been compounded by the discovery in the twentieth century of the tomb of one of his heirs, the so-called “boy King” Tutankhamun, and the wonderful treasures that were found therein.  Numerous sculptures and monuments, some intact and many damaged or defaced are testament to his reign.  Alongside the death mask of Tutankhamun, and the bust of Nefertiti; the image of Akhenaten accompanied by his wife, Nefertiti, and their daughters under the life-giving rays of the sun remains one of the most popular and frequently replicated images from Ancient Egypt, being painted unto modern day papyrus and sold to numerous tourists and visitors to Egypt each and every year.

Despite the immediately recognisable bust of Nefertiti, in fact housed many miles from Egypt in Berlin, and the likeness of Akhenaten as described above; events surrounding his life and of his immediate family remain vague and obscure. Much of what is understood from that shadowy period in the fourteenth century B.C. still remains highly speculative and open to interpretation and guesswork.  As discussed in the previous article “The Heirs of Akhenaten”; considerable questions are raised by scholars as to the order of succession following the death of Akhenaten, and to their identities and familial relationship to Akhenaten himself.  Many of the details of the reign of Akhenaten are, to paraphrase the words of Winston Churchill “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Although his reforms were a fraught endeavour to change the infrastructure of religious life in Egypt, Akhenaten still adhered to the traditions set by his predecessors concerning the pharaonic practice of polygamy, so as to continue his dynasty and provide heirs to the throne.  Polygamy was frequent among the pharaohs; however it was not practiced by the general Egyptian populous at large.  Furthermore, the King would frequently be married one of his sisters, following the divine traditions set by the gods, who since Creation had married their siblings thus following a divine precedent as well as keeping the royal blood pure.  Of all the King’s wives, the favourite was named the “Chief Royal Wife”, rather than “queen” (the Egyptians had no such term in their language), and all other the other royal brides were given the status of concubine, or as secondary wives.  Within the context of this article, the terms “queen” and “lady” shall be used, although not Egyptian terms, convey the status and bearing of the woman afforded such a title.
The famous bust of Nefertiti, housed in Berlin

In the role of Chief Royal wife was Nefertiti, arguably one of the most famous of all of Egypt’s queens, alongside Hatshepsut [the female pharaoh], and Cleopatra.  It was only in the late early twentieth century that Nefertiti achieved the recognition she deserved, as for many centuries her name was not known, with very little discovered  or written prior to excavations at Akhetaten [modern day Amarna], an abandoned, ruined city located some 400 kilometres north of Thebes.   In the late nineteenth century, a certain mystique was attached to Nefertiti’s mother-in-law, Tiye.  Tiye had been the consort and chief Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, seemingly a strong powerful woman, when one reads inscriptions dedicated to her, and from surviving likenesses.   It has been suggested that Tiye might have been instrumental in the religious reforms and changes carried out by her son.  However this temporary “fame” enjoyed by Tiye was soon enough superseded by that of Nefertiti.
Together with the infamous reforms brought into being by her husband, Nefertiti has achieved worldwide recognition from an elaborate, colourful limestone bust discovered in the workshop of Thutmose at Armana in 1912 by the German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt.  The bust had been left on a shelf which had collapsed in antiquity, found with various likenesses of other members of the Royal Family.  It is of such beauty that it has been paralleled with that of the golden death mask of Tutankhamun in terms of Egyptian sculpture.  Measuring 47 centimetres in height and weighing nearly 20 kilograms, it has been fashioned from limestone but covered with painted stucco layers.  Facially, it is almost perfectly symmetrical; however one of the eyes is absent, apparently never having been affixed to the empty socket.  Nefertiti is depicted wearing a multi-coloured floral collar, and a cap-crown and diadem that appears in the many reliefs of Nefertiti in and around Armana.  Despite its aesthetically pleasing and contemporary beauty, the work appears to have never been intended for public display nor devotional purposes, but as a presumed, lifelike model for the creation of official portraits of the queen.  

Nefertiti, whose name means “The beautiful [one] has come” was bestowed with many titles including Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Hereditary Princess, Sweet of Love and Great of Praises.  Her parentage and origins remain unknown, although it has been suggested that she was the daughter of Tutankhamun’s vizier and successor, Ay, brother of Tiye.  Ay’s wife, Tey, is believed to have been nursemaid or wet nurse to the infant Nefertiti.  However, the identity of her mother remains unknown.  She is believed to have had a younger sister, Mutbenret (previously thought to read as Mutnejmet), who is depicted on various works of art in the Amarna complex, and was later to marry the general, Horemheb. 

As the chief royal wife, Nefertiti played a highly important and significant role during the reign of her husband.  The dowager queen, Tiye, had revolutionised how queens were seen and portrayed in Egyptian art, being seen on an equal standing and level to her husband, the King.  A number of surviving portraits show Tiye as being of an equal height and level to her husband, and not as that of a subservient spouse, a typical, traditional portrayal.  This was to continue with Nefertiti; in fact, her might and power was accentuated.  Likenesses exist of Nefertiti with her husband in praise of the solar disc alongside her husband, but also in various scenes of the “Window of Appearance”, awarding courtiers for their services by bestowing them with collars.  As well as accompanying her husband in such scenes of worship, there are scenes of great candour and affection between the Pharaoh, his wife, and their children, showing scenes of kissing, or playful affection between the daughters and their parents.  Equally there exists a scene showing sadness and mourning within the family group, most memorably of the death and mourning by the family of one of the royal princesses, Meketaten.  Finally there are likenesses of Nefertiti on her own, wearing a King’s crown and smiting enemies and captives, a role previously exclusively reserved for the King. 
A relief showing Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and two of their daughters.
In the wake of his reforms, Akhenten and Nefertiti moved from the long established royal capital and religious centre of Thebes to the newly build city of Akhetaten.  Akhenaten had by then changed his name from Amenhotep, and Nefertiti adopted the epithet of Neferneferuaten, and is thereafter referred to as Neferneferuaten Nefertiti.  Her name now meant “The Most Beautiful One of the Aten – The beautiful [one] has come.”   During her marriage to Akhenaten, she was to deliver at least six daughters who survived infancy: Meritaten [“She who is beloved of Aten”], Meketaten [“Behold the Aten”], Ankhesenpaaten [“Living for Aten”], Neferneferuaten [“The Most Beautiful One of the Aten”] Tasherit [meaning “the Younger”], Neferneferure [“The Most Beautiful One of Ra”] and Setepenre [“Chosen of Ra”]. 

The fate of Nefertiti remains unknown.  Her name disappears from the stage after year 13-14 of Akhenaten’s reign, however some scholars have proposed that this disappearance is due to Nefertiti having been named as Akhenaten’s co-regent.  Previously, it was thought that she had fell into disgrace, and her name was removed from monuments, however this theory has been dismissed.  Another theory is that she died, possibly from a plague that was sweeping Egypt at the time, and may have carried off some of her daughters at the same time.  To date, no tomb nor body of the queen has been found.  As discussed previously, suggestions have been made proposing Nefertiti assumed the throne or at least acted as a co-regent, under the name of Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten.

