Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Mapping the “New World”

Across browning edges and intertwining mountain ranges, an inscription proclaims “Americasepten” (North America in Latin) on the top of the Map of American Eastern Seaboard from Chesapeake Bay to Penobscot Bay, within the Worcester Art Museum’s map collection. Illustrated with regional trees, livestock, and riverways, the artistic value of the historical map is anything but lost.

Fig. 1. John Ogilby (Scottish, 1600–1676) and Arnoldus Montanus (Dutch, about 1625–about 1683), After Map of American Eastern Seaboard from Chesapeake Bay to Penobscot Bay, after 1670,
engraving with stipple engraving and hand coloring on paper.
Bequest of Robert Dudley Harrington Revocable Trust, 2017.82

Scottish translator and cartographer John Ogilby’s map of the North American coastline from Chesapeake Bay to Penobscot Bay (Fig. 1) is a result of an early translation of Arnoldus Montanus’ mapmaking in Amsterdam, as well as evidence of early historical cartography. Montanus’ work is considered “the first encyclopedia of the Americas.”1

Originally published in 1671 in Amsterdam, De Niewe en Onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving Van America en ‘t Zuid-Land was Montnanus’ fullest body of work, compiling maps of the entirety of North and South America, containing colonial versions of maps as well as illustrations of New York (titled “New Amsterdam”), Brazil, and portraits of early explorers and colonizers, such as Christopher Columbus. This encyclopedia, translated into English by John Ogilby, provides a window into one of the earliest informative texts on the “New World” that was disseminated throughout Europe, and then throughout the Americas.2

In addition to the portraits of colonial men, most maps feature a title cartouche—a cartographical feature with elaborate decorations which add a symbolic narrative. As seen in this map in WAM's collection, the nature of colonial map’s cartouches were often depictions of Native Americans as a kind of “proof” of the explorer’s conquest.3

Here, Native Americans in the lower corner are seen working, tending to fishing, archery, or a hunted deer. Beneath their depiction inscribes a European claim to the land, titling it “Novii Belgii” —New Belgium. Both the artistry of the cartouche and its territorial claim are evidence that a map is far more than a means of seeing locations on a piece of paper.

Ogilby’s map differs greatly from any brochure map one would use today on a road trip or hike. In the 1600s, maps were rarely used as a method to route from one place to another and were rather used as a method of cutting up the world, and laying claim to it.4; Cartography in its early stages reflected conceptually the culture where the map was made; early European maps made by Christians often situated Jerusalem at the heart of the continent.5

These symbolic maps engaged the artistry of cartographers, who occasionally commissioned an artist to help decorate the published maps. Maps, therefore, are not exclusively geographical, but are also artistic and political in their appearance, and moreover, in their interpretation.

European maps were utilized as a form of control over political and public perception in the 16th-18th centuries to sway public opinion regarding colonial expeditions. This motivation for cartographers has not been lost as mapmaking evolves, but has morphed to alter the perception of world powers in education. The distortion of maps plastered in school classrooms has been a topical debate; the Mercator projection—the most widely used map perspective in the U.S.—positions North America in the center of the map, and distorts the size of the African and Asian continents, as well as misleads its viewer on the size of the Pacific Ocean (considerably larger than the Atlantic).6

The debate of map perspective and its related impact is what led Boston Public Schools to adopt a new projection that reduces the size of European and American countries to their actual size in comparison to the rest of the world.7

Ogilby’s map reminds its viewer of the important role which all published works—art, encyclopedias, maps—play in enforcing cultural ideas and altering public perception.

