David Gaimster discusses his plenary lecture for the Materialities of Urban Life conference…

Jan Steen the prayer before the mealThe lecture will review a key dynamic in European historical archaeology, that is the relationship between artefacts and images, and in particular the questions raised in the study of historic domestic material culture depicted in the contemporaneous painting and prints. Both media underwent a major transformation from c. 1400. The introduction of oil on wood or canvas, which led to an industry in transportable art for the home, revolutionized the domestic interior for the economically privileged in North West Europe, while printmaking created a revolution in the communication of ideas and ideology. Oil painting of the Dutch Golden Age, particularly works depicting the domestic interior and still life compositions, appears at first glance a compelling source of social and cultural information for those studying the materiality and mentalities of European modernity. I will try to address the methodological and hermeneutic issues involved and some directions for cross-examining synchronous archaeological and pictorial sources.

The archaeological deposit, whether a rubbish pit or latrine shaft, post-hole or a midden, normally reflects the final point of discard or loss of a possession or utensil. The image, particularly those depicting the domestic interior, offer a glimpse of the ‘active lives’ of objects, in the moment before discard and crucially in their relationship to the building, its interior design and spatial configuration, and to other objects, which may or may not be functionally related. In addition, these sources also connect objects to people and place the artefact in a contemporaneous social and cultural matrix, which on discard is frequently ruptured.

We are only still on the brink of exploiting the rich iconographic resource for better understanding the utility and symbolic role of objects and their interrelationships in early modern European society. As the paintings and prints show us, objects were of critical importance to delivering a social, religious or moral message. Even the most utilitarian of objects held symbolic power in the visual documentary world. The prospect of structured comparative research offers new opportunities for exploring the material ‘Lebenswelt’ of the epoch. This short survey can only signal some of the thematic narratives offered by such a study. The need to develop pilot surveys of particular genres, subject areas or the works of individual artists, and to test some of our historical and archaeological data and assumptions, is as urgent now as it was ten or twenty years ago.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday 17th April at 4:30, and is followed by a wine reception.

To book for the conference click here.

Borch, young woman with a glass of wine, holding a letter - sinebrychoff

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