In 2003, it was suggested by a British archaeologist, Joann Fletcher from the University of York, identifying one of the bodies, that of the Younger Lady, as being that of Nefertiti.  Recent DNA testing and research has shown the body to be that of the mother of Tutankhamun, and daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye.  It was also been proposed that the body found resting alongside that of the Younger Lady, named the “Elder Lady” was that of Nefertiti.  Again, through DNA testing of this body and coupled with a lock of hair found in the tomb of Tutankhamun; together with analysis of the teeth, show this to be the body of an older woman, and daughter of the courtiers Yuya and Tjuju, therefore confirming its identity as being that of Tiye.

A suggestion has been made proposing that Nefertiti was in fact a princess of Mitanni, located to the northeast of Egypt in modern day Northern Syria, with the name of Tadukhipa.  Alliances had been formed between the two nations inasmuch as Amenhotep III had taken the sister of Tusharatta, King of Mitanni, Gilukhipa, as a secondary royal wife.  Tushtatta later sent his own daughter, Tadukhipa, as another wife for Amenhotep, laden with gifts of gold, cloth and precious stones.  Correspondence survives from the Amarna letters relating to this proposed marriage, however it appears that the elderly Amonophis died soon after the arrival of the princess.  From other letters, it is stated that she later married his son and heir, Akhenaten.  The attribution of Tadukhipa being Nefertiti arises from the translation of Nefertiti’s name, suggesting that she was of foreign origin.  This suggestion however doesn’t take into account if Tey was indeed Nefertiti’s nurse, as a mature princess would have no need of one.  Furthermore, if the marriage took place soon after Akhenaten ascended the throne, it doesn’t tie in with the believed sequence of events such as the birth of the first royal child, Merititan.   If not Nefertiti then, Tadukhipa’s identity has also been linked with possibly being another, significant wife of Akhenaten; the Lady Kiya.
Where information on Nefertiti, despite the relative proliferation of objects and artwork, is scant, even less survives on Kiya.  Her existence was unknown to Egyptologists until 1959.  The name “Kiya” in and of itself is unusual, appearing to have been a pet name rather than a full name.  The name contains no religious overtones or veneration towards a particular god or goddess, and simply means “monkey”.   However, it could be an abbreviation or contraction of a foreign sounding name. 

A likeness of the Lady Kiya, possibly engaged in a purifying ritual.

Whether of foreign extraction or not, Kiya certainly seems to have enjoyed a unique status whilst queen at the court of Akhenaten.  She was evidently not of royal Egyptian birth as nowhere in her titles is she named as “Heiress”, or “daughter of the God”, all of which were epithets for the daughter of a pharaoh.  Nonetheless,  Kiya was bestowed a title which no other royal wife, before or after, was afforded .  This title was as “the greatly beloved”, also affectionately referred to as “the Favourite.”   Her full titles are given as: “The wife and greatly beloved of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Living in Truth, Lord of the Two Lands, Neferkheperure Waenre [i.e. Akhenaten], the Goodly Child of the Living Aten, who shall be living for ever and ever, Kiya.”   All that survives in relation to the enigmatic Lady Kiya comes from the anonymous tomb KV55, or from Amarna itself. 
Kiya’s existence first came to archaeologists when her name and titles were noted on an unguent jar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, previously bought by the Museum in 1929 from Howard Carter.  The container itself was without provenance.   After this identification, further “discoveries” relating to Kiya’s existence were discovered, despite that certain cases her name had been removed and had been re-inscribed with the names of others, most notably the two eldest surviving daughters of Akhenaten viz. Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten.   Kiya herself does not appear until soon after the Royal Family and entourage moved from Thebes to the newly constructed capital of Akhetaten.  This is believed to have taken place sometime after Year 5 of the pharaoh’s reign.

It is only at Amarna where her likeness appears and her attribution as the “greatly beloved" is to be found.  Sunshades were built to the south of the city, with at least one of them carrying the likeness, name and titles of Kiya.  These sunshades were similar to adjoining chapels to the temples, and there is one, the Maru-Aten, which bears the name of Kiya.  Furthermore, she is listed as having sired another daughter, whose name, sadly, has been lost.  She was also previously thought to have been the mother of Tutankamun, for which she received the honorary title of being the “Greatly beloved” however recent DNA evidence has shown this is not the case.  The mother of Tutankhamun was a daughter of Amenhotep  and Tiye, and being of royal blood, one would expect to find references to Kiya as the “God’s daughter”, and this is nowhere to be found.  In addition, the name “Kiya”, an affectionate pet name or not, would not be one which was suitable for a royal Egyptian princess.
Much like Nefertiti, the Lady Kiya disappears from the record during the final six years of her husband’s reign.  A number of theories abound as to the reasoning behind this.  One, as suggested is that she shared a similar fate to Nefertiti in that a plague swept across Egypt and was responsible for the death of numerous members of the royal household.  This is not beyond the realms of possibility as plagues were rife and prevalent in the ancient world.  However, a theory has been proposed suggesting the reason for Kiya’s disappearance was due to something far more sinister. 

One theory has been proposed that there was a considerable rivalry between the two royal wives: Nefertiti and Kiya.  Nefertiti, as Great Royal Wife became jealous of Kiya, who had risen from merely being a secondary wife to that of the King’s favourite, his “greatly beloved” – titles which had never been used before and were never to be used again for a royal bride.  It has been suggested by Nicholas Reeves that perhaps the jealous Nefertiti orchestrated a coup and this resulted in Kiya being “denounced” and sent into exile.  An alternative theory proposed by Marc Gabolde is that relations between Egypt and Mitanni became so strained, and that if Kiya were indeed Tushratta’s daughter, Tadukhipa, she was returned home to her father.    
A damaged fragment showing Kiya, affectionately kissing her daughter.

It seems that Kiya somehow incurred disfavour, so much so that her name was removed and in certain cases the likeness altered.  Kiya is often portrayed as an attractive young woman, pretty rather than stately like the noble Nefertiti.  She is also shown to be wearing large earrings and a Nubian wig; a short cropped wig which became fashionable amongst men and women during the 18th dynasty.  A plaster study of a nameless young woman in large earrings, found at the studio of Tuthmose, and on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has generally been thought to be her likeness.  However the most intriguing story which could to the fate of Kiya comes from a mythological tale told some years later “The Tale of Two Brothers”; in a papyrus dating from approximately 150-200 years after the death of Akhenaten, and the subsequent damnatio memoriae of the Amarnan pharaohs  instigated by Horemheb.
The story tells of two brothers, Anpu and Bata.  The two brothers live together, farming the land, together with Anpu’s wife.  Anpu’s wife attempts to seduce her brother in law, however he rebukes her advances.  After Bata spurns her spurns her advances, his angry sister in law feigns sexual assault.   In anger, Anpu plans to kill his brother; however the gods intervene and warn Bata of his brother’s intentions, having believed his wife’s lies.  Bata flees with his brother pursuing him with a knife.  Bata prays, and a river of crocodiles is created dividing the brothers, and Bata swears his innocence, cutting his flesh and makes himself bleed.  Anpu then realises the truth and returns home, full of grief, and kills his adulterous wife, feeding her body to the dogs.  Before the brothers part, Bata tells his brother that he will place his heart in an acacia tree.  He advises Anpu that should he, Bata, ever be danger, that the beer in Anpu’s hand will foam.  If this happens Anpu will need to find his brother’s heart and place it in water, reviving him.