—Skylar Deitch, Curatorial Intern
    July 2, 2020

1 D. Woodward, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 516.
2 It is important to note that at the time, maps and other materials were not nearly as widely published as they are today; only the wealthiest and elite would have had access to such texts. Matthew Edney, “Theoretical Aspects of the History of Cartography,” Theory and the History of Cartography, 48, no. 1 (1996): 188.
3 Woodward, 520.
4 Ibid., 519.
5 Edney, 192.
6 Norman Pye, “Notes on Some Problems in Presentation of Map Projections,” Geography 34, no. 2 (1949): 69.
7 Joanna Walters “Boston Public Schools Map Switch Aims to Amend 500 years of Distortion,” The Guardian, (2017): https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/m ar/19/boston-public-schools-world-map-mercator-peters-projection?CMP=share_btn_link
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/m ar/19/boston-public-schools-world-map-mercator-peters-projection?CMP=share_btn_link

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rediscovering Objects at WAM: A Study in Silver

As a decorative arts specialist, I utilize a hands-on approach when studying objects. This process doesn’t merely involve sitting in an archive for hours, combing through old letters and documents. Rather, evaluating an object involves looking at its physical and aesthetic qualities (i.e., material, form, style, ornament, markings).  To me, the object itself can unlock hidden clues that reveal its actual story. During my first year at the Worcester Art Museum, I found myself investigating what I thought was a plain, ordinary silver vessel (Fig. 1). But I soon realized there was more than initially met the eye, as it were…

Fig. 1. Harris, Stanwood & Co. (American, active 1839-1848). Covered Pitcher, about 1839-1848. Silver. Gift of the
Paine Charitable Trust, 1965.326.

Until May 2019, the silver object was given another attribution. While viewing WAM’s decorative arts online, I noticed it was cataloged as a chocolate pot, made circa 1820-1830 by “Ferris & Starr.” Unable to find any silversmith firms or jewelers with that name, I decided to investigate the object and its history more closely.

I recalled learning about chocolate pots while taking a graduate course on the decorative arts of dining at George Washington University. Most 17th- and 18th-century examples were made of silver or porcelain, two valuable materials that associated chocolate—made of cacao beans, an exotic import from Mesoamerica— with Western luxury.

These vessels contain a lid and hinged finial, with a small opening to accommodate a molinet, the utensil used to stir the liquid chocolate. Silver chocolate pots typically include a thick wooden handle to withstand heat; indeed, one could say chocolate pots were “hot” commodities! However, this object didn’t seem to possess any of these characteristics. Thus, I pulled it from storage to view it in person, hopeful that my questions would be answered and theories validated. As a result, I found a maker’s mark hidden underneath the base, stamped “Harris & Stanwood, Pure Coin Silver, Boston.” (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Detail of mark underneath pitcher's base.

First appearing in the 1839 Boston directory, Harris, Stanwood & Co. was one of Boston’s distinguished jewelry houses and silver manufacturers in the early 19th century. (Figs. 3-4) Its founders William Harris and Henry B. Stanwood retailed a variety of goods at low prices, including: “Silver and Plated Wares, Watches, Clocks, Lamps, Gas Fixtures, Candelabras, Tea Trays, Fine Table Cutlery, Rich Fancy Goods, & Watches and Clocks cleaned and repaired by an experienced workman.”¹ The firm even experimented with types of oil in solar argand lamps.²

Fig. 3. Illustration of interior in H.B. Stanwood & Co., from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room
(Boston, MA), July 23, 1853, pg. 64. Stanwood operated his own firm shortly after
Harris retired in 1848. He later joined his rival Shreve, Brown & Co., which became
Shreve, Stanwood & Co. in 1861.

Fig. 4. Advertisement from the Boston Courier (January 7, 1839).

When Harris retired in 1848, the firm changed hands and eventually reorganized to become the familiar Shreve, Crump & Low establishment. After finding examples of Harris & Stanwood silver at other New England institutions, I contacted Patricia Kane, the curator of American decorative arts at Yale University Art Gallery, to determine the object’s true identity. She confirmed my suspicions: it wasn’t a chocolate pot, but actually a covered pitcher!

More questions arose since reattributing this object. For instance, according to Kane, pitchers from 1800-1850 were made with and without covers. So, why do some have covers? One theory is that this Harris & Stanwood pitcher would have held water, wine, or beer—like flagons in church communion services.

On the other hand, it may have possessed a commemorative purpose as a presentation object. In December 1840, Harris and Stanwood created a pitcher for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, to be awarded to its president Elijah Vose. One newspaper described it as “a specimen of exquisite workmanship…embellished with grapes, vines, and other appropriate emblems, beautifully chased, and highly finished.”³ However, the lack of chased decoration in this pitcher indicates its use as a container for liquid beverages, though it probably decorated the table.

