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18.06.2021

Franks Casket

The casket of Franks (or Auson's casket) is a small Anglo-Saxon casket of whalebone (not "whalebone" in the whale sense) from the early 8th century, preserved in the British Museum. The casket is densely decorated with knife-carved narrative scenes in flat two-dimensional relief and inscriptions, mostly Anglo-Saxon runes. It is generally thought to be of Northumbrian origin, but it is uniquely important because it provides insight into early Anglo-Saxon art and culture. Both the identification of the images and the interpretation of the runic inscriptions have generated a considerable amount of scholarly work.

The images are very varied in their subject matter and origin and include a single Christian image, the Adoration of the Magi, as well as images from Roman history (Emperor Titus) and Roman mythology (Romulus and Remus) and an image of at least one legend belonging to the Germanic peoples, the legend of Weiland the Smith. It has also been suggested that there may be an episode from the legend of Sigurd, a lost episode from the life of Weyland's brother Egil, the Homeric legend of Achilles, and perhaps even a hint of the legendary founding of England by Hengist and Horse.

The inscriptions "show a deliberate linguistic and alphabetic virtuosity; although they are mostly written in Old English and runes, they switch to Latin and the Roman alphabet and then back to runes, continuing to write in Latin. Some of it is written upside down or backwards. It is named after its former owner, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, who donated it to the British Museum.

The monastic origins of the chest, which may have been made to be presented to an important secular figure, are generally accepted, and the foundation of Wilfrid at Ripon was specifically suggested. The post-medieval history of the chest was unknown until the mid-nineteenth century until relatively recently, when research by W. H. J. Weale showed that the casket belonged to the church of Saint-Julien, Briud in Haute Loire (Haute Loire region), France; it may have been looted during the French Revolution. It then came into the possession of a family from the village of Auzon in Haute-Loire. It served as a sewing box until the silver hinges and fittings connecting the panels were exchanged for a silver ring. Without their support, the box fell apart. The pieces were shown to Professor Mathieu of nearby Clermont-Ferrand, who sold them to an antique store in Paris, where they were purchased in 1857 by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, who later donated the panels in 1867 to the British Museum, where he was curator of the British and Medieval collections. The missing right end panel was later found in the family's box at Ausone and sold to the Bargello Museum in Florence, where it was identified as part of a casket in 1890. A cast of it is included in the British Museum exhibition.

The front panel, which was originally provided with a lock, depicts elements of the Germanic legend of the blacksmith Weyland on the left side and the Adoration of the Magi on the right. Weyland (also spelled Weyland, Velund or Wölund) stands in the far left corner of the forge, where he is held as a slave by King Nirhad, who had his hamstrings cut to make him immobile. Below the forge lies the headless body of Nirhad's son, whom Wayland killed by making a goblet of his skull; his head is probably the object held in the tongs in Wayland's hand. With his other hand, Wayland offers a goblet of stupefied beer to Nirhad's daughter Biduhild, whom he rapes as she loses consciousness. In the center is another female figure, perhaps Wayland's assistant or again Beaduhild. In the right-hand scene Wayland (or his brother) catches birds; he then makes wings of their feathers, with which he manages to escape.

In stark contrast, the right scene shows one of the most common Christian subjects depicted in art of the period; here, however, "the hero's birth also makes good sin and suffering." Three wise men, indicated by the inscription (ᛗᚫᚷᛁ, "wise men"), guided by a large star, approach the seated Madonna and Child on the throne, bearing traditional gifts. The goose-like bird at the feet of the leading wise man may represent the Holy Spirit, usually depicted as a dove, or an angel. The human figures, at least, form a composition very comparable to those depicted in other paintings of the period. Richard Fletcher believed that this contrast of scenes from left to right was intended to indicate the positive and beneficial effects of conversion.

Around the panel comes the following alliterative inscription, which does not refer to the scenes, but is a mystery about the material of the chest itself, whalebone, and specifically from a whale cast ashore:

                                          "ᚠᛁᛋᚳ.ᚠᛚᚩᛞᚢ.ᚪᚻᚩᚠᚩᚾᚠᛖᚱᚷ | ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ | ᚹᚪᚱᚦᚷᚪ:ᛋᚱᛁᚳᚷᚱᚩᚱᚾᚦᚫᚱᚻᛖᚩᚾᚷᚱᛖᚢᛏᚷᛁᛋᚹᚩᛗ | ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚫᛋᛒᚪᚾ

                                           The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff. The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle. Whale's bone."

 

The left panel shows the mythological twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, being suckled by a she-wolf lying on her back at the bottom of the scene. The same she-wolf, or another, stands taller, with two men with spears approaching from each side. The inscription reads:

                                          "ᚱᚩᛗᚹᚪᛚᚢᛋᚪᚾᛞᚱᛖᚢᛗᚹᚪᛚᚢᛋᛏᚹᛟᚷᛖᚾ | ᚷᛁᛒᚱᚩᚦᚫᚱ | ᚪᚠᛟᛞᛞᚫᚻᛁᚫᚹᚣᛚᛁᚠᛁᚾᚱᚩᛗᚫᚳᚫᛋᛏᚱᛁ: | ᚩᚦᚳᚫᚢᚾᚾᛖᚷ

                                          Romulus and Remus, two brothers, a she-wolf nourished them in Rome, far from their native land. "

 

The back panel depicts the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus in the First Jewish-Roman War. The inscription is partly in Old English and partly in Latin, and part of the Latin part is written in Latin letters and the rest is phonetically transcribed into runic letters. In the lower corners are two separate words.

The cover as it now survives is incomplete. Leslie Webster has suggested that the missing areas may have been decorated with silver relief panels. The empty circular space in the center probably contained a metal boss for a handle.  The cover depicts a scene in which an archer, marked ᚫᚷᛁᛚᛁ or gili, defends the fortress alone against a squad of attackers who may be giants in size.

The right panel of Bargello, has yielded a wide variety of interpretations of both text and images, and none of the readings has been universally accepted. On the left, on a small rounded hill, sits the figure of an animal confronted by an armed warrior wearing a helmet. In the center a standing animal, usually depicted as a horse, is looking at a figure holding a stick or sword, which stands over something marked by a curved line. On the right are three figures.

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