Bata then makes his way to the Valley of the Acacia, where he settles.  One day, the gods happen upon Bata, and seeing his loneliness, Re-Horakhti fashions a beautiful woman for Bata to be his wife.  The seven Hathors determine the woman’s fate is to die by the executioner’s knife.   Despite the love and loyalty of her husband, the young woman becomes bored, and against her husband’s wishes, she leaves their home.  The sea, besotted by the beauty of Bata’s wife endeavours to rape the girl, and calls upon an acacia tree to seize her by the hair for him.  However, the acacia doesn’t manage to hold the woman in its grasp, and only manages to grab a lock of her hair.  The hair is carried by the sea to Egypt, where it is washed up and perfumes the water where the Pharaoh’s launderers are cleaning the royal linen.  The linen, imbued with the divine scent from the hair, arouses the pharaoh’s interest, and realising the divine origin of the hair (as being the daughter of the god Re-Horakhti), sends envoys to locate the owner of the lock of hair.  The envoys, upon arrival in the Valley of Acacia, in a foreign land, discover the identity of the woman with the sweet scented hair. Bearing treasures and gifts from the pharaoh, the woman agrees to leave, instructing them to cut down the tree where her husband, Bata, had previously hidden his heart.  She then returns with the envoys to Egypt, where the pharaoh adorns her with jewels, and marries her, making her his greatly beloved wife.

Upon the cutting down of the tree, Bata falls to the ground, dead.  At that exact point the beer which Anpu is holding foams in his hand, and he leaves for the valley where his brother resided.  Upon discovering the body of his brother, for nearly four years he searches through the acacia leaves to find his brother’s heart.  It is not until the final day of the third year, and on the verge of giving up, does Anpu find his brothers heart.  Following his brother’s wishes he places his heart in water and revives his brother from the dead.  Bata, taKing the form of a prize bull, tells his brother to take him to Egypt where he will attempt to regain his wife.  Upon arrival in Egypt, the bull attracts much attention and is sold to the pharaoh.  Whilst in the pharaoh’s palace, Bata makes himself known to his cuckolding wife, who, in fear asks that the bull be sacrificed. Although this request upsets the pharaoh, he reluctantly agrees.  Bata then takes on other forms to remind his former wife of her misconduct, each of which she endeavours to destroy to protect her secret.  In his final transformation, he is transformed into a persea tree, which the queen orders to be cut down.  Whilt the tree is being cut down, she swallows a splinter. She then becomes pregnant bearing the pharaoh a son, a final incarnation of Bata.
A sheet from the Papyrus D'Orbiney, British Museum telling
the "Tale of the Two Brothers."
There is a lacuna in the text detailing the conclusion of the of the story, however the most popularly proposed ending for the story is that the son, an incarnation of Bata, grows up and exposes his mother for her action and exposes her actions to the court.  She is then taken away to be executed and thereafter he sends for his brother, Anpu, and together they rule Egypt. 

The suggestion has been made that Kiya was the personality (or the inspiration thereof) behind the cheating, beautiful woman in this tale.  This suggestion has arisen from the title which the wife of Bata is bestowed by the pharaoh; that of the “greatly beloved wife”, a title unique to Kiya.   Like most ancient civilisations, the Egyptians possessed an excellent oral tradition for telling tales and fables, as well as myths of the gods, in the absence of widespread literacy and written material. Given that this was written down less than two centuries afterwards, it is indeed possible that through recollection and association that there is an allegorical retelling of the eventual fate of Akhenaten’s “greatly beloved wife.”

Kiya can always be differentiated from Nefertiti, not just in inscriptions and titles, but also in appearance.  Despite her unique title, this served no religious function to the King, she is never shown wearing a crown, a diadem, nor a uraeus, all of which were emblematic of queenship, and all of which are at various junctures portrayed on the likenesses of Nefertiti.  Equally relevant is that her name is never seen contained within a royal cartouche.  She also appears with only one daughter, unlike Nefertiti who is seen with as many as six.  However there appears to be a fragmentary inscription of Kiya with Akhenaten and their daughter, notable for the absence of Nefertiti.  In addition there are fragments of Kiya’s likeness (determined in part by her large earrings and an absence of Nefertiti’s usual regalia, receiving the life giving rays of the sun, the ankh beneath her nostrils.  This bestowing of life from the Aten was exclusive to likenesses of the Royal Family which shows the elevated status that she was afforded, most likely in the absence of the Great Royal Wife.

Whatever became of Kiya, she left behind some impressive and beautiful funerary equipment, which possibly were never actually used by their intended owner.  These objects were found by Theodore Davis in the enigmatic tomb KV55, which was previously ascribed, incorrectly, as being that of Queen Tiye.  The mummy that was found in the tomb has been identified as being the father of Tutankhamun, however his identity remains obscure and indeterminate, with some scholars suggesting Akhenaten himself, and others the shadowy Smenkhkare.  The coffin is the most telling piece of evidence, and of fine, elaborate and expensive workmanship.  The shape and style of the coffin betray that it was originally intended for a woman, as the coffins with a designated male owner would have the protective wings of the goddess wrapped around them, whereas the coffins for women did not.  Furthermore, the footboard of the coffin is inscribed with an Atenist prayer, although “spoken” by a man (its occupant), there are plentiful grammatical errors to suggest that the prayer was originally intended to be “spoken” by a woman.   This coffin is of equally fine workmanship to a similar coffin found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, again also quite probably usurped and intended for a woman, demonstrating the respect in which its original owner was held.  All cartouches have been carefully excised from the coffin, and face torn off in antiquity, making the identity nearly impossible to ascertain. Additionally the wig is of an atypical style and design, and is mirrored in style on the four canopic jars, also found in the tomb.  It has been suggested that the wig design is more feminine in style, lending a further probability that the coffin’s original intended occupant was Kiya.

Suggestions have made that Akhenaten married two of his daughters in an attempt to keep the royal blood pure.  These daughters were Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten (who later was to marry Tutankhamun).  Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep had ceremonially married his own daughter, Sitamun, and however distasteful this idea might sound to a modern audience the marriage was purely of ceremonial nature.  However, it appears that Akhenaten took his presumed marriages to his young daughters one step further, and some scholars have proposed that Akhenaten and his daughters were responsible for having sired two further daughters named Meritaten Tasherit and Ankhesenpaaten Tasherit respectively.

