copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
4 November 2006
The other day I bade farewell to the soon-to-be-destroyed
Ashmolean - not the old, stone Ashmolean that fronts the street,
but the tramshed-like structure behind it, which housed so many
of the Oxford University museum's collections. The better cases
had already been removed, the less good had been trashed and
piled up for recycling. The roof, which had for so long been
a problem, was open to the elements.
You could see very clearly how the modest structure,
put up in the days of the great archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans,
was always too flimsy to be properly insulated, waterproofed
and air-conditioned. Anyway, tearing it down will allow the
museum to dig out a new basement, build further back and increase
the gallery space by a third. It's a worrying enterprise to
be involved with (I serve as a "Visitor" on the board),
but I am sure it will be worth it.
What happens to a museum or gallery at a time
of such great upheaval is that the Appeal starts to take precedence
over everything. How can one contemplate new acquisitions when
the Appeal is not yet completed, and the building work has not
even begun? But then comes a countervailing pressure, as important
objects become available and works that have been on loan to
the museum for years are offered by their owners for sale. Do
nothing, and you begin to find things flying off the shelves.
You lose paintings from the walls. Gaps begin to appear in your
collections. The museum never stands still.
So it was that, at a recent dinner for benefactors
of the Ashmolean, the guests were encouraged to split up into
small groups: some went to view the destroyed rear building,
others to hear curators present the latest acquisition emergency,
put on white gloves and examine objects recently secured. When
I say benefactors, I do not necessarily mean people writing
out cheques for telephone-number sums. The interesting thing
about the objects that arrive at the Ashmolean, and the sums
used to acquire them, is the range of figures involved, and
the relative effectiveness of the smaller sums. Typically, in
such a museum, what the curators are looking for is "seed
money", money to prime the pump, so that when an application
is made to one of the larger funding sources the museum can
show that it has enough local support to meet around 10% of
Money attracts money. It was worked out recently
that a pound of seed money attracted on average £15 from
the larger funds. So a pledge of, say, £1,000 is worth
a potential £15,000. A museum that cannot find any seed
money is in a very weak position. Some of the canniest curators
are good at welcoming and putting together quite small sums.
Among the presentations that evening, I went
to Susan Walker's display of Roman or early Christian gold glass.
This is a form of decorative art that survives, as far as I
know, from only two sites: the catacombs in Rome and in Cologne.
It is very beautiful and nobody is quite sure how it was made.
A glass bowl was blown, and gold leaf was affixed to it. Then
the design was drawn by removal of the gold leaf. The next stage
is mysterious. Another glass must have been blown inside the
existing bowl, in such a way that the two fused, leaving the
gold leaf sandwiched between two layers of glass. The bowls
seem to have been made to mark weddings or other special occasions.
On the owner's death, the bowl was broken and the gold-glass
medallions were saved and set into the plaster of the tombs.
That is why these things are almost always found as fragments,
and mostly derive from the catacombs.
Some of the portraits on these medallions are
quite breathtaking, producing uncanny Roman likenesses with
subtle gradations of gold. There is one of these in the V&A,
in the same case as the Medieval Treasury (currently near the
Cast Court). You have to crouch to see it properly, since it
has a correct viewing angle, like a daguerreotype. The group
in the Ashmolean is in a different graphic style, cruder and
more common than the "brushed" style of the V&A
portrait, but still very rare (there are only around 500 fragments
of this sort of glass in all the museums of the world) and exerting
this unique fascination. Here you have what is left, along with
the catacomb paintings and some sarcophagi, of the earliest
Christian art in Rome.
The period is the third or probably the fourth
century - rather a long time after Christ himself, but well
before the development of what we think of as Christian iconography.
It is at least a century before the earliest surviving biblical
manuscript, although there must have been illustrated manuscripts
around at the time. The earliest Christian art in Rome would
have been, in the days of the house-churches, essentially portable
art - altars, vessels in precious metals, ritual objects, illuminated
scrolls. But there is no guarantee that the craftsmen who made
such objects were themselves Christians.
Certainly the iconography of the gold-glass
tradition shows a mixture of pagan, Christian and Jewish themes.
Jonah (a recurrent figure, associated with resurrection), sleeping
nude in the shade of his large-leaved gourd vine, looks like
the pagan Endymion. Hercules appears, as do several shepherds
who may or may not be Christian. Along with these are numerous
representations of Old Testament stories, Abraham sacrificing
Isaac, Daniel with the lions (the martyr's mentor), Moses striking
Christ appears as the miracle-worker, especially
in the story of the raising of Lazarus (another resurrection),
while the prime saints of the Roman church, Peter and Paul,
are most frequently depicted together. The inscriptions spell
Jesus as Zeses, Saint Xystus as Sustus and Saint Agnes as Acne.
"Anima dulcis vivas" (may you live sweet soul) and
"dignitas amicorum" (the worthiness of friends) are
recurrent mottoes. There are more than 30 pieces in this Victorian
collection, along with sarcophagi and related inscriptions on
stone, which we intend to display together in our new galleries
of Late Antiquity. But we need friends. Verb. Sap.