Additional research is ongoing regarding the pitcher’s owner, whose identity is hinted by the engraved coat of arms and inscription “E S to James Perkins Paine.” (Fig. 5) Based on my initial findings, James Perkins Paine (1827-1910) was the descendant of Russell Sturgis and William Paine, whose silver service by Paul Revere is displayed at WAM. If he is related to Worcester’s Paine family, then the “E S” likely refers to Elizabeth “Betsy” Perkins Sturgis (1756-1843), his aunt who lived in Boston—and quite possibly near Harris and Stanwood’s firm!

Fig. 5. Detail of engraved inscription and coat of arms.

My investigation into the Harris & Stanwood pitcher demonstrates how there are still mysteries to be solved, and stories to be unveiled at the Worcester Art Museum. Our decorative arts, in particular, need extensive research, analysis, and cataloging. About 2,664 objects encompass WAM’s American decorative arts collection, yet many remain in storage or lack a complete provenance or other valuable information.

This illustrates the fact that before the 20th century, art historians considered the decorative arts secondary to fine art paintings and sculpture. While WAM’s former American curator Louis Dresser significantly acquired and researched Paul Revere silver during the 1960s, her successors made little efforts to showcase the decorative arts. By placing objects first, museums can tell the full story of a period, culture, and community.

Beginning Fall 2021, WAM will integrate the fine and decorative arts in its American galleries, a project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation (titled Conspicuous Consumption: The Price of Luxury in Early America). In doing so, I hope visitors can learn and appreciate the intrinsic value of early American objects like this covered pitcher.

—By Elizabeth Fox, Curatorial Assistant of American Art
     June 30, 2020

1 1847-8 Adams’s Boston Directory
2 Referenced in "To the Public," Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), December 15, 1842. Harris and Stanwood inspected numerous whale oils, rating them based on cost and ability to produce artificial light.
3 National Aegis (Worcester, Massachusetts), December 30, 1840.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Spotlight on the Sport of Jousting and its Decline

The sport of jousting was a single combat between two knights using the couched lance against each other, charging from opposite ends of a tournament field. Before the 14th century, the melee was the main tournament event, with jousting as a secondary game. Jousting matches were held as a prelude to the melee. Knights wanted to be recognized as individuals in combat and spectators enjoyed the individual contests. By the 14th century, Jousting would supplant the melee as the main sport in popularity and by the end of the century the melee would all but disappear.

Fig. 1. The Third Tournament with Lances, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472–1553),
1509. Woodcut on cream laid paper. Prints. Museum Purchase. 1935.153

Jousting was played in rounds called courses. Typically, three courses were run with the lance and the fighting might continue dismounted with courses of swords, axes and daggers. Scoring was sometimes done by awarding points for striking an opponent and breaking the lance, or for dismounting him, the latter could decide the match. Different points could be awarded for striking different body locations.

With the development of plate armor in the 1300s-1400s, specialized tournament armor came into use (Fig. 2). Reinforced pieces could be attached to an existing armor strengthening it. These were called pieces of advance, or exchange, or simply reinforces and would be bolted on to the armor.
A feature added to the joust around the late 14th century was the tilt barrier. The tilt barrier was initially a rope barrier draped with fabric and later a wall that separated the jousters to keep the horses from colliding, allowing the knights to be able to better control the horse and aim their lances.

Fig. 2. Composite Armor for the Welschgestech ("Italian Joust"),
breastplate by Anton Peffenhauser (Southern Germany (Augsburg),
ca. 1520 – 1603), other components Southern German, Augsburg, or Italian.
1570–1575. Steel, brass and leather with modern restorations.
 The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1142

The most common form of jousting was the Joust of Peace. It was focused on being a chivalric contest of skill with lances and swords which were blunted, or rebated, to minimize injury. The lance tip could take the form of a three-pointed coronel (Fig. 3) designed to aid the lance in shearing off armor as well as to break it. The idea was to fairly defeat the opposing knight but not to cause injury. Honor, humility, and fairness were now of greater importance as the combat was to be one of skill not guile.

