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Riddle of the Image wins international book award

The Riddle of the Image has won the ACE/Mercers' International Book Award. The award is given to exceptional books which explore the dialogue between visual arts and religion.

The Riddle of the Image is written by conservator Spike Bucklow, one of the senior research scientists at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for the conservation of easel paintings.

The book analyses some of the most well-known medieval works of art to throw new light on art production techniques that have been lost for centuries.

Case studies included England’s oldest medieval altarpiece, the Westminster Retable, made in 1260 AD.

Commissioned by Henry III during the construction of Westminster Abbey, the altarpiece’s use of fake gemstones is already well documented. However it was uncovered whilst researching the book exactly how much the king would have paid for the Retable.

Using centuries-old records of accounts from Westminster Abbey, Bucklow was able to determine prices for the amount of wood used, the area of glass needed, each pigment of paint, and the wages the carpenters and painters were paid. This information was combined with practice-based research into the Retable whilst it was being restored at the Hamilton Kerr Institute.

"This is bargain basement stuff, it was all dirt cheap," he said. "While some of the other objects in Riddle of the Image would have been cost the same as a farm or country home, the Westminster Abbey altarpiece would have cost no more than eight cows or about £5 in 13th century money.

"Historians have often thought that a financially constrained Henry was cutting corners, but you don’t spend as much as he did on the rest of the Abbey and then cut corners on the most visual and most important area for the crowning of monarchs."

Rather than penny-pinching to preserve pounds, crowns and shillings, Bucklow believes that Henry III deliberately chose cheap materials and fake gemstones to accentuate one of the key themes of the altarpiece - miraculous transformations.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to one of five objects and each explores the connections between artists’ materials and their everyday life; showing how materials could be used philosophically and playfully.

The Riddle of the Image is available in the Fitzwilliam Museum bookshop and online.

Sunday 06th December 2015

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