Finally, a suggestion has been made that Akhenaten married one of his sisters, and the fruit of their union was the birth of Tutankhamun.  Certainly the recent DNA findings have suggested that Tutankhamun was born of a brother-sister union, and that they were the children of Amenhotep III and of Tiye.  However his parentage is still subject to much debate and discussion, as the DNA found in the two foetuses buried alongside Tutankhamun are not aligned with the remains of a mummy believed to be that of Ankhesenamun, who was Akhenaten’s daughter.  If Akhenaten also were to have married one of his sisters, it seems unusual that she was not promoted to the status of Chief Royal Wife, over and above Nefertiti, and there is no mention anywhere of another wife of Akhenaten, and certainly not one of the importance and rank of being a god’s daughter, which she would have been.  Also the chronology of events does not follow through as Tutankhamun was born between years 8 and 11 of Akhenaten, and his mother died, probably murdered, when she was in her mid to late twenties.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Pistis Sophia, or "The Books of the Saviour": A brief overview

"It came to pass, when Jesus had risen from the dead, that he passed eleven years discoursing with his disciples, and instructing them only up to the regions of the First Commandment and up to the regions of the First Mystery, that within the Veil, within the First Commandment, which is the four-an-twentieth mystery without and below, those [four and twenty] which are in the second space of the first mystery which is before all mysteries, --the Father in the form of a dove.

And Jesus said to his disciples: “I am come forth out of that First Mystery, which is the last mystery, that is the four-and-twentieth mystery.” And his disciples have not known nor understood that anything existeth within that mystery, but they thought of that mystery, that is the head of the universe and the head of all existence, and they thought it is the completion of all completions, because Jesus had said to them concerning that mystery, that it surroundeth the First Commandment and the five Impressions and the great Light and the five Helpers and the whole Treasury of Light."
[Pistis Sophia: Book I]
Prior to the location of the thirteen codices of Gnostic teachings and gospels at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, the Pistis Sophia was seen as a highly significant and important Gnostic text.  The date of composition remains unknown, however it has been suggested by some scholars to have been written as early as the canonical gospels, as well a significant number of the extant apocryphal gospels.  This uncertainty in ascertaining a date is due to the lateness of the surviving copies of the work; the longest and most complete, and elaborate version is located within the Askew Codex, housed in the British Library, London, a bound volume dating from the fifth or sixth century.  Owing to this late date of completion attributed to the source material, there exists the possibility that the composition of the actual works might date from the third or fourth century.  Some early scholars proposed a date as late as the tenth century, however this hypothesis has been largely discredited and dismissed.
Pistis Sophia [Greek: Πίστις Σοφία], as a title, is both vague and obscure, not to mention inaccurate for the compilation of works as a whole.  The words "Pistis Sophia" themselves can be translated literally as meaning “Faith wisdom”, or more crudely as “faith in wisdom”, or “wisdom in faith”.  However, a more accurate translation requires the reader to take into account that "Sophia" was seen as an anthropomorphic  entity, yet divine, percieved to much much like Jesus Christ, to the Gnostic audience for which it was most probably intended.   A suggestion has been made that this pairing of the Saviour and Sophia is a reflection of the relationship that Jesus Christ entertained between himself and Mary Magdalene, notable herein by her presence amongst the disciples.  The Magdalene plays a significant role in the teachings of the Gnostics, unlike her relatively marginal role in the canonical gospels. However the relationship between Jesus and Mary is markedly different from that suggested in the Gospel of Philip, which implies an union of a more marital and sexual nature; whereas it is of a deeper, and more spiritual nature. in the Pistis Sophia.  Sophia was seen as being part of a divine syzygy [literally: a “yoking in”] with Jesus as her divine consort in form of τέλειος [or “Perfect”].  Sophia and Jesus are portrayed as one of the pairs of twenty four aeons, embodying the various emanations of God.  Dependent upon the teacher of the specific strand of Gnosticism, these emanations are given different names and attributes, however this theory of the differing emanations of God is a recurrent and consistent theme to all differing forms of the Gnostic teaching.  One of the most prevalent and wide spread forms of Gnosticism was that of Valentinus, who devised a system of male and female pairings called syzygies [Greek: συζυγίαι].
The Nag Hammadi codices, discovered in 1945.

Valentinus is amongst the most prolific of the Gnostic theologians, alongside the likes of Marcion, Basilides, and Cerdo; all of whom were later condemned as being heretics by the Early Church fathers for their alleged heterodox teachings of Christianity.  Valentinus lived in the second century A.D. from c. 100 to c. 165/75, and was either Egyptian or Carthaginian by birth.  According to a biased biography, he was educated in the thriving cosmopolitan metropolis of Alexandria, an important centre of early Christian, as well as Judaic and pagan ideas; a centre of learning that exercised a significant level of tolerance in the Roman world.  It was at Alexandria, that he was educated by a certain Theudas, allegedly a disciple of St. Paul of Tarsus.  He was once considered as a contender to be a possible bishop in c. 136, however upon the appointment of another individual, he founded his own school of thought in Rome.  None of Valentinus’ numerous teachings and writings survive, however owing to the his ideology being widespread across the empire and subsequently refuted and dismissed by various opponents [G.R.S. Mead was to use the word “foes”] of Gnostic teachings, that a sketch can be constructed of some of his teachings and theology.  Despite being deemed unorthodox and heretical by the Early Church fathers, Valentinian teachings were still highly popular; even breaking off into different strands.  His beliefs included the suggestion that the human race was divided into three different kinds of person.  There were those who followed his teachings were in receipt of gnosis [knowledge] and thereby allowing them to achieve salvation; other Christians who had received enlightenment through “gnosis” would receive a lesser form of salvation; and all others, Jew and pagan alike, were doomed and to remain forever lost.  Various recurrent themes and motifs of Valentinian teaching found in other works, indeed are evident in a significant number of the texts found at Nag Hammadi.  Scholars have suggested that some of the treatises and gospels within this collection of previously lost works might even have been written by him, or certainly his immediate circle.  After his departure from Rome, it is rumored that he went to Cyprus to continue his teachings there, where he died.  Despite the condemnation of his opponents, Valentinus appears to have been a highly respected, charismatic religious leader during his lifetime, all condemnations of being a heretic were made posthumously.   
Based upon the opinions contained in the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, in his work “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis; in reference to Valentinus’ teaching on gnosis, Irenaeus states that: “Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible...” 
Of the five surviving copies of the Pistis Sophia, the Askew Codex contains extracts from other nameless books as well.  The entire volume is referred to by Mead as being “The Books of the Saviour”, correctly feeling that the term "Pistis Sophia" was an inappropriate terminology for the complete corpus of work therein.   The book itself was discovered in Egypt in 1733 by Dr. Anthony Askew, and was purchased by the British Museum in 1795 for £10.  Askew, a physician at St. Bartholomew’s and Christ’s hospital in London,  was an avid bibliophile and classical scholar; and was responsible for assembling an extensive collection of scarce editions and unusual manuscripts during his lifetime.  It is unknown where in Egypt this codex was acquired, and the actual provenance of the codex itself cannot be determined. 

