Tag Archives: Renaissance

Renaissance Ways of Seeing / Ways of Seeing the Renaissance

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities

How did people see in the Renaissance? From religious art in Alpine chapels to invisible men on the London stage, Wednesday’s panel session at Birkbeck Arts Week offered four ways of seeing in the Renaissance that challenged us to look again at how we see and understand the period.

  • Envisage a Mary Magdalene clothed in liturgical green rather than as a scarlet harlot.
  • Picture the angels John Dee thought could be seen in a crystal ball.
  • Imagine what buying ‘a robe for to goo invisibell’ entailed, and wonder whether we see nature or convention in great works of Renaissance art.

The panel showed us ways to do just that and asked do we have to see to believe? Or do we need to believe to see?

Birkbeck’s Joanne Anderson opening paper presented us with a new way of viewing Mary Magdalen. Focusing predominately on depictions of the Magdalen in Alpine Italy, we saw a female saint clothed in the colour of Jerusalem, replete in the shades of re-birth and shrouded in the sacred.

Coloured green this Mary is a preacher, not the scarlet woman taken in adultery. Joanne’s paper raised fascinating questions about the role of women in the early church, and how varied religious beliefs were interpreted in iconography across Renaissance Europe. What does this mean for how we interpret Mary Magdalen? What did the people of the Renaissance Alps see and believe about their green Magdalen and why was she so different to the sexualised southern Italian Mary draped in red?

The art of ‘scrying’

Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck) posed related themes about sight, conventions and belief in his talk on John Dee and the art of seeing or ‘scrying’. Dee’s active participation in the practice of crystallomancy raises many questions about Renaissance ways of seeing. Did Dee’s scryer, Edward Kelly, see and converse with angels through a crystal ball? Was Kelly a charlatan, mentally ill or taking drugs? Does it matter?

Stephen’s paper asked us to think about what Dee believed he was seeing, and how that was influenced by conventional Renaissance images of angels. Ultimately asking how does what we expect to see, through belief and convention, influence what we do see?

Sight, convention and interpretation

The final two papers continued those themes of sight, convention and interpretation by giving us ways to look at things that are simultaneously there and not there. Dr Paul Taylor (Warburg Institute) discussed the inherent tensions in imitation. Do you draw from nature or follow a schematic that represents nature? And which produces the more apparently realistic image?

Looking at Renaissance images of hair, lips and trees Paul demonstrated how the mind fills in gaps so that we see and understand things that aren’t really there. In contrast Gill Woods (Birkbeck) showed us how early modern plays told the mind not to see things that really were there. Going invisible on the Renaissance stage required imagination, cued by words, use of conventions and ultimately a leap of faith to both see and not see the entirely visible.

Ways of seeing

So to conclude, what did the session show us about Renaissance ways of seeing?

Collectively the panel gave us Renaissance religious, artistic and theatrical ways of seeing but also showed us ways of seeing the Renaissance. It seems to me that Gill’s recipe for looking beyond the visible represents how we see and interpret the Renaissance today. Our research requires us to understand convention but then to look beyond it (sometimes with a leap of faith) to see what others haven’t.

Perhaps then this makes us all scryers, looking into Renaissance objects in the hope of opening up a conversation with the past.

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Visit to Eton College Chapel

Students on Birkbeck’s BA History of Art visited Eton College Chapel in November with Lecturer in Renaissance Art Dr Joanne Anderson. Three students give their accounts of the visit.


Sheelagh Daley, part-time 3rd-year student – BA History of Art

The visit to Eton College was a unique opportunity to see an English mural cycle not just in its original location, but also still in the context for which it was painted – that of a working chapel. This made it much easier to think about the original context for the mural and to appreciate the complexity of the cycle as well as see how the mural cycle related to the rest of the building. This gave me an insight into how the mural paintings we have looked at on the course worked in practice. As an additional treat we were shown a secular wall painting in the Master’s study which gave an insight into medieval pedagogy as well as classroom discipline for naughty boys, which I’m glad that Birkbeck doesn’t emulate. Overall it was a truly memorable visit.

Kristina Dolgilevica, part-time 4th-year student – BA History of Art

I am a Year 4 student of art history at Birkbeck. When studying an academic subject it is important to venture out of the classroom – particularly if the subject contains a lot of visual material. At Birkbeck, on average, we have four trips/ gallery visits per year. Our recent trip to Eton College Chapel to see the 15th-century wall paintings was a real treat – I got to see the artwork in its original context, which without a doubt has contributed to my way of thinking about the subject, and is something you cannot get by looking at a photograph. Moreover, our group got to meet the people who work on site; they provided us with some valuable information and were very welcoming. I guess one of the most important aspects of venturing out of the classroom is that you get to spend more time with your group in an informal setting and discuss the subject you study in more detail, in a more relaxed environment. If I had to choose one word to describe our recent trip, it would be – stimulating!