Fig. 3. Tournament Lance with Coronel Tip, German, perhaps Dresden. 1500s or 1700s.
Painted wood with steel. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.269

In the 15th century a popular type of jousting was the Passage of Arms. In this game a knight or group of knights would set themselves up at a bridge or city gate and challenge all who passed by to joust. They would announce their intentions to hold their ground for a set period or some other goal achieved, such as the breaking of several lances. Failure of a passing knight to meet the challenge could lead to social humiliation and forfeiture of their horse or armor. These were challenges of honor being less formal and of a smaller scale than tournaments and there were few spectators.

The Joust of War was a variant where knights who were at war competed with each other. The combatants used the regular armor and weapons of war. While they could be deadly, the use of plate armor reduced the chances of injury compared to those of former days. It was a chance to demonstrate chivalric pride in the face of the enemy.

A particularly German form of the joust was the Stechzeug. This variant featured heavy body armor (Fig. 4a). The goal of game was to knock off an opponent’s helmet crest. With blows concentrated at the head a thick heavy helmet was needed. Evidence of the force used can be seen with the multiple scars left from lance cornel tips that struck surface of the helmet depicted below (Fig. 4b).

Fig. 4a. Composite Stechzeug (armor for the "German Joust"),
pauldrons by Valentin Siebenbürger (German, 1510–1564),
others Southern German, from Nuremberg. About 1480–1540.
Steel, iron, brass and leather. The John Woodman Higgins
Armory Collection. 2014.1164

Fig. 4b. Stechhelm (Jousting helmet), Southern German,
Nuremberg. Late 1400s. Steel, iron and brass.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1164.1

Combat at the Barriers (Fig. 5a) was a form of dismounted jousting that knights would play during sieges and was an outgrowth of the Joust of War. Waist-high barriers were placed between the besieged and besiegers. Combat would use various weapons such as the longsword or the poll-axe.

Fig. 5a. Combat à la barrière (Combat at the Barriers), Jacques Callot (French, 1592–1635),
1627. Etching on cream laid paper. Prints. Museum purchase. 1953.7

Gradually this contest became a regular tournament sport practiced outside of war. Heavier armors were used to minimize serious hits as evidenced in the sword marks visible on the helmet below (Fig. 5b). 

Fig. 5b. Close Helmet for Foot Combat at the Barriers, Italian, probably Milan. About 1600.
Steel and brass. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1156.1

From the 14th century onwards tournaments would become ever more frequently sponsored by royalty, something unthinkable in the past. While declining in the early 15th century with the decline of battlefield chivalry, the late 15th and early 16th centuries would see a huge rebound. Sovereigns such as Emperor Maximillian I and his contemporaries, Henry VIII and Francis I, celebrated chivalry at court, romanticizing it with huge, elaborate tournaments. But this did not survive much past their generation.

The mid-16th century would see the general disappearance of large tournaments. By the 17th century tournaments were more for royal prestige being semi-martial displays of horsemanship. Most involved parading and fancy maneuvers. Jousting was now theatrical and formulaic as direct contact with lances was gradually replaced by the Carousel or Tilting at the Ring (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Lance for "Tilting at the Ring", probably German, 1650–1750. Painted wood
(partially restored) with steel. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.261

The carousel involved riding around a circuit and catching rings on the end the lance, an exercise that had long been done by knights for practice. With no contact there was less risk and less reason for armor to be worn beyond display. By the late 17th century as the reality of armored cavalry on the battlefield faded away so too did tournaments.

We hope you enjoyed the second part of this look at the fascinating and complex history of knightly competitive pursuits.

—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator
     June 20, 2020

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Short History of Tournaments: Uncovering its Origins and the Melee

Tournaments! The word suggests images of knightly competition, of jousting, parading, pageantry, and ladies cheering on their chosen hero. These demonstrations of knightly prowess, honor, and valor are all at the heart of chivalric culture and gives us our image of what the medieval knight should be. It was not always so.

