A Digital Curiosity Cabinet


Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9.  She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth

In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:

‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’

The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.

He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.

When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’

Neptune and Triton, V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Alessandro Peretti,  the Cardinal Montalto, commissioned this impressive sculpture for the garden of his Villa in Rome. It formed the centre piece of a larger display of fountains and cascades, above a series of waterfalls that flowed into a large oval pond. Bernini was one of the most gifted and influential sculptors of the 17th century. He carved ‘Neptune and Triton’ within a year, between 1622 and 1623. In classical mythology Neptune was the god of the seas and his son Triton was a merman. Neptune stands tall bearing his trident, while Triton sits beneath him blowing through a conch shell. Originally the conch shell projected a single jet of water, and the piping still remains inside. Neptune and Triton are portrayed with great exuberance, as though they are commanding the seas, which would have been represented by the pond.

This scene may represent the mythological story from Ovid’s Metamoprhosis, Book 1. In the story Jupiter, the King of the Gods in Roman mythology becomes enraged with humanity and considers scorching the earth with fire. He decides to flood the world instead, and asks his brother Neptune to help. Neptune commands the seas and the river gods to flood the world. All the world is flooded except for two people who stand on a mountain peak. Jupiter regrets his decision and calls the seas back to spare their lives. Neptune orders Triton to blow his conch shell into the winds to summon the waters to retreat.

Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. In spite of all of this there was some order to his collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion etc. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.

Mosaic Skull Mask, British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

The Aztecs practised several forms of human sacrifice. They are famous for sawing open the chest of the victim with a knife, removing the still palpitating heart and holding it up to the gods. Skulls of sacrificial victims were placed on ‘skull’ racks. This skull of a thirty year old man has been decorated with stripes of bright blue turquoise and black lignite mosaic. The skull has been cut along the frontal bone to remove the back portion, leaving only the front portion. The eyes are made from polished discs of iron pyrites set in circles of white shell. The skull may represent the creator god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror.’  Tezcatlipoca was the patron of the night sky, the great bear, highwaymen, sorcerers and warriors.

The skull is lined with deerskin and has long deerskin straps. The moveable lower jaw is attached to the lining with a hinge. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red thorny oyster shell. The skull would have been worn as part of priestly regalia. The turquoise, lignite and pyrite were all brought from the furthest reaches of the Aztec Empire and beyond.

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with  ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.

He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.

Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.

Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.

Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.

Lindow Man

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow man died a brutal and horrific death. His body was discovered in 1984, when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in north west England. Lindow man is preserved complete with his skin, hair, and many of his internal organs. This is because of the extraordinary conditions in a peat bog. There is no oxygen in peat bogs, which means that the bacteria that causes decay, cannot thrive.

Lindow man died aged about 25 years old between 2BC and AD119. He was hit twice on the head with a heavy object, possibly an axe. Then he was kicked in the back, which broke one of his ribs. Then a thin cord was tied around his neck to strangle him and break his neck. Even after he died, his throat was cut. He was then thrown face down into a pool in the bog. It was almost certainly a ritual killing.

Perhaps he was a fierce criminal, or it could have been a human sacrifice. This Iron Age man was not a manual labourer, as his hands are well manicured. His stomach contents were analysed to reveal that his last meal was bread made from wheat and barley, and he also suffered from parasitic worms.  During the Iron Age people sacrificed objects such as weapons and cauldrons by throwing them into rivers, lakes or bogs. Perhaps water was an important doorway to the spirit world. Was Lindow man also a sacrifice to the Gods?

Statue from Easter Island, British Museum

Moai Figure, ©  British Museum, London

Moai Figure, © British Museum, London

The people of Easter Island, Polynesia built many giant statues called moai. This one is called Hoa Hakanai’a, which means ‘hidden friend’. It would have originally been painted red and white. The moai ranged in height from four to 33 feet, and in weight up to 80 tons. The statues were first discovered by Captain Cook when he visited Easter Island in 1774. The statue was built around 1000AD by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.  The Rapa Nui people believe that the Moai statues represent the deifed spirits of their ancestors. They made these colossal statues in a quarry with stone tools and transported them up to 11 miles across rough terrain without the use of wheels, cranes or large animals. How did they do it? If you ask the Rapa Nui Islanders, they will tell you that the statues walked by themselves. According to Suri Tuki, a local islander, ‘The experts can say what they want, but we know the truth. The statues walked.’

In 1987, Charles Love lead a team of US archaeologists, who built a wooden sledge to move a 13 foot moai on wooden rollers. They managed to move a nine ton model of a moai 148 feet on the sledge in two minutes. However, recent research by the National Geographic society shows that it was indeed possible to make the statues walk, with a little help from some rope and some strong men. The fat bellies of the statues cause them to tilt forward, and the D shaped base allowed the handlers to rock the moai from side to side and gently edge them forward. A team of 18 people managed to move a 10 foot, 5 ton Moai replica a few hundred yards using strong rope. So it seems like the people of Rapa Nui may have been right, all along!

Merman, British Museum

Merman, © British Museum, London

Merman, © British Museum, London

Many museums across the UK have mysterious creatures, called mermen in their collections. This merman was thought to have been ‘caught’ in Japan in the 18th century. The Japanese word for merman is ‘ningyo’, which literally means, ‘man fish’. Mermen have long held an important place in Japanese culture. One Shinto temple in Fujinomiya, Japan has a mermaid mummy that is thought to be 1,400 years old. According to one ancient Japanese legend, a fisherman caught a merman in his fishing net. The merman with its dying breath predicted a time of great prosperity, and a fatal epidemic. The fatal epidemic could only be prevented by owning a merman.

Another tale is of a young girl called Yao Bikuni. She eats the flesh of a merman and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands, and then decides to become a travelling nun. After many centuries have passed, she becomes so miserable that she chooses to take her own life. After hearing these stories, suddenly everyone wanted a merman of their own! They were bought to display as curiosities in the 18th and 19th century. Ofcourse, these mermen were all fakes. Most of them are made of part monkey, and part fish moulded together.

This merman is made of the dried up parts of a monkey, with a fish tail. It is probably mounted together on a wooden support. It was donated to the British Museum by Prince Arthur of Connaught in the early 20th century.

Rock Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, 19th century, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

Crystal Skull, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

This crystal skull was carved from a single block of rock crystal. The British Museum records show that it was bought in 1867 from Mr Frederick Kunz. Mr Kunz was an obsessive collector of gemstones, amassing around 4,000 precious stones, by the time he reached the age of 20. The jeweller describes his fascination with the sparkling gems:

‘Every boy has his passion – his collection of stamps or coins, or marbles or what not, and the only difference between another boy’s and mine was that I never outgrew it. Given a fresh excavation today, I am just as apt to go down on my knees and begin grubbing about as I was at the age of ten.’

He claimed that he acquired this skull from a Spanish officer who brought it back from Mexico. Aztec art is characterised by skulls, death and the beautiful blue turquoise stone. Frederick Kunz sold the skull to an antiquities dealer, and it was later bought by the British Museum. But scientists have discovered that it was actually all a big fraud! In 1996 an international team of scientists had a closer look at the skull with an electron microscope, and found machine cut marks. These cut marks show that the skull was made with a rotary cutting wheel. Rotary cutting wheels were introduced to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This sparkling crystal skull was actually made in the 19th century.