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Further to the correspondence inspired by Ian Flintoff on Richard Dawkins, the notion that religious inspiration has contributed to the bulk of great art in the past (Letters, 16 August) needs more careful examination.
For a significant period of European history, including the pre-Christian Roman era, commercial success for an artist, and therefore survival of art works to the present day, entailed tacit or more often explicit conformity with social, political and especially religious norms, in societies where religious institutions formed a key part of the political power structures. It was the power of those institutions to employ artists and pay for their materials which “inspired” or prompted the production of art. It is noteworthy also that in societies where the religious institutions largely discouraged or refused to fund the production of figural art, such art flourished within the more limited secular market, although survival of its products has been significantly hampered by those same religious institutions.
Artists may or may not have been “inspired by religion”, but we will never know, except in those rare cases where they explicitly denied such inspiration and usually suffered the consequences. For the rest, we can only try to read implicit meaning from their work – a notoriously inaccurate form of analysis, rather akin to the belief system espoused by Flintoff himself and so coherently criticised by Dawkins and other rationalists.
Four marble maidens from ancient Greece have just gotten a facelift. Using a specially designed laser, conservators have labored since 2011 to strip away the black grime that encrusted the statues. Today the final figure to undergo the treatment is being revealed in all her splendor in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this Friday, June 20.
Sculpted in the late fifth century B.C., the draped figures served as columns for the Erechtheion, one of the temples that stood on the Acropolis, the sacred rocky hill that rises 512 feet (156 meters) above the modern Greek capital.
A. R. Williams
The Duryodhana (left) and the Bhima (aka Temple Wrestler) (c. 925–50 CE), sandstone, 61-3/4 in (156.8 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1980.15.S (Duryodhana images courtesy US Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and the Bhima image courtesy the Norton Simon Art Foundation)
This week, we learned that two important Cambodian sandstone sculptures from the 10th century — one in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and the other seized from Sotheby’s New York in 2012 — will be returned to the Kingdom of Cambodia after being looted in the 1970s.
Yesterday, the Norton Simon Museum announced that they would be making a “gift” of the colossal sculpture, known as the Bhima, after nearly four decades on display in its institution. And today, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations announced the return of the Duryodhana, the companion sculpture to the Bhima, to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Urgent conservation work is needed to save a series of caves in northwest China containing ancient murals by Buddhist monks, which are threatened with destruction from the forces of nature.
The network of 236 sandstone caves extend over an area of two to three kilometres in the vast, sparsely-populated autonomous Xinjiang region of China, along the ancient Silk Road. The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks and used as temples between the third and the eighth centuries, and are lined with murals providing a rich picture of early Buddhist culture.
The caves, known locally as Kezer, are prone to deterioration, particularly from moisture, because of their geological composition, which includes many soluble salts. Although the region is very dry, any rainwater could have “distastrous consequences”, according to Giorgio Bonsanti, an expert in wall painting preservation. He told our sister paper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, “the signs of progressive decay, which in the long term would turn everything to sand, are dramatically evident.”
The Art Newspaper
The government of Aragon, an autonomous region in the north east of Spain, is formally asking the neighbouring government of Catalonia to return Romanesque frescos that are in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, Barcelona, the Spanish newspaper, El País reports.
The frescoes, which date from the early 13th century, were saved during the Spanish Civil War from the monastery of Santa María la Real de Sijena, which was badly damaged during the conflict.
Aragon has long claimed the frescos. This year the order of nuns, which has used what remains of the monastery buildings since the 1980s, ceded the historic property in the province of Huesca in the Spanish pyrenees to the Aragonese government. Aragon and the Fondación Caja Madrid spent €3.3m restoring the monastery between 1988 and 2009, according to the regional government’s website.
The Art Newspaper
The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British Museum is the key to a supersensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.
The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.
When it began its tour at the J. Paul Getty Museum in April, “Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome” was supposed to crown years of effort by some American museums to patch up relations with Italy over claims of looted antiquities.
Featuring dozens of antiquities from Sicilian collections, the exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., was scheduled to go to the Cleveland Museum of Art this fall before a final showing in Palermo next winter.
But all has not gone smoothly.
Sicilian officials now say that two star attractions — a dramatic six-foot-tall statue of a charioteer and an immaculate gold libation bowl, or phiale — should not travel to Cleveland because their absence is depriving Sicily of tourist dollars. And in a letter sent to the Getty and Cleveland museums this week, Sicily’s highest cultural official, Mariarita Sgarlata, noted that the region — which enjoys broad autonomy from Rome to shape its cultural policy — never signed a contract authorizing the exhibition in the first place.
In fact, the items were shipped from Italy months ago while the contract was being negotiated by Sicilian cultural officials who are no longer in office.
New York Times
A fleet of eight prehistoric boats, including one almost nine metres long, has been discovered in a Cambridgeshire quarry on the outskirts of Peterborough.
The vessels, all deliberately sunk more than 3,000 years ago, are the largest group of bronze age boats ever found in the same UK site and most are startlingly well preserved. One is covered inside and out with decorative carving described by conservator Ian Panter as looking “as if they’d been playing noughts and crosses all over it”. Another has handles carved from the oak tree trunk for lifting it out of the water. One still floated after 3,000 years and one has traces of fires lit on the wide flat deck on which the catch was evidently cooked.
Several had ancient repairs, including clay patches and an extra section shaped and pinned in where a branch was cut away. They were preserved by the waterlogged silt in the bed of a long-dried-up creek, a tributary of the river Nene, which buried them deep below the ground.
Destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii survived excavation starting in the 18th century and has stoically borne the wear and tear of millions of modern-day tourists.
But now, its deep-hued frescoes, brick walls and elegant tile mosaics appear to be at risk from an even greater threat: the bureaucracy of the Italian state.
In recent years, collapses at the site have alarmed conservationists, who warn that this ancient Roman city is dangerously exposed to the elements — and is poorly served by the red tape, the lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.
The site’s decline has captured the attention of the European Union, which began a $137 million effort in February that aims to balance preservation with accessibility to tourists. Called the Great Pompeii Project, the effort also seeks to foster a culture-driven economy in an area dominated by the Neapolitan Mafia.
Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo
New York Times