While the terms tournament and jousting are interchangeable today, they originally meant different games. The general term for tournaments was historically hastiludes, Latin meaning spear games. Tournament meant the group combat and involved two teams of knights competing and came to be called the melee. Jousting meant a single combat between two knights, either mounted or dismounted. Here the term tournament is used in its modern usage for all knightly games collectively, melee for group combat, and jousting for individual duels.

The 11th century would see tournaments coincided with the use of the couched lance on the battlefield. A lance was an 8- to 11-feet-long spear (Fig. 1). To couch it, the lance was held snug under the right arm and held horizontally allowing the combined mass of moving horse and rider to be behind the point of the lance. This resulted in a tremendously devastating blow for an opponent on the receiving end.

Fig. 1. Spear, possibly 500s-late 1000s. Iron and wood.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.163

The couched lance technique became popular after the adoption of stirrups (Fig. 2a), a technology that emerged out the plains of Asia around the 7th century. This allowed for better control of the horse. The high-backed saddle (Fig. 2b) introduced in the 11th century allowed the rider to maintain himself in the saddle after striking with the lance. To effectively use this technique, knights practiced individually with a quintain and in groups.

Fig. 2a. Stirrup, perhaps English 1100s–1200s. Brass-clad iron.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1008

Fig. 2b. War Saddle, Southern German (perhaps Nuremberg), about 1525,
with modern restorations. Wood (possibly birch), steel, and iron, with modern
leather and textiles. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.76

The tournament, or melee, was a group combat and originally a wargame. Two groups of knights and soldiers gathered in adjacent towns and the lands in between were the tournament fields. The two groups charged each other to break each other’s lines and then turn about and take on those not dismounted. Some knights could ride away instead and be pursued. The object was quite simple, defeat and capture as many opponents as possible and hold them for ransom.

The early melees were destructive and dangerous. There were few rules in the beginning. There were designated refuges for knights to rest and repair armor. Knights could outnumber each other. The weapons of war were used by all while trying to capture not kill, but accidents happened. Honor was to be had in victory no matter how attained, guile and deceit were used to advantage. Little regard was given to those who lived within the tourney area, crops were destroyed, and homes burned. The melee usually ended when one side was clearly defeated, or night fell. This was followed by raucous feasting and partying.

Tournaments might be used as cover for feuding, to exact revenge and commit murder. Large groups of knights and their followers massed in towns attracted the worst behaviors with all Seven Deadly Sins catered to. The Church banned tournaments from 1130-1316, forbidding Christian burial to those who took part. Tournaments, however, were too popular, profitable, and practical to abandon with the ban seeming to have been hardly enforced on a local level. Many priests turned a blind eye toward the offence.

Royal authorities often banned the games for political reasons as tournaments could be used as a cover for staging rebellions, or because tournaments distracted knights from their duties in war. These bans only held up when authority was strong. Richard I of England, an avid tournament fan and participant, took a different route and regulated the games in 1192. He determined which towns could hold them requiring a license for the organizers and a fee for participants.

The arms for war and for tourney were initially the same. The principle body protection for the knight was mail armor, an armor of interlinked iron rings that was best at protecting against sharp edges and to a lesser degree stabbing weapons but offering little protection against blunt force trauma. Mail took the form of a coat or large shirt (Fig. 3) with a hood and sometimes leggings. It was supplemented by a helmet of rigid iron and a wooden shield both of which served to compensate for the inherent weaknesses of mail. The main weapons of the knight were his lance and sword. Supplementing this would be various forms of axes, maces, warhammers and daggers.

Fig. 3. Mail Coat, probably Nuremberg (Germany), early 1500s,
 modified into 1800s. Iron and brass with leather fragments.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.861

The 13th century would see tournaments change. The use of enclosed fenced in fields or lists were introduced to help contain and limit the destructive qualities of the games making them safer to watch. With an increase in popularity markets and fairs become closely intertwined tournaments. 

As chivalry grew in importance so too did the need to identify the knight. A system of symbols painted on shields was developed and eventually these appeared on the surcoat, a tunic worn over mail armor, and crests mounted on helmets. The collective display was known as a coat of armors (Fig. 4) in reference to the decorated surcoat and the system known as heraldry.

