Ashmolean Advent Calendar, William Burges & the Singing Pierides December 12th

The Great Bookcase by William Burges Ashmolean Museum (Photo K. Flude)

The Ashmolean posts, every year, an online Advent Calendar with gorgeous items behind each ‘flap’. The choice seems to be, mostly, a random selection. But their collection is so wonderful, they are all interesting. This year it is a netsuke.

On December 12th 2022 the Advent calendar, which you can access here, highlighted the Singing Pierides painted by Henry Stacy Marks which features on the bottom of the bookcase, photographed above. The Pierides, a sort of classical Greek Von Trapp singers, were 9 daughters who foolishly challenged the Muses to a singing competition. Of course the Goddesses of the Arts – the Muses won and had the Pierides turned into songbirds as a warning to all those who overrate their own talents! Watch out all you Karaoke Singers.

‘Whenever the daughters of Pierus began to sing, all creation went dark and no one would give an ear to their choral performance. But when the Muses sang, heaven, the stars, the sea and rivers stood still, while Mount Helicon, beguiled by the pleasure of it all, swelled skywards tilI, by the will of Poseidon, Pegasus checked it by striking the summit with his hoof.

Since these mortals had taken upon themselves to strive with goddesses, the Muses changed them into nine birds. To this day people refer to them as the grebe, the wryneck, the ortolan, the jay, the greenfinch, the goldfinch, the duck, the woodpecker and the dracontis pigeon.’

Antoninus LiberalisMetamorphoses (wikipedia)

The bookcase by William Burges was originally displayed as the centre point of the ‘Medieval Court’ of the 1862 International Exhibition. The Exhibition was almost as successful as the more famous Great Exhibition of 1851. Both got about 6m visitors. The 1862 Exhibