The Woman of the Apocalypse | DECODED Ep 3

published on June 30, 2020

I'm Dora Thornton

and I wanted to introduce an object which is quite easy to walk past

and not really take in

So this is a very large oval platter

and it's a presentation dish

I don't think you'd necessarily have used it for formal dining

but you would have displayed it on a buffet

It's built up with layers of painted enamel on this copper substrate

The dish itself shows a complex scene

which is an illustration of a book in the Bible

It's the Book of Revelation

and it's the moment where the woman of the Apocalypse appears

This is a vision that was given to Saint John on the island of Patmos

and he describes this woman of the Apocalypse

as the Whore of Babylon

a prostitute

That's why she's shown bare-breasted

sitting rather drunkenly on the side of a seven headed dragon

which is described in detail in the text

and she's holding up a cup

a silver gilt wine cup

filled with the filthiness of her fornication

so it says in the Bible in the King James translation

So this represents all her sinfulness and her sinful nature

her sinful past that she's holding up for examination

The dragon itself is worth a loo

because it's made out of the most wonderful melding of different enamel colours

It's got this kind of mauve ground

and then the scales of this dragon are picked out in gold

so that you really get a sense of the musculature of this beast

As she's sitting there

before her are kneeling a group of men

mostly priests

one of them is wearing the papal tiara or what looks like the papal tiara

there's a cardinal with his red cardinal's hat

and a series of princes and princes of the church

and they're kneeling in supplication and horror

towards this vision of the Whore of Babylon

And in the background there's a city which is intended to represent Babylon

the ultimate sinful city that is about to be destroyed

So it's a picture of the apocalypse

the end of the world and how it's going to happen as told in the Bible

In a way that was a very vivid thing that people thought was actually going to happen in 16th-century Europe

The plate was made in Limoges in France

which specialises in this kind of enameled work

We know it's late 16th-century

and the artist has actually signed the piece in gold on the back


you can see that on a little sort of pavilion-style, tent-like structure on the back of the plate

And this is for Martial Courtois

who specialised in the brilliance of colouring

and in the use of foil

that is silver foil

literally like modern kitchen foil

which he put underneath some of the translucent enamels

And if you look at the details on the front

you can see this very clearly

For example, this kneeling foreground figure and the man in a blue tunic

if you look he's got a red backing to his tunic

and that is actually translucent red over this silver foil

This technique of using foil in the 16th century is actually very delicate

and it's often damaged over the years

so 19th-century collectors of these pieces

often bought pieces that were by necessity damaged

so 19th-century enamelers were interested in repairing these pieces as well as they could

On this piece it's particularly interesting

because you can see that repair very clearly

If you go round the figure there's a sort of outline around most of his tunic

You can see that that is actually a replacement section in the copper

cut exactly to fit back on to the original surface of the 16th-century plate

and I think it sums up a lot of the preciousness and the value of the objects and in the Waddesdon Bequest

If you enjoyed decoding this object with me please subscribe to the British Museum YouTube channel

where you can see other films of this kind on other objects in the collection

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