Fig. 4. Coat of Arms – Giovanni de Francesco, Florentine (Italian),
1485 or later. Marble. Sculpture. Museum Purchase. 1918.143.1

At the outset of a tournament knights had their shields hung outside their lodgings so to make it known which knights were present. A parade of crested helmets would then be held leading to the lists to open the games.

While heraldry aided in identifying knights in the slog of a melee combat, jousting allowed for individual duels where both combatants were singled out for special display. Jousting gained importance as a martial sport as it allowed for heroic acts to be demonstrated. By the early 14th century jousting would supplant the melee as the main tournament attraction.

Be sure to stay tuned to WAM Updates for the next installment of “A Short History of Tournaments”, which examines jousting and its decline.

—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator
     June 16, 2020

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Fine Art of Moving Museum Masterpieces Around the World

On any given day, works of art are on the move. Galleries ship pieces to collectors, artists deliver their work to exhibitions, and auction houses sell art to buyers near and far. Art museums, too, play a crucial role in this mass movement when they collect and exhibit art. At most museums, exhibitions draw not only from their own collections, but from the collections of museums around the world.

These inter-museum loans require the aid and expertise of innumerable individuals along the way: shipping brokers, art handlers, crate manufacturers, fine-art truck drivers, and airline cargo crews, to name a few. In addition, the process is managed at the museums themselves by registrars. As the Assistant Registrar at WAM, I work with colleagues across the Museum and across the globe to facilitate incoming loans to our exhibitions, and to share our own collection far and wide.

A look at WAM’s Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere exhibition, which was made possible
through loans from many other museums. This exhibition was organized by the
American Antiquarian Society. Photo by Steve Briggs, WAM Photographer, 2020.

Another view of the Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere exhibition.
Photo by Steve Briggs, WAM Photographer, 2020.

The actual transportation of the art itself is only one step in the process. The work involved in loaning art to or from the Museum begins months or even years before any pieces travel. At WAM, an outgoing loan to other museums begins when we receive a request to borrow a work in our collection that will add great value to another museum’s exhibition. Our Curatorial, Conservation, Exhibitions, Education, and Registration Departments all work together to evaluate loan requests.

We first and foremost need to ensure that the piece will be safe to travel, and that it has not already been reserved for our own exhibitions or programs. If we take something off display for a loan, we need to know that we can fill the space it left behind with something equally poignant, profound, and appropriate for that space. In fact, outgoing loans can be incredible opportunities to highlight pieces in our own collection that are seldom on display.

After the loan is approved, there are many details to discuss with the borrowing institution: Will the work need to be glazed? Framed? Does it require conservation treatment? How will we safely pack and ship the work, and what measurers will the borrowing museum take to ensure it is safe when in their care? These details—and many others—are all spelled out and agreed upon in a loan contract well before the art can travel.

While WAM’s fabulous conservators and preparators work to prepare the piece to travel, I take care of some of the other logistical concerns. In the months before a loan departs, I order the packing crate, organize the shipment details, and coordinate the travel arrangements of any WAM staff we choose to send with the art to watch over it on its journey.

When the time finally arrives, the artwork is carefully packed in its custom-made crate and ready for shipment. The enormous amount of work—mine and others’—that leads to this moment is well worth it. It is a thrill to see WAM’s collection on display at museums around the world, and to know the small part I played in getting it there.

— By Ali Rosenberg, Assistant Registrar
     June 9, 2020

Friday, June 5, 2020

Treasure Discoveries of a Different Kind

We’ve all had that face-palm moment, where something was handled differently way back when, and you now need to bring it up to the 21st century. For collection professionals, these moments usually occur while working in the storage rooms, frequently conducting inventory. There will always be that one mysterious object sitting on a shelf, waiting for new staff to rediscover its valuable information. Hopefully, this object has a thorough catalogue card tucked under it so as not to be lost or confused with another item sharing the same location. Unfortunately, there is no card with the object and sometimes the card isn’t where you think it would be. This face-palm scenario recently occurred for me while working in storage.

