Ah, Vienna

In May I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see the ancient Cypriot collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as the highlight of a whirlwind visit to the city. The building in which the Museum is housed is truly spectacular, and merits a visit on its own account.


Interior of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

An outer room featuring large-scale limestone statuary leads into a gallery filled with ceramics and smaller terracottas; what first caught my eye were these wonderful Late Cypriot Base Ring figurines.

Base Ring figurines s

Base Ring figurines © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I particularly liked these askoi in the shape of a stag and a non-specific animal – the tail should give a clue, but I can’t quite place it.

Stag askos s

Askos in the shape of a stag © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Animal askos s

Animal-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There were also fantastic White Painted vessels such as this one, in amazingly good condition, with multiple tiny loop-holes, for string? It’s difficult to picture how it might have been used.

String loop vessel s

White Painted string loop vessel © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I was also very taken by this bird-shaped askos – it does have the appearance of a sitting bird protecting its nest (though there is definitely something pie-shaped about it as well – reminscent of RAMM’s ‘Devon pasty chicken’).

Bird form askos s

Bird-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There were plenty more birds on view – from a rather rotund example on a Bichrome pyxis to an elegantly striped long-legged waterfowl on a White Painted jug which itself resembles a bird.

Painted bird s

Bichrome painted bird © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Bird on White Painted jug © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This Proto-White Painted Ware askos is more conventionally duck-shaped, and is quacking with its body angled forward on webbed feet.

Bird askos

Bird-shaped askos © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Some of the terracotta groups were also enchanting, such as this Cypro-Archaic scene showing a baker’s dog taking a close interest in the baked goods.

Baker s

Terracotta group of baker and dog © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This Cypro-Archaic figurine is very helpful in interpreting a fragmentary figurine from the Leeds City Museum collection. The object held by the LCM figurine is broken, but we can be fairly confident that it is a small animal like the one below, and not a hide, as has been suggested.

Cypro-Archaic figure s

Cypro-Archaic figurine holding a small animal

LCM figurine s

Cypro-Archaic figurines from Leeds City Museum. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

I’ve been giving some thought lately to ancient Cypriot figurines and the most effective ways of displaying them. It was interesting to see this fragmentary figurine displayed with a modern reconstruction of the lower part of the body; I’m not sure how recent this reconstruction is. It does help to give a clearer idea of how the figurine would have appeared, but could it be perceived as misleading? There are several different approaches to displaying fragmentary figurines in this case – some unmounted, some on small wooden plinths, and the central figurine, with its large kalathos, having some of its original stature restored by a perspex mount.

Figurines s

Display of terracotta figurines © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Overall, the gallery was very impressive; as befits a museum of art history, the objects are all beautiful as well as fascinating. The background lighting in the gallery is low, with individual objects brightly lit, and the colour scheme is red – the overall effect is quite dramatic, with the objects casting strong shadows, as can be seen above. I’m reminded of L.P. di Cesnola’s 1872 display of his collection at G.L. Feuardent’s on Great Russell Street in London: he wrote

‘The walls at my request have been painted dark red with pedestals and shelves of the same color and the statues make a grand and striking aspect indeed’.¹

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has a fantastic website with much better photos than these, and all kinds of additional information, which is well worth a virtual visit – see Room 1 of the Antikensammlung for the ancient Cypriot collection. Next on my list is the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, though it might take me a while to get there!

¹ Quoted by O. Masson (1992) ‘Diplomates et Amateurs d’Antiquités à Chypre vers 1866-1878’, Journal des savants pp.123-154 (p.147).




New discoveries from the Educational Resource Service

Two years ago I mentioned here that I had come across an old catalogue for the Educational Resource Service, which included some ancient Cypriot objects. Very excitingly, a few of these have now come to light at the University, having been long overlooked in storage. They include some Greek pieces, and three which are Cypriot – a stemmed bowl, an amphora, and this fantastic horse and rider.

Horse and rider figurine © University of Leeds

Horse and rider figurine
© University of Leeds

To me, this represents some of the best qualities of ancient Cypriot art. The modelling is very impressionistic, even crude, but it has an indefinable energy and vigour. I love the way the horse is leaning backwards, as though pulling up suddenly from a headlong charge.

Horse and rider figurine © University of Leeds

Horse and rider figurine
© University of Leeds

The rider’s pose, with right hand raised, is fairly unusual; it’s probably meant to represent some kind of martial gesture, and he may once have held a spear made of a different material. The horse’s harness and tack are elaborate, and include a fringed breastplate which may represent a ‘fly apron’, attested in images of horses in warfare from the Near East (Crouwel J. and Tatton-Brown V., ‘Ridden horses in Iron Age Cyprus’, RDAC 1988).

There are numerous examples of ancient Cypriot horse and rider figurines, some from tombs but many known to be from sanctuaries, where they would have been votive offerings. Unfortunately contextual information, including findspot, is largely lacking for these ERS objects at the moment, though I have hopes of uncovering a little more.

The objects’ recent history, as art objects for temporary loan to schools, is made evident by their presentation – mounted on plinths (sadly, probably glued down) and wired into Perspex boxes, contained within custom-fitted wooden cases labelled with ERS codes and descriptions.

Case for ERS objects

Case for ERS objects

The Cypriot objects formed part of a wider collection on Ancient Greece, also incorporating modern replicas and ‘backdrop’ photographs on boards – see the sample layout from the ERS catalogue below, with the horse and rider on the left. I wonder whether their distinctively Cypriot heritage was understood by the schools that borrowed them and the pupils that viewed them?

Illustration from ERS catalogue

Illustration from ERS catalogue

The Educational Resource Service began as the West Riding School Museum Service in the 1940s, which was led by Sir Alec Clegg, Director of Education, and reached its full potential steered by Eric Woodward as Senior Advisor between 1956 and 1985. You can read more about its history on Natalie Bradbury’s ‘Pictures for Schools’ blog here. It must have been a wonderful resource for local schools, a treasure trove of inspiring objects arriving regularly in their custom-made travelling cases. Eric Woodward was kind enough to discuss the Cypriot objects with me, and recalls that they may have been British Museum duplicates, or acquired at auction. It’s quite possible that pieces such as this could have been picked up at a relatively low price. The figurine and amphora have both been broken and repaired; this damage may have been part of their history in schools, or may have made them more affordable to buy for the collection.

Much of the information about their earlier history is probably lost now, but I have a few leads to follow up. Wakefield Museum have the original ERS accession register in their archives, which I shall consult. They also have a couple of further Cypriot pieces from the collection (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Bichrome krater or the jug to the rear of the illustration below).

Illustration from ERS catalogue

Illustration from ERS catalogue

What comes next for these ERS objects at Leeds is not yet clear. Perhaps a life outside the Perspex, and on display?