3-2-C: The British Museum, London

According to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), the British Museum continues to reign supreme for the 10th year running as the most popular UK attraction in 2016. Nearly 6.4 million people passed through its colonnade and classical façade to see the mummies, the Rosetta Stone (196 BC), the looted Parthenon statues, and on the very rare occasion (and a bit of research) Hokusai’s woodcut, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829-33).

But the British Museum isn’t just about the Egyptians, Greco-Romans, and Anglo-Saxons. Have a look for the following on your next visit:

Michelangelo, The Epifania cartoon, 1550-53

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Michelangelo, The Epifania cartoon, 1550-53

First on the list is the mind and mastery behind the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Epifania cartoon is a lucky survivor in the history of draughtsmanship, being one of only two cartoons still in existence by the Florentine master; the second is in the Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.

This is not a ‘cartoon’ in the modern sense of the word. Rather, it derives from the Italian word cartone, which is used to mean a large sheet of paper. The function of a cartoon was to aid with the transferring of a design onto the intended surface to be painted, such as a wooden panel or the side of a wall. As such, they were drawn to the same size as the final composition. Larger compositions were facilitated by gluing multiple sheets of paper together, of which the Epifania consists of 26 blue-green (now discoloured) sheets. Being so large, it currently hangs permanently in Room 90.

The cartoon is in poor condition and it wouldn’t have been much better when it served its purpose in Michelangelo’s time. Scholarship has determined that the cartoon did not endure a process known as ‘pricking and pouncing’, whereby the contours of the image are pricked and the design transferred via the resultant holes using ground charcoal. Instead, it is now believed that the design may have been transferred by blackening the back of the image (verso) with chalk and then tracing along the contours with a stylus – like a carbon copy – via a procedure called incision. The cartoon’s final product is an unfinished painting in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence, by Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s biographers.

The subject of the cartoon is unclear. The central figure is unanimously believed to be the Virgin Mary due to her position in the centre of the composition. The Christ Child is probably the figure between her legs, whilst the infant Saint John the Baptist may be the child on the right. The bearded man on the right of the drawing is likely to be Saint Joseph. However, the younger man on the left is unknown, some saying it could be Isaiah or some other saint or prophet.

This cartoon is special in many ways. Aside from having been created by Michelangelo, cartoons of this size and completion are incredibly rare due to their prior function. It is an object that gets a lot of visitor traffic but very few people take the time to look at it in detail. Personally, it’s a must-see every time I visit the British Museum.

Workshop of Adam Dircksz, Miniature altarpiece, 1511

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Workshop of Adam Dircksz, Miniature altarpiece, 1511

Altarpieces came in all shapes and sizes. Some were grand polyptychs with several side panels, sculpted in wood or painted in tempera or oil, intended for the high altar or a side chapel in a church. Others were simple constructions, consisting of two or three panels; these small diptychs and triptychs were intended for an individual’s private devotion and were sometimes carried around due to their portability. And then there is the magic of boxwood sculpture.

This altarpiece is part of the Waddesdon Bequest, a collection of nearly 300 objects left to the British Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild; it is currently exhibited in Room 2a.

It is carved with scenes from the life and Passion of Christ. When the doors (or wings) are opened, a multi-layered Crucifixion scene greets the viewer. Indeed, each layer was carved individually and assembled. The left-hand door shows Christ Carrying the Cross and the right-hand door depicts the Resurrection. Below the main triptych is a smaller triptych showing the Agony in the Garden and on the sides, the Betrayal. On the base is the Last Supper; Judas is clearly shown in the front, on the opposite side of the table. Flanking the base are wrestling putti and shield-holding lions.

According to the curators, it is special for being not entirely Gothic in every detail. Instead, it possesses Renaissance and Italianate details too, such as the wrestling putti and pilaster-type decoration. But even for the non-specialists, this is an object that doesn’t fail to command attention in the gallery due to its exceptional detail and technical mastery.

Doctor Who Art Department, Doctor Who banknote prop, 2006

Doctor Who banknote
Doctor Who Art Department, Doctor Who banknote prop, 2006

Not everything in a museum must be old and boring. For Doctor Who fans (Whovians), this banknote worth ‘ten satsumas’ is an exciting treat to see. It featured in the 2006 Christmas Special episode ‘The Runaway Bride’, featuring the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and the introduction of his new companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). Because the Bank of England has strict guidelines regarding the production of prop banknotes for film and TV, the Doctor Who art department needed to design them specially for the scene where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to cause cash to fly out of an ATM. Pop-culturists will love the references embedded in this prop.

Two references to David Tennant’s first episode as the Doctor, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, can be found. The use of ‘satsumas’ is a reference to him finding a satsuma in the pocket of his bathrobe after winning a swordfight against the Sycorax leader on the surface of the alien ship. Immediately after this, the Sycorax leader picks up his sword and attempts to attack the Doctor, who in turn throws the satsuma at a sensor, causing the Sycorax leader to fall to his death from his ship. The Doctor then says, ‘No second chances – I’m that sort of man’, the quotation found on the banknote.

3-2-C is a new series of blog posts devoted to presenting an alternative selection of ‘must-see’ exhibits from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world.

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