Fig. 1 Textile boxes

For decades, generations of WAM staff members passed on general knowledge of a gorgeous collection of textile fragments, carefully mounted onto muslin frames, stored inside a wall of cabinets. I myself have pulled a frame out to look at a piece of Old Italian velvet and would observe odd numbers along the side, not matching our standard identification system for artwork in the permanent collection (we call them object numbers). My initial response was that these likely were educational materials used when the Museum School was still open and were then transferred to collection storage at some point, either to be considered part of the permanent collection, or not. There the mystery remained.

Recently, I shifted around some artworks blocking access to another cabinet door along the wall. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to open it to see what other framed treasures were there. Spoiler alert—there were no artworks behind that door, but rather three hardboard catalogue card holders labeled: WAM TEXTILES (Fig. 1, above). Upon opening the first drawer labelled
Box I, I knew straight away that I just rediscovered a different kind of treasure—a gold mine of information.

Fig. 2 Open textile drawer

Inside were catalogue cards for each textile fragment mounted on the muslin frames, carefully filled out with as much information as a card can hold, including a small black-and-white thumbnail of the textile fragment in question.

Fig. 3 Textile catalogue card

To my delight there was an introductory card that explained the origin of the textiles as well as their object number—so they are part of the permanent collection, as 1919.193.  My excitement was quickly diminished when I went back to our collections management database to pull up the object number provided.

“No matches.” What?

Not long after, I realized I would need to enter all 689 records into the database. One may think that I was quite put out by this realization; however, a few days later, concern surrounding COVID-19 was rising, and we were informed that we would be working from home for the foreseeable future. I am incredibly thankful that I can do a lot of my work from home—and this project specifically was going to fill in any downtime there may be. So, the three boxes came home with me and are getting assigned an object number, one catalogue card at a time.

Believe it or not, these sorts of discoveries are not as uncommon in the museum world as one might think. When there is over a century of institutional knowledge, cracks in the information chain are bound to develop over time. For decades, the developed system of having the textile catalogue cards separate from the rest of the permanent collection catalogue cards made sense.

At some point, at least by the time we converted the catalogue cards to digital records in a computer, this institutional knowledge was lost, and the mystery developed. I am sure what spurred further mystery to these items were the different groupings of numbers on the frames, which correlate to the information on the catalogue cards, rather than to object numbers.

Now that we are conducting our thorough inventory of the permanent collection and various loaned object holdings, it is the best time to transition this information from the 20th-century filing/tracking system to the 21st-century digital system. Let’s hope that when I return to my office, another group of mysterious catalogue cards do not magically appear somewhere else in storage!

—Sarah Gillis, Associate Registrar for Collection Documentation
    June 5, 2020

Friday, May 29, 2020

Exploring the Four Main Themes of Islamic Art

Islamic art covers a vast geographical and chronological spectrum, from Spain to Southeast Asia over 1400 years. Though, despite all the differences, it is undeniable that there are common subjects and themes uniting the visual arts of the Islamic world. Over the centuries, these artists elaborated on four major subjects of decoration: calligraphy, geometry, vegetal and arabesque ornamentation, and figures. Let’s take a look at those themes.


Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. Arabic letters decorate objects ranging from ceramic bowls to marble buildings. Arabic script grew in importance following the revelation of the Qur’an from God to the Prophet Muhammad. Even before his death, Muhammad’s followers and associates had begun to transcribe the Qur’an. Calligraphers soon began to transform Arabic writing into an art form.

During the rise of Islam and the early period, between the 7th and 10th centuries, Kufic was used for copying Qur’ans and other manuscripts. It is characterized by its unconnected blocky letters that are evenly spaced. Kufic manuscripts of the Qu’ran were intentionally difficult to read—in order to slow down the readers so that they can concentrate on God’s word. Here is a page from a Qur’an dating between 850 and 1000, written in Kufic.

Fig. 1. Folio from a Qur’an Manuscript, Iraq or Syria, 9th-10th century, ink,
opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 
Anonymous Gift, 1985.365

However, as the Muslim population began to grow, calligraphers adopted more common scripts to make the Qur’an more legible and accessible. Between the 10th to the 15th centuries the “Six Pens” was developed, a group of rounded scripts that enhanced the readability by providing the reader with a full range of diacritical marks and vocalizations. They are naksh, thuluth, muhaqqaq, rayhani, riqa‘, and tawqi‘. Local scripts also developed. For example, nasta’liq, which developed and was used in Central Asia and Iran and spread to Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. Below is an example of Persian love poetry written in nasta’liq.