Sue Prior, part-time student 3rd year – BA History of Art

Our trip to Eton was great; an excellent opportunity to get out of the lecture room and see some works of art in context. I enjoyed being able to sit in the chapel surrounded by the murals and with Joanne’s explanation of the scheme, imagine how they would have been viewed at the time. Seeing the predominantly grisaille frescoes in the flesh, we were able to really see the depth and contrast the artist managed to achieve with the limited colour palette.  It was an informative and fun afternoon.


London Connections: ‘The Mediated City: A Tour of Media and Mediation in West End London’&‘London: A Renaissance City ?’

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Birkbeck Arts Week on Wednesday featured a double bill of London events. First off a West End walking tour guided by Dr Joel McKim and Scott Rodgers who promised us that we’d be using the city to rethink the way we use media, and using media to rethink the way we see the city. From Fitzroy to Leicester Square (both spaces re-fashioned to reap the rewards of film industry activity, from ‘Georgian’ location to Red Carpet stargazing) we tracked the spores of London’s media creatures. We inspected a protected Banksy under the shadow of the BT (formerly GPO) Tower and submitted ourselves to airport-type security to peer in at the ants nest that is the BBC Newsroom. Whereas George Val Myer’s Broadcasting House (1932) looks like an Art Deco liner bearing down on Oxford Circus, the Apple Store occupies Regent House (1898), built on the site of the former Hanover Chapel in Regent Street, like a cathedral. Scott pointed out the Venetian mosaics over the ubiquitous logo, showing that when it was built the building already had connections with Paris, New York, St Petersburg and Berlin.

Venturing into Soho we passed the artisanal post-production houses, rendering, digitising and generally buffing up the raw material for untold hours of viewing, and in Soho Square found the ducal palaces of film production, the address for the likes of Twentieth Century Fox.  Joel told us how the film and tv industries had benefitted from the fibre-optic digital networks installed by banks for high-speed transfers, and how companies like Sohonet were now enabling post-production on the same film to take place simultaneously in London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, just round the corner in Dean Street is Rippon Newsagent’s, which has been distributing media from its Georgian storefront  since 1791.

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Dodging the crowds round the Eros Statue, we learned about the history of advertising in Piccadilly Circus, where flashing lights have been selling soft drinks since 1908. Perhaps, suggested Joel, the Piccadilly screens may at some future point be used for purposes other than advertising, as in the innovative Times Square Arts collaboration with contemporary artists, or the transnational project that used public screens to link Seoul and Melbourne. We reached Leicester Square in time for the five o’clock serenade from the Glockenspiel Clock to hear about the plans for the replacement of the Odeon West End  with a 10-storey hotel and cinema complex which Rowan Moore, in the Guardian, describes as being ‘the architectural equivalent of the premium-priced vats of tepid Coke on sale in the foyers of multiplexes’.

The re-development will mean the end of the Hand and Racquet, the pub in Whitcomb Street which is apparently named after a nearby tennis court used by Charles II, a sports facility roughly contemporary with the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) which Dr Stephen Clucas considers to be the final flowering of the English Renaissance.

In the session which asked the question ‘London: A Renaissance City?’ Stephen Clucas spoke up for some of the powerhouses behind discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the mid-to-late Sixteenth Century as coming not from the city, but from the periphery of London. Specifically the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot, who lived in the grounds of his patron Henry Percy’s  Syon House in Isleworth, and the astronomer and astrologer Dr John Dee who lived just downstream at Mortlake. We heard how in 1575 Queen Elizabeth called on Dr Dee in order to have a look at his ‘scrying glass’ but didn’t disturb him because he had just come from his wife’s funeral. Dee had a library of over 2000 printed books in Mortlake, and Henry Percy had one of the largest libraries in Europe, although the ‘Wizard Earl’ had to make do with regular deliveries of books when he did a seventeen-year stretch in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

The Earl was lucky to get away with his life. Dr Brodie Waddell told us how in 1590’s London, anyone found guilty of Grand Larceny, which meant the theft of anything of the value of one shilling or more, was sentenced to death. Those found guilty of lesser thefts would be tied to a cart and whipped through the streets. The population of London had doubled in the years from the mid-16th Century, to reach over 140,000 by the year 1600. Refugees from religious persecution in Holland flocked to the city and provided cheap labour. Bad harvests led to a three-fold increase in the price of flour between 1594 and 1597, and following the ruinous attempts to contain the Tyrone rebellion in Ireland, demobbed soldiers added to problems of vagrancy, crime, social disorder and sedition.