This codex was to form an significant part of a relatively small corpus of work, with two other codices [the "Bruce Codex", and the "Berlin Codex"] as primary sources in terms of Gnostic literature prior to the mid twentieth century.  Most all other sources were secondhand and highly condemning in nature of Gnostic thought and teaching.  These polemic writings presented an extraordinarily adverse portrait of the Gnostics, their teachers, and their works, and dismissing them as absurd, perverse, and deviants, straying from the proto-orthodox school of Christianity encouraged by the teachings and writings of Clement of Alexandria, of Tertullian, and of Irenaeus.
Made of parchment, the codex contains 178 leaves [356 pages], measuring 8¾ inches x 6½ inches, and comprises of 23 quires, and is largely intact, in a state of excellent preservation, and with only 8 pages appearing to be missing from the text as a whole.  The book has been transcribed by two different scribes in very distinguishably different handwriting; one carefully and precisely, the other shakily and somewhat clumsily.  The two scribes seemed to have worked contemporarily; the transcription work appears to have been evenly divided between the two of them, although there are different methods of pagination, inks, correction, etc being employed by each of the two transcribers.  The words run together and are not divided into sections, chapters, nor paragraphs, and is divided into two columns per page.

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A 12th century representation of the Transfiguration.

The book itself has lost its title in antiquity, and appears to be occasionally have other been interpolated with other texts or sections from other texts during the course of the its transcription, some of which are written in another, later hand.  From time to time during the narrative, drastic changes in theme occur throughout the course of the text, with an abrupt tangental change in subject matter.  Calling the entire work, the Pistis Sophia, is in fact a misnomer, as Mead himself concedes.  The titling of the work comes from an inscription located midway through the second book,  inscribed by the second, less careful scribe.  Mead himself preferred to name the work as being the “Books of the Saviour” or more specifically “a portion.”  Mead furthermore suggests that the work is in fact a miscellany of works rather one single consistent work.  Lacunae do occur within the work, the most apparent being one of eight pages in length at the end of the end of the fifth book, ending abruptly with the disciples weeping uncontrollably.

Written in Sahidic Coptic, the dialect of Upper Egypt, and, as stated previously, probably transcribed during the fifth or sixth century, the codex would appear to be a copy of an earlier text.  In addition, the work also appears to be in translation, therefore not the original language in which the work was originally composed and written.  There exists a likely possibility that it was originally written in either Syriac, or most likely Greek, owing to a large number of Greek words, from names to verbs, and even conjugations, which have been left un-translated throughout the course of the codex.  The work was first translated into English by the Theosophist, G.R.S. Mead.

Christ Pantocrator, a mosaic from Hagia Sophia.

The Pistis Sophia recounts the teachings of Jesus following his Transfiguration whereby he remained on earth for a further eleven years subsequent to his resurrection.  His apostles are gathered together with his mother Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene.  The work is presented in a form of dialogues between Jesus and his disciples, mirroring a dialogue between the Divine Redeemer [Jesus] and the lost soul, sunk in sin and trapped in a material world [the disciples].  Through this dialogue, Pistis Sophia, a feminine entity cries for succour and release from her spiritual poverty, and her supplications are responded to by the Saviour.  Her fall is explained through her having attained the knowledge and wisdom of sin, from an existence removed from the divine and within the world of matter, created by a materialist god, named by the Gnostics the “Demiurge.”  Again this idea of a soul in torment, and a condemned material world of matter created by a foolish, lesser god are recurrent themes throughout Gnostic theology.  The teachings of Jesus through his dialogues following his resurrection are to explain how the soul might find salvation.  The text itself is full of metaphors and ideology that will seem alien to the contemporary reader or audience rather than that for whom which it was originally conducted.  Even taken together with existing knowledge of Gnosticism which still remains limited, and with more extensive knowledge and source material since the various discoveries made in the twentieth century, the tome continues to be a complicated and confusing theological work.

Also contained are elements which are atypical of other Gnostic documents and works inasmuch as elements of Greek magic are found therein which appear jarring to the spiritual nature of the rest of the work.  In addition the work appears to have been another “secret” gospel, much like other extant Gnostic works.  the feminine plays an important role, from that of the Magdalene to the personification of Sophia.  Indeed some of the early Gnostics worshiped the Holy Spirit in a female form, staggered at the beliefs and suggestions that Holy Spirit was being seen by some as being male.  Secrecy and mysticism was prevalent thoughout gnosticism, which ranged from the "hidden words" of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, to the apparant rites of initiation to mysteries  found in Askew codex.  By contrast, the Gospels in the Canon proclaim a universal message of Christianity, whereas the so-called Gnostic Gospels, truly apocryphal in nature, of which the Pistis Sophia and other works certainly can be included amongst, are seen to contain hidden messages to their readers and initiates.  These messages are more in line with the mystery schools of the time than what is seen as current, orthodox Christianity, with its followers striving towards the plemora.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sir Henry and Lady Mary Guildford: The Drawings and Portraits by Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein was, without doubt, one of the greatest artists of both the Renaissance and of the sixteenth century as a whole.  He earned acclaim in Basel, however it was in England, where eventually he settled and died, that he came to prominence and is most well known as painter to the court of one of the nation’s most famous kings, Henry VIII.   His approach to portraiture there was indeed revolutionary, as evidenced from the surviving portraits which have survived, both as preliminary drawings and splendid, final portraits.  Not only did Holbein paint portraits of the Royal Family, but he also painted portraits of members of the Court, allowing a tantalising, fascinating glimpse into the faces and personalities of this turbulent and fascinating period of English history.

Holbein was to make two journeys to England during his life.  The first was made in 1526 when he arrived in the capital in search of work, with a commendation from none other than the acclaimed Humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam.  It was Thomas More who welcomed Holbein to London and commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of him, as well as a group portrait of his family.  More embraced the ideology of Humanism, and this way of thinking was to have a profound influence upon the work of Holbein himself.  England and its court had truly embraced the Renaissance; the  encouragment of learning through the founding of universities, and the court was a splendid forum for poetry, music, art and song, with even the king himself a keen scholar and musician.  In 1527, Holbein returned home to Basel for several years, however he was to come back to England in 1532 and remain until the autumn of 1543, when he died.   His work was influenced by the late Gothic style which was prevalent at the time of his birth as well as the schools of art from Italy, the Netherlands and France, however imbued with an individuality that makes the works entirely his own.  It was during his first visit to England that he painted the husband and wife portrait of Sir Henry Guildford, and his wife, Mary Wooton, Lady Guildford.

Henry Guildford’s family had strong royal connections.  His father, Richard, and grandfather John, had both strong links with Henry VII before he usurped the phone from Richard III.  Both father and son had helped to raise forces against Richard III, which had resulted in their being attainted and losing some of their lands.  Upon Henry’s ascension to the throne in 1485, Richard Guildford was knighted and rewarded for his loyalty by the new king. He was appointed Master of the Treasury and the Ordnance, and had his attainder reversed.   Following an extensive programme of shipbuilding, Sir Richard chose to serve his king at sea, as Henry was planning on invading France, an invasion which never took place.  Following the death of his father, he was named as High Sheriff of Kent.  In 1505, whilst making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Sir Richard fell ill and died.  During his life, Guildford was to marry twice.  His first marriage was to Anne, daughter of John Pympe, by whom he had two sons and four daughters.  His second marriage was to Joan Vaux, by whom he had a further son, Henry.

