I WAS fortunate to be taken around the newly refurbished room 41
of the British Museum recently. Thanks to the generosity of Sir
Paul and Lady Ruddock (whose philanthropy has already paid for the
neighbouring room's renovation), the treasures from the Sutton Hoo
ship burial are revealed in all its glory, 75 years after it was
excavated in Suffolk on the banks of the river Deben.
Sue Brunning, the curator of early-medieval collections in Great
Russell Street, has used the opportunity to locate the prestigious
seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial within eight centuries of
continental history, from the boundary of the Atlantic to the
farthest shores of the Black Sea.
Repeated migrations gradually disseminated Late Roman culture
and, in turn, spread Christianity and then Islam. Exquisite
workmanship and fine materials for domestic use and the service of
the Church are displayed to startling effect, and testify that this
never was a Dark Age.
The Sutton Hoo treasury itself includes rich cloisonné pieces
set with garnets and coloured glass laid into filigree patterns
(much as in the more recently uncovered Staffordshire Hoard), as
well as a staggering decorative gold buckle, weighing nearly a
pound. Eleven Byzantine silver dishes found with a large silver
platter (71.8cm in diameter) made in the reign of the Emperor
Anastasius I (491-518) seem to underscore the status of the
princely warrior once buried here.
In the wall cabinets, the creative wealth and often ostentatious
splendour from lands as diverse as the Crimea, Cyprus, Morocco,
Ireland, and Germany is shown and brilliantly captured in Sonja
Marzinzik's Masterpieces: Early medieval art (British
Museum Press), a recent publication fittingly dedicated to the
Ruddocks. Hiberno-Viking brooches, carved ivory pyxes, coins and
delicate glassware astound.
Amid all this show of material affluence, I came upon a
yellow-glaze earthenware jug. I wonder how many visitors will
search out the Angel Inn pitcher. It was uncovered when an old inn
on the High in Oxford was demolished to build the Examination
Schools (BM 1887/0307.B.200).
The 17cm-high pitcher is thought to date to the early Norman
period (late 11th or early 12th century) and is an example of
Stamford ware. The Lincolnshire market town had been a centre for
pottery production from the ninth century, benefiting by a new
technology, that of wheel-thrown potting. Many earlier pieces turn
up in Scandinavia as Stamford lay on the border of the Danelaw.
Such technological mastery means that it is possible to identify
Stamford ware from other contemporary Romanesque pottery imported
from the Continent because of the sheer quality. The technique
became widespread, and ensured that English pottery was still much
sought after in successive centuries.
Sam Fogg's current exhibition perfectly demonstrates this and
represents his own private passion for the past 18 years or so.
Fifteen of the 22 pots on display are English, produced in centres
as diverse as Malvern, Scarborough, and Burley Hill in Derbyshire,
as well as Rye in Sussex.
The most demonstrative piece in the collection has to be the
so-called "Dartford Knight Jug", around the neck of which two
equestrian knights chase a stag whose extended antlers run up
either side of the spout. Standing 40cm high, this ceremonial
vessel has a weaving line pattern around its base on which the
simple decoration is that of the potter's imprinted fingertip.
A late-13th-century shouldered jug with a twisted rope handle,
from Lincolnshire, showed how often the potter used his thumbprint
to pinch a handle on to the jug itself and to ornament the
Fogg's most recent acquisition, from the Scarsdale collection at
Keddleston Hall, dominates the downstairs room. The coat of arms
borne by the Ferrers family, the later Earls of Derby, included six
black horsehoes (fer de cheval in Norman French). Five
horseshoes have been impressed on shoulders of the 40cm-high
olive-green cider jug, suggesting earlier 13th-century owners.
At the other end of the scale, in terms of size, is a
delightfully small cruet made in Buckinghamshire, at Brill or
Boarstall. Despite canonical prescription that precious metals
should be used where possible for the sacred vessels themselves,
cruets for the wine and water at mass were often made from clay.
The olive-green glaze is broken only with a strip decoration around
the waist, again achieved by printing a fingertip, possible a
woman's or a young person's.
Alongside all these pots there are any number of tiles whose
quality varies depending whether they had served as wall panels or
been trodden underfoot in daily use. Often domestic but rarely
humble, the tiles offered colour and design that was more
economical than dressed stone would have been. Some clearly come
from churches, such as the alternating lilies, griffins, eagles,
and lions, from St Etheldreda's, West Quantoxhead, in Somerset, and
the French tiles depicting the instruments of our Lord's
Others must only ever have served in households: a much worn
"alphabet" tile would have allowed a particularly inquisitive
toddler in the East Midlands to learn the 25 letters of the
Lombardic alphabet which form a convenient 5×5 square.
Visitors to the showroom are amply rewarded by way of
illustration. as the walls are hung with medieval paintings that
show such jugs and tiles in everyday use. In the cycles of medieval
York Mystery plays, potters were associated with the descent of the
Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Fittingly, the first altarpiece here is
that depicted by the Master of Regensburg Hostienfrevel, of
c.1480, although in it my eye was more taken by the
variety of stools and chairs for the apostles than by the floor
In the painting (oil on spruce), the Virgin is seated,
surrounded by the disciples, as the flames of Pentecost descend on
each of them. To either side in the spatial distance are the two
previous scenes, of the first Easter Day, with the appearance in
the upper room of the Risen Lord, and of the ascension, in which
Jesus's upper body is wholly hidden in a billow of cloud, while an
angel below explains to the baffled apostles what has occurred.
It has been suggested that the panel was painted soon after the
notorious theft of consecrated hosts from a city church in 1476
caused a wave of anti-Jewish anger. Such thefts, putative or real,
continue. In March 2012, the Archbishop of Monreale urged his
priests to ensure that the consecrated elements remain locked after
a wave of sacrilegious thefts in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy,
from Monza to Piacenza and Milan to Seveso.
At York, the tilemakers were associated with the second trial
before Pilate, and Sam Fogg shows a Flemish Man of Sorrows
from the early 16th century in which Christ is in a rich blue robe,
his hands tied across his bared navel, blood seeping from his
lacerated belly and pouring down his face and neck.
The Roman martyrs Claudius, Castorius, and Simplicius (three of
the four Crowned Martyrs), respectively the patron saints of
sculptors, stonemasons, and builders, appear in a panel from
another German altarpiece, once in St Lawrence's, Nuremberg, by
Hans Süss von Kulmbach (1485-1522).
Painted in 1510, the year when Martin Luther visited Rome and
stayed with the Augustinians on the Caelian Hill next to the
basilica Church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, this shows doughty
craftsmen quite the equal of the potters and tilemakers celebrated
elsewhere in this remarkably beautiful and at times poignant
"Pots and Tiles of the Middle Ages" is at Sam Fogg, 15d
Clifford Street, London W1, until 16 May. Phone 020 7534