Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gargoyles and Graffiti

I'm in Oxford. I arrived too late in the day to get started in the Bodleian Library, so I applied for my reader's card and then meant to go to the Ashmolean Museum.

I got sidetracked by the 13th-century university cathedral. The cathedral is under renovation right now, but the tower is open to visitors, so I enthusiastically went up. I always get about halfway up these medieval church towers and then remember how much I hate trying to get back down the spiral staircases that are wide enough for just one person and that don't have a consistent height of step riser. No point in not finishing the climb at that point, though, and truly, the views are always worth it.

From the top, the gargoyles and other façade statues are so close up, too!

Of all of these, the only true gargoyle, of course, is the one on the left in this picture, the one that functions as a drainpipe.

Check out the date on this graffito (click to enlarge if you need) that was carved into the walkway at the top of the tower (which was also only big enough for one person at any point, leading to lots of shuffling around and sinking back into recesses in the façade to let people pass. Just walking around, I'm very aware that yes, I went to college with lots of Gothic architecture and that my university was already 63 years in existence when this student or penitent or priest carved his name here, but those buildings are neo-Gothic and from 19th century, largely not the original buildings of the university. (I suppose it's like Oriel College tearing down its 13th-century buildings in the 16th, just on a vaster scale). It really does feel different:

Oh, and just to prove that I really was there:

I did eventually get over to the Ashmolean, about two hours before closing, so I really had to race through. I hope I have a chance to go back this trip to see it at a more leisurely pace; if not, it'll definitely be on my list of places to visit on a future trip. I was very impressed by the narrative of the museum and the ways in which it is reinforced visually. They've really tried to integrate their European and Oriental collections along a sort of Mediterranean crossroads theme-line. There is a lot of glass in the fabric of the building, and it's used very effectively in support of that narrative. For example, standing in the Islamic Middle East gallery, you can see up into the study gallery for European ceramics and from that vantage point, you see through a window that backs onto the Valencia Lusterware (based, of course, on Islamic glazing techniques). A highlight of the Islamic collection (which houses pieces that are just out of this world in terms of their quality) for me was a pair of doors that T.E. Lawrence acquired in Jeddah and installed outside of his swimming pool in Dorset. I also enjoyed seeing an elaborate 16th-century puzzle box made out of olive wood in the shape of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I also got to visit a special exhibition on the natural history illustrations of Edward Lear, he of the nonsense verse. He was very skilled and I was blown away by his paintings, but it was a bit odd that the curators really didn't try to connect his illustration of strange and wondrous creatures with his later career in nonsensery. Instead, they just plunked a few of the nonsense books at the end. And finally, they have the original collection, the contents of a seventeenth-century curio cabinet, with which Elias Ashmole founded the museum. It was especially effective because it showed the very early roots of the museum's balance between art and anthropology.

I'll be in the library as of tomorrow morning. Brace yourselves for copious manuscript photos to come.

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