Guildford’s mother, Joan, had been lady-in-waiting to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and the paternal grandmother of Henry VIII.  Upon the death of Lady Beaufort, she became a part of the court of her son, Henry VII, becoming lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Governess to their two daughters, Margaret and Mary.   She accompanied Mary to France upon her marriage to the French king, Louis XII, however Lady Joan appears to have been sent home along with a number of her other English ladies, much to the dismay of the queen.  Despite requests for Joan to return to her service, this was denied, and it seems likely that Joan returned to England where it seems likely she rejoined the royal household and served the queen, Catherine of Aragon.  In return for her service to the king, she was rewarded with two pensions totalling £60. Upon the death of her second husband, Sir Richard having died in 1505 in Jerusalem, it appears she initially retired to a prayer house in Bristol.  Upon the closure of the prayer house in 1536, she returned to London.  She was to outlive her son by six years, finally passing away at the age of seventy-five in 1538. 
The preliminary drawing of Sir Henry Guildford.
Henry Guildford first took the stage when he was chosen by Thomas, Lord Darcy, as his provost-marshal, in leading a crusade against the Moors in North Africa in response to a request made by Ferdinand of Spain, in 1511, for help from England.  The English troops, led by Darcy got as far as Cadiz, only to find out upon their arrival that the planned crusade had been abandoned as a greater danger lurked closer to Spanish shores, as a more serious threat had been posed by the King of France, François I.  Darcy appears to have returned home, whereas Guildford chose to ride to the Ferdinand’s court at Burgos.  The Spanish king appears to have delighted in Guildford’s visit, and knighted hi in the names of Saints James and George, Spain and England respectively, and presented him with an honorary canton for his coat of arms being that of Granada.  This sign of gratitude bestowed upon Guildford by the King of Aragon led to a lifelong loyalty from Guildford towards the then queen of England. Upon his return to England, he was awarded a knighthood by King Henry VIII.

In 1512, he married his first wife, Margaret Bryan, daughter of Sir Thomas Bryan.  It is uncertain for how long he was married to Lady Margaret, however it cannot have been any longer than for thirteen years, as he was to marry Mary Wooton, his second wife, in 1525.  His marriages were both to be childless.  In mid 1512, he was awarded manors in Warwickshire and Lincolnshire by the king.  The following year he was to embark on a voyage across the Channel to France, with an army, to invade France.  Both he and Sir Charles Brandon, Earl of Suffolk and later the king’s brother-in-law, were joint captains of the sovereign, and commanded fleets that crossed into France.  He later attended upon Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.  He was later saluted by François I as one of ambassador to England when he accompanied Cardinal Wolsey through France in 1529.  The same year, he was called to bear witness to the consummation of the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and of Prince Arthur, her first husband, however he declined on the grounds that he had not yet reached the age of twelve years old.  He also was among the lords and councillors in the Henry’s court who signed the letter to the Pope, asking him to comply with the king’s request for a divorce from Catherine so as to marry Anne Boleyn.
Despite his signing of the letter, he was no favourite of Anne Boleyn.  Indeed he spoke openly about his disapproval of the king’s desire to cast aside Catherine, still his wife, without papal approval ; his views are recorded by Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire, and opponent to Anne Boleyn whom he named “the Concubine.”  Anne, in her anger, asked that of the king to deprive Sir Henry of his role and rank as Comptroller of the King’ Household, however, undeterred by Anne’s motives and actions, Guildford himself went to the King to offer his resignation of the post.  The king however seems to have valued greatly the loyalty which Guildford had previously shown and advised not to worry what women said, and twice returned him his baton of office.   He remained on the King’s council until his death in 1532.
Sir Henry’s second wife, Mary, born in 1499, was the youngest of the four children of Sir Robert Wooton of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, and Anne Belknap.  Her two brothers, Edward (born 1489) and Nicholas (born c. 1497) were both to attain significant posts within the court of Henry VIII.  Sir Edward was to become Treasurer at Calais, and Nicholas was among the diplomats who arranged the disastrous marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves in 1540.  Her sister, Margaret, was later to become Marchioness of Dorset.  Margaret had first been married to William Medley, and after his death married Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, in 1509.   Among their children were Henry Grey, who married Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII, and later parents to Lady Jane Grey.  A surviving drawing, again by Holbein, shows a likeness between the two sisters. 

Following the death of her husband, Mary Guildford was to remarry soon afterwards.  Her final husband was Gawen Carew, of Devonshire, and the union produced children.  She died three years later, in 1535, and is buried in Exeter Cathedral alongside her second husband in the ornate family tomb.
The final portrait of Sir Henry Guildford.ed
The portraits would appear to have been expensive commissions, owing to tremendous skill and finesse deployed in their execution, combined with the considerable quantity of gold adorning them, such as in Sir Henry’s cloth of gold doublet and the chain underneath; but also used in the elaborate sleeves and chains on the dress of his wife.   Other than the Guildford portraits, the amount of gold in use is only rivalled in quantity by the surviving portraits of the King, his third wife Jane Seymour, and their son, the prince Edward.   

For both sitters, two surviving likenesses survive for both of them.  In both cases, an initial drawing on paper in black and coloured chalks, and the final portraits are painted on wood in oil and tempera.   The  preliminary sketch of Sir Henry Guildford, later inscribed with the name “Harry Guildeford Knight” during the time of Edward VI.  The drawing of Lady Guildford was unnamed.  However, all four likenesses are now scattered, the drawings themselves are to be found in the Royal Library at Windsor, and in the Öffentliche Kunstammlung, Basel respectively; and the paintings in the Royal Collection, again at Windsor, and the St Louis Art Museum in the United States.
The studies, or preparatory drawings, for the final portraits are clearly taken from life.  The drawing of Sir Henry has been cut off above his elbows, and follows the protocol of the day with his view cast towards his wife; facing neither the artist nor the viewer.  In fact, the drawing has been significantly trimmed down at some point in its history, as it is considerably smaller in dimensions to that of it's companion piece.  Furthermore the final portrait shows Sir Henry from the waist upwards.  The drawing of Lady Guildford shows her smiling and glancing sideways in an almost coquettish manner towards her rather sterner, more solemn husband.  A subtle use of red chalk gives a hint of wholesome rosiness to her cheeks, allowing her lower lip to look fuller and more sensual, whilst conveying the expression of a somewhat wistful smile.  In addition,  yellow chalk has been used around the hood as well as for the six gold chains across her bodice.  The drawing displays, to a contemporary observer, a healthy voluptuousness in its subject.  All combined with a certain charm and prettiness not readily apparent in Holbein’s other drawings of members of the court from the time.

