Tag Archives: Illuminating Objects

17th Century Pendant: Final Chapter

student holding a book-shaped pendant

Well, my experience at The Courtauld has been fantastic — but it’s flown by so fast!  Before I do anything else, I want to thank Dr. Alexandra Gerstein for her support and mentorship through these past few months.  The Courtauld Gallery staff in general are an amazing group of people to work for, and it’s been an absolute privilege to have had this opportunity to contribute in my own small way to the work of the museum.

My object – a book shaped pendant with painted-glass panels depicting religious scenes – was installed in the gallery this morning, and it looks great!  It was amazing to see everything come together so well at the end, including the beautiful labels and plinth, which I hadn’t really been able to picture until today. We were a little concerned about how such a tiny pendant would look in a large case, but I think we made very good use of the space by printing out high-resolution images of the glass panels and putting them on the plinth.  This helps the viewers see the object better and made the space feel warmer.

When I chose this object way back in July, I definitely did not anticipate all the challenges it would bring. It’s an object that doesn’t yield easy answers, that’s a little mysterious—but this is something we theologians love!  Even now, after five months of researching, consulting experts, and reflecting on the pendant, it still keeps its secrets.

Just a final comment on the research process — one of the highlights of my experience has been speaking with and learning from experts in the fields of art history and curatorial research.  Toward the beginning of my research, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr Ayla Lepine, Lecturer in Art History at the University of Essex and an expert in Victorian aesthetics, who actually helped me select my object.  I was also very pleased to meet with Kirstin Kennedy, a curator of metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on several occasions; her insight on the object helped me probe much more deeply into the questions the object raises.  Finally, I was “serendipitously” (thank you, Google) able to track down a doctoral researcher from the University of Giessen in Germany who is currently studying book-shaped pendants from the Renaissance.  This was an amazing coincidence, and Romina was kind enough to fly to London and share her expertise with us.  Meeting these generous scholars has been a delight, and one of the experiences I will treasure from my internship is having been in a truly collaborative educational environment.  In my experience, university academia can sometimes feel resistant to this kind of collaboration, and it was refreshing to be involved in a project in which various perspectives were so vividly able to cross-fertilize and enrich my own study.

This blog post was originally published on The Courtauld Gallery Blog.
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The Mount Athos Cross

two female students examining athos cross in store

Posted on 30 October by  Dr Eleni Dimitriadou.

Illuminating Objects is a new series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from the decorative arts and sculpture collection. All these objects have interesting stories to tell, but have rarely been shown and are unknown to all but the most specialist scholars.

The first object we have chosen is an exquisitely carved Orthodox cross.

The Mount Athos Cross

This cross was made in one of the monasteries on Mount Athos in the 17th or 18th century.

For centuries this complex of twenty monasteries was a centre of miniature wood carving, a craft still practised by the monks there today.

This cross was originally used for the benediction of the congregation during the liturgy. It, along with two others, was bequeathed to The Courtauld Gallery in 1966.

Over the last 46 years it has been looked after by the respective curators of Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

It goes on display to the public for the first time today.

Over the last six months I’ve been working with Dr Alexandra Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, on the research and display of this first Illuminating Object.

Working so closely on a single object is not as straightforward as you might think, especially when dealing with a piece as intricate as this cross.

It’s been an interesting challenge to  try and communicate the complexity and purpose of the cross’ decoration and place it in its cultural context.

The very first task was to choose which one of the three carved wooden crosses of the collection we were going to display.

Making a decision was not easy – but in the end the size of this cross (it’s the largest of the group) and more importantly the quality of carving dictated our choice.

Both sides of the cross are covered in intricately carved miniature scenes.

These scenes are from the Great Feasts cycle, known as Dodekaorton in Greek, essentially events from the life of Christ and the Virgin.

Foliate ornaments around the cross are carved with Old Testament narratives, prophets and saints.

On the lateral sides of the cross are two acronyms, referring to the salvation of mankind through sacrifice.

We wanted to make sure all of these details are visible to visitors, so we’ve placed the cross in a freestanding case. 

Our next challenge was to work out how orientate the viewer through all 18 scenes, not to mention the singular images of prophets and saints.

Eleni and Dr Alexandra Gerstein examine the cross

We suggest following a chronological order, starting from the scene of the Annunciation on Side A and working your way down to the Raising of Lazarus and then to Side B.

This is not, however, the only way of looking at it.

What is important to understand about this cross is that the choice of placing specific Old Testament events around certain New Testament scenes is not coincidental – they interact to emphasise the salvation of mankind, a profound human concern for thousands of years.

Working on this project alongside the curator has given me real insight into the process of organising exhibitions.

It’s also meant that I’ve become aware of a group of artworks – carved wooden crosses – which have attracted very little scholarly attention. I’m intending to do further research on the subject culminating in an academic article.

Finally, I would like to thank Klairi Angelou for compiling documentation on the crosses for the object files.

The Mount Athos Cross was on display from 30 October 2012 – 4 February 2013.

 Dr Eleni Dimitriadou, Visiting Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art