The backing track to the extraordinary developments on the Elizabethan stage was more likely to be the sound of apprentices rioting, or the plague bell, than the colloquy of classical scholarship. Dr Gillian Woods made the point in an analysis of Shakespeare’s most brutal play, Titus Andronicus that in the early 1590s, Shakespeare shows his villainous characters, the rapist brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their provocateur Aaron, ransacking classical authors for a guide to depravity and then adding new tortures of their own devising. And in a marked departure from classical convention, Shakespeare presents much 0f the violence on stage ‘thereby forcing the audience to examine a development of what is at the heart of the Renaissance endeavour’.

Dr Susan Wiseman concluded the session by paying tribute to a group of dedicated (or perhaps obsessed) men and women who took it upon themselves in the late 19th Century to record and preserve London’s ancient monuments and buildings. Chief amongst them was Charles Robert Ashbee, editor of the Survey of London. As Sue pointed out, many of the buildings photographed for the Survey are commonly used to illustrate Dickens’s London, whereas they actually provide an extraordinary visual record of London before the Fire. The 1590’s façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate has been preserved in the V&A, but The Oxford Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn, was demolished in the late 1870s.

England came late to the Renaissance party, and none of the speakers at the session seemed confident to give a full affirmative to the ‘Was London a Renaissance City?’ question. But one thing was clear, that from Dr Dee plotting the course of Jupiter’s moons from the roof of Northumberland House on the Strand, to today’s digital pioneers developing the future’s equivalent to Dee’s ‘scrying glass’, London has incubated a pursuit of knowledge and artistic endeavour with all the energy and innovation of its classical antecedents.


The Birkbeck Medieval and Renaissance Studies Summer School: On the River

This post was contributed by Jackie Watson, a third year PhD student in English at Birkbeck.

A rare opportunity to relish learning…

I’m convinced there is nothing so quirky, and at the same time so profoundly intellectual, as the Birkbeck Medieval and Renaissance Summer School (BMRSS).  It is a showcase of academic expertise – with papers, this year on The River, from leading academics.  But what makes it special is how it encourages people from a range of backgrounds, different ages and academic levels, to meet and share their excitement in medieval and early modern literature, history and art. This year’s group is ‘typical’, people doing courses at BA, MA and PhD level, in different disciplines, from lots of different places in the UK and beyond: all talking animatedly about ideas raised by the conference, but also about their academic aspirations, and possibilities for future learning and research. It’s an encouraging environment, and highly unusual in today’s short-sighted, outcome-driven HE system…

Nothing, perhaps, shows how unusual it is more than the programme.  Such is the ambition of the summer school to provide different learning experiences to a wide variety of students, that it’s incredibly difficult to organise…  Most conferences take place in one building – with, at most, the need to move from one room to another: nothing so lacking in ambition for the BMRSS! Sessions on maps at the British Library, a group going to Shakespeare’s Globe, and another touring the city to find evidence of its lost rivers…  Greenwich Maritime Museum, Renaissance Print-making and modern river poetry…  With options at every turn, no-one’s summer school is like anyone else’s!  It’s ambitious, unusual, and very quirky…

Take the search for lost rivers…

For a variety of reasons, some of us turned down the opportunity to see Macbeth.  Seen it already, perhaps, or just about to… but all of us were very excited to ramble around London finding evidence of all those rivers whose names we’d heard so often – now, usually, underground and unseen.

Beginning in Islington with the creation of the New River and a statue of the man responsible (Hugh Myddelton) we wound our way, water-like, downhill to the Thames…  For three hours…  And at every turn we were nearly so distracted and fascinated by what we found that we risked not reaching the Globe to meet the others.

Consider the fascination of a hole in the road…

In his morning paper on Spenser and Jonson’s contributions to river poetry, Adam Smyth had (just in passing, you understand) mentioned the fact that you can, if you lie in the middle of a particular London street and listen at a grate, hear the rushing waters of the Fleet beneath.  A mildly interesting, and quite an innocent remark to make, if slightly tangential to Jonson’s account of the river’s detritus…  However, to such a group as this, such an inconsequential comment is a challenge; find the road, practically lie in it, and listen to the watery voice of the past.

Lea, Fleet, Walbrook, Quaggy, Tyburn etc. were soundly commemorated by the walk.

On to Clerkenwell (only one of the wells we passed), and St John’s Priory museum – the joyous ShaLT project app (from recent research into Shakespeare’s London Theatres involving an interactive map showing early modern sites in London), allowed us to find the site of the Elizabethan Revels Office.  We had to tear ourselves away, and on to Smithfield (past the site of the inn/brothel owned by George Wilkins, co-writer of Pericles) and St Bart’s museum (Hogarth paintings), diverting slightly to George Frederick Watts’ memorial to heroic self-sacrifice at Postman’s Park (many of whom seemedto be victims of the waterways we were interested in)…

And that was only one afternoon of the three days… Such an opportunity for learning is unforgettable, and, unfortunately, rare in today’s educational climate. Long may the quirky BMRSS continue to buck the trend!