The preliminary drawing of Mary Wooton, Lady Guildford.
Lady Guildford is portrayed in typical Tudor, finely made, clothes. Her attire mirrors a full length drawing of an unknown lady in a dress and hood, showing a view from both the front and back.  The sleeves of Lady Guildford's dress are slashed, a highly popular style in the day, and she wears the English gable hood, her hair hidden beneath, rather than the French designed hood.  The so called French hood, became popular in England in the 1530s and thereafter, introduced by the queen, Anne Boleyn.  The French hood was rounded in shape, and revealed some of the hair of its wearer.   The dress worn by Lady Guildford also apparently shows a fault line across her shoulder, perhaps an unfair allusion to denote the lack of issue between the couple.  A homophone or play on words is possibly at work here; the French term insinuating a “fault in the lineage.”  Gold chains adorn her bodice, and a medallion with drop pearls around her neck are all clear signs of status, wealth and prosperity.  Modern observers have suggested that the number of gold chains upon her dress appear rather gauche and somewhat excessive by standards of the day; certainly she wears more so than would have been worn for personal jewellery.  The only other jewellery to be seen are four simple rings on the fingers of her left hand.  Pinned to the top of the bodice of her dress is a sprig of rosemary, drawing attention to the mortality of its wearer and her husband, whilst the appearance of the portraits is to remain unchanged over the years.

As with the sprig of rosemary and the fault line, various motifs and devices are employed within both of the portraits, with alternate, hidden meanings.  Holbein would use devices and homophones in his work, among the most famous being The Ambassadors, painted in 1533.  One of these hidden devices shows the age of Sir Henry as being fifty-four years of age when the painting  was completed.  This device is found in the rings from which the green curtain behind the sitter, hangs.  The rings are neatly divided into three separate groups, one ring hangs alone followed by one cluster of five and a further one of four.  The solitary ring is apparently a play on words; the French word anneau [meaning “ring”] is phonetically similar to the Latin anno [meaning “year”], followed by five and four suggests that this is in reference the sitter being aged fifty four years.  On the piece of parchment above his head is written the year in which the painting was executed i.e. 1527, upon which is written the words Anno D. mcccccxxvii. Estis suæ xl ix. The words Estis suæ xl ix contradict the hidden message in the rings, and suggest that Guildford was only 49 years old at the time of the composition of this painting.   A similar inscription dating the painting occurs on the portrait of Lady Guildford, inscribed upon the column rather than handwritten, with the words ANNO M D XXVII. ÆTATIS XXVII, indicating her age as being 27 years. 
Fixing the parchment to the wall are two spots of red wax, again a play on words for the subtle imagery herein.  The words “deux cires tiennent le parchemin” [Two waxes hold the parchment], can be inflected to sound like “deux Sires tiennent le parchemin” [Two Lords hold the right and title of nobility.]   In his portrait, Sir Henry is also seen wearing various decorations which he had received, celebrating his achievements and of his rank.  He wears the Order of the Garter, and the Cross of St. George.  Furthermore, Guildford is also seen to be wearing a tunic made of golden cloth, perhaps in allusion to his successes at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  In his hands are two cords of rope.  These cords are showing the important role which he held in the Tudor court, i.e. that of Comptroller of the Royal Exchequer.  The expression of “holding the purse strings” is much the same in French; tenir les cordons de la bourse, and the connotations are evident within the context of this painting.  He also holds the white staff of his office within the royal court, again to reinforce the import of his role and status.

The final, and more solemn, portrait of Lady Guildford.
In respect of the likenesses made of Lady Guildford, the most marked difference is a subtle one, but extremely apparant: her expression.  As mentioned before, in the drawing, a somewhat flirtatious smile crosses her lips, with a rather suggestive glance to the side towards her husband.  In the painting, her glance has been altered and her pupils moved in order to face her viewer. The shape of her lips has also changed, which results in her face now retaining a more solemn and formal appearance.  Her solemnity and piety are shown by the book she holds in her hands, Vita Christi [The Life of Christ]; a popular edition of the life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony available in both England and on the Continent.   Furthering this sense of piety wrapped around her fingers is a rosary , yet more emphasis on the sense of pious devotion accorded by its bearer.  It is uncertain as to whether or not the final portrait would ever have contained the flirtatious smile and the sparkle in Lady Guildford’s eyes, for such a look would be ill suited in the context of holding a devotional religious work, or the rosary.  Moreso, it would have seemed informal in contrast to portraits of her peers and other ladies of the court.

Similar drawings have survived by Holbein of his subjects glancing sideways, one being that of Joan Ashley, Lady Meutas. However, in the case of Lady Meutas, the look appears to give it’s subject a rather bewildered appearance.  The vast majority of Holbein’s surviving drawings have their subjects not facing the artist but to the side; the portrait of Lady Guildford being one of the few exceptions. Only portraits of the King, his son Edward, the portraits of Anne of Cleves, a drawing of an anonymous woman who might be her sister Amelia, and a full length portrait of Christina of Denmark don't appear to conform to this rule. 

Holbein was no stranger to adjusting expressions and appearances to suit the needs and requirements of his sitters, both male and female. In some cases it was simply changing the eye movements or expression, or in others, a "rejuvenation" or slimming of the sitter’s features whilst still retaining an effective, yet flattering, likeness.  This “rejuvenation” is most evident in some of the portraits of the elder sitters, such as that of Lady Butts, whose appearance is significantly older in the preliminary drawing than appears in the final portrait, her features softened to the harsh wrinkles of age.  An infrared spectrogram of the final portrait shows in the under drawing deeper and more pronounced wrinkles, and these were presumably requested to be softened and toned down by either Sir William Butts, the king's physician, or even by Lady Butts herself.

It remains unknown as to whether the portraits were ever joined together in their frames, a practice which was popular and common amongst Flemish artists when painting portraits of married couples. Individual portraits of husbands and wives to be hung separately were unusual.  The two portraits are linked by the same colour scheme to be found on the wall behind them, together with the rail for the curtain running between the two likenesses.  The positioning of their bodies suggest that the couple were initially to be been facing one another, and appear to have been painted in the Guildfords' London home; as similar architectural details to the fashionable column portrayed, were to be found in the hall in ther London home.  The inclusion of the curtain and the column might simply have been artistic license on the part of Holbein, both motifs were previously included in a portrait of Erasmus, painted in 1523.  A possible reasoning also behind the disparity in the portraits was the physical stature of the two sitters; Henry Guildford was evidently a large, powerfully built and strong man, much like his close friend the King; whereas Mary Guildford was probably rather small, buxom and petite.  Sir Henry’s likeness has been somewhat altered in the final portrait, with his face appearing leaner and slightly elongated, possibly to soften and detract from its owner’s rather strong, and bulky stature.    
One of the portraits of Erasmus, using the similar background motifs.
Suggestions have been made that the fig leaves in background to the portraits are intended to convey a covert charged meaning.  It is unusual that the branches and leaves are shown without their bearing any fruit.  A suggestion as to such an absence of the fruit is the reaffirmation that the couple were still childless. However, the inclusion of an image of the fig would possibly have been considered to be taboo, as the fruit and its likeness had apparently overt sexual connotations.  There is a possibility that the fig is in fact the fruit that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden (rather than the traditionally ascribed apple), owing to its omnipresence in the near East where the Biblical garden is alleged to be located.  In addition the fig had a rather sexual appearance, bearing a resemblance to the vulva.  Indeed, the word “fig” in languages outside of English still carries derisory and/or sexual overtones.  Also fig leaves, once again in allusion to the creation myth in Genesis, are a means of concealment.  This raises the question as to whether or not Holbein was, subconsciously, or through use of such imagery, insulting or mocking his wealthy English patrons.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Treasures of Heaven", the exhibition.