Fig. 2. Folio from a copy of the Divan (Anthology) of Amir Shahi, Iran,
probably Tabriz, 17th century, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Karl L. Briel, 1986.190

Calligraphers attempted to make their work look effortless. It was meant to be timeless and cerebral, a reflection of God’s permanence and immutability. Calligraphers painstakingly made sure that their work left no trace of the physical action it took to create it, or any mark of distinction. In other words, it is extremely difficult to attribute Islamic calligraphy to a calligrapher unless they signed their work.


Geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture, but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects.

Fig. 3. Pottery Fragment, Iran, 13th-14th century, stonepaste and polychrome glaze;
Museum Purchase, 1938.101.13

While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and the pre-Islamic empire of the Sasanians (r. 224-651 CE) in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from these classical traditions, and then complicated and elaborated upon them, particularly through the works of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists. This experimentation and elaboration led to new forms of decoration that stressed the importance of unity, symmetry, proportion, balance, and order.

The four basic shapes, or "repeat units," from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons. The basic shapes were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom and fluidity in its repetition and complexity, and it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well, such as vegetal patterns and figures.

Vegetal and Arabesque Designs

Ornamentation based on plants, stems, leaves, and flowers, adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. They are commonly employed alone or in combination with other types of forms of embellishment, such as calligraphy.

Fig. 4. Flowering Plant Beside a Pond, Iran, Safavid period, 17th century; cut silk,
voided satin velvet, with brocading. Museum Purchase, 1938.2

Like geometric patterns, vegetal decoration was inherited from pre-Islamic traditions from the late antique world of the Mediterranean basin and from the Sasanians. The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of semi-naturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns for these sources. This was followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons.

It was not until the 10th century that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged. There was a desire to create patterns that prompted the notion of infinite expansion and growth in all directions, which culminated into the most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as “arabesque”. The term was coined in the early 19th century following Napoleon’s famed expedition to Egypt.

Arabesques are composed of the same elements inherited from pre-Islamic traditions, such as vines and leaves, stems, and flowers. However, rather than being restricted to a geometric framework and confined space, the arabesque became the framework itself, controlling the space and its own movement within it. The entangled decoration of flowers and vines chiseled across the surface in the 19th-century Persian shield below is a prime example of the arabesque.

Fig. 5. Sipar (Shield), Iran, 19th century, steel, silver, brass, traces of gilded;
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1019


Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In most cases, figures are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, and thus were a crucial and prominent feature in manuscript illumination. Manuscript paintings acted as visual aids to the text, and therefore no restrictions to the representation of figures were imposed. Here is another example from a 14th-century copy of the Shahnama. It depicts the Sasanian king, Bahram Gur (r. 420-438 CE), hunting wild ass.

Fig. 6. “Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers”, from the “Great Mongol” Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Ilkhanid period, 1330s, opaque
watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.24

Since patrons of Islamic art were predominantly of royalty, nobility, or from the wealthy classes, most surviving works that depict figures that are not from narratives, show courtly figures. These courtly figures are typically shown in processions, hunting, lounging in gardens and feasting. The painting below, intended for an album, shows a male and female figure, in elegant dress, enjoying wine under a chinar tree.

Fig. 7. Youths Drinking Wine in a Landscape, Persian,
Qajar period, 19th century, opaque watercolor and gold
on paper; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Spahr, 1962.16

Animals were popular decorative figures and played secondary roles in illustrated manuscripts. They were commonly used to enhance scenes rather than to play any role in a narrative, although there are a few exceptions, such as the painting below, showing two camels locked in an eternal combat, and scientific studies and drawings.

Fig. 8. Two Camels in Combat, Iran, Safavid period, 17th-18th century, opaque watercolor,
ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.19

Fantastic figures also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were either derived from pre-Islamic mythological sources, or were created through the visual manipulation and experimentation of figural forms by artists.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
    May 29, 2020

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