The British saint, Ursula, used to headline this exhibition.

                      Link to the official British Museum introduction to the exhibition

The history of relics and their import to understanding the religious beliefs and faiths cannot be understated, not least as demonstrated by this recent exhibition "Treasures of Heaven" held at the British Museum; demonstrating through the objects on display the extraordinary reverence and belief that was instilled in these objects.  Whether the objects are supposed fragments of the True Cross, thorns from the Crown of Thorns, or the bones of various saints, some of whom the exact reasoning for their veneration has been lost to us over the centuries. It might seem peculiar in the contemporary age to consider the enormous sums of money that were paid out in the Mediaeval age by important noble families, kings and dignitaries to possess such objects.  And once in the ownership of such individuals and families, the immense talent, skill, and cost to house them, be it in a comparatively simple reliquary to the extreme of the construction of buildings and shrines across Europe.  From a modern standpoint, except possibly amongst the deeply devout, one might not fully understand the appreciation and veneration afforded to such relics, however one simply has to look at the furor caused whenever suggestions are made in regard to the Shroud of Turin.  This zealous protection of what is considered a sacred object which might well not be what it pertains to be, might possibly provide some insight into the mindset of our ancestors five or more centuries ago.

Monarchs and princes amassed immense collections of these sacred relics, testimony to their devotion and faith, and to act as protection for themselves, their kingdoms or principalities, as well as for their subjects.  But they also were to play the role of demonstrating to other monarchs their personal wealth and prestige; and this could be an important role or factor in the forging of alliances, and in trading with other nations and/or city states.  Owing to their demand, more relics became available, as well as prices paid upon the receipt of such objects.  Availability of such items, be they bones, hair, splinters, etc became magnified during the Crusades after the taking of Byzantium and the Holy Land.  Objects from both Old and New Testament would surface and be sold to wealthy patrons.  These items ranged from the comparatively 'routine' (i.e. items such the skull of Saint Peter, and fragments of the cross), to the obscure and extraordinary; wood from the tree in the Garden of Eden to the foreskin from Jesus' circumcision (!). 

The bust reliquary of St. Baudime, previously unseen out of France
Despite the duplication and plentiful nature of such 'relics', this does not seem to have caused concern to those buying the objects nor the veneration thereof. It would be easy for a modern cynical mind to dismiss so many of these 'relics' as fraudulent.  However a degree of respect should be given when understanding the import and relevance of the apparent sanctity these objects held, and the effect which they would have made to the lives and standing of those believers, many centuries ago.  The objects themselves were held to be imbued with healing powers, and their locations would often be an important stopping point for pilgrims and visitors, seeking divine intervention in their lives through such relics.  Eventually this outlook changed; as Protestant reformers and iconoclasts set about causing the destruction of many of these objects in the late sixteenth century onwards, and it is at this point in history, the exhibition draws to a close, having commemorated twelve to thirteen centuries of devotion. 

Even to contemporary non-believers, the beauty of such objects created to house the relics and supposed mortal remains of saints or of Christ cannot be denied, and will surely provide testimony to that belief and creed of those who fashioned them, not to the duplicity of those who venerated them.  Yes, attitudes and outlooks since the years in which these objects were fashioned have changed, considerably and dramatically.  In the 21st century, atheism is no longer a cardinal sin, and having ideas defiant to what were considered orthodox beliefs found in the works of Scripture, such as evolution, are no longer punishable by death, nor condemnation as heresy.

The reliquary containing part of the arm of St George,
on loan from the Basilica of San Marco, Venice.
The great faith generated by and instilled in these objects and remains of long dead individuals, central to the teachings and providing a restored belief, appears to have been unique to the Christians of this era, simultaneously  providing something tangible from which divine inspiration could be drawn from. However, in marked contrast, contemporary non-Christians might well have looked upon such piety for such objects with curiosity or contempt. 

A visitor to the “Treasures of Heaven” exhibition was taken on a journey into the past, and in the understanding thereof. It was held at the British Museum between June and October 2011.   Over 120 different objects, linked by a common theme, that of veneration and devotion, made up this exhibition covering over a thousand years of history.  These objects have come from far and wide to form part of this exhibition including some of which have never been seen nor on display in the United Kingdom before.  These included an ornate, enameled ninth century cross-shaped reliquary, on loan from the Vatican; a reliquary which once contained the blood of St. Baudime which has previously never left France; and the Mandylion of Edessa,  believed to be one of the earliest representations of the likeness of Jesus Christ.  To the modern eye and mindset, the actual relic itself might seem rather uninspiring, or even appear to be of a rather grisly and gruesome nature; however to medieval mind, these were the true treasures, holy objects of veneration, and the reliquaries designed to amplify and exalt the status of the object, not detract from it.

The display in which the collection was presented in a structured manner, divided into sections, which allowed for the spectator to fully appreciate the beauty of the objects on display.  Sacred music was played softly throughout the exhibition area which complimented the ambiance and bathed the objects with a sense of piety within the secular environment of a museum, not detracting from the beauty of what is on display.  Equally the reliquaries, etc were well spaced out, so that even in the presence of a fair sized crowd of other visitors to the exhibition; the pleasure of viewing such objects was not affected.  Despite the presence of others, one could shut out the outside world, and just focus, contemplate, respect, appreciate, without feeling intrusion nor invasion from others around you.  Indeed, housing the exhibition within the former Reading Room with its impressive dome did add an extraordinary ecclesiastical dimension to the complete exhibition as a whole.

A casket fashioned to house a relic of Thomas Becket, dating from the 14th century.
The catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, is filled with beautiful photographs of the all objects on display, alongside informed essays and detailed notes, is an excellent, never mind essential, purchase for those who were fortunate enough to visit this exhibition.  That said, it won’t just serve as an aide memoire, nor as a pretty coffee table book, but can be used as an important reference for those readers fascinated by Medieval craftsmanship and work, as much as those of sacred art, and of course the actual relics themselves.  On the cover of the catalogue, as well as on the posters and all the publicity surrounding the exhibition is depicted a bust of St. Ursula.  She is a comparatively unknown saint these days, allegedly a British princess, who was martyred together 11,000 handmaidens, whilst undertaking a pilgrimage prior to her marrying to a pagan governor.  Her representation has been used, not just because of her presumed British origins, but because the work shown has a comparatively modern simplicity and beauty to it.

Relics might seem outdated and unpopular in this day and age, but, an interesting comparison might be in seeing the high prices paid for objects once owned or worn by, or photographs, movie props, etc, "touched" by a celebrity.  To collectors and enthusiasts, these objects still inspire awe, and inspiration, yet contain none of the supposed mysticism nor powers once believed to have been contained within a fragment of bone, hair, or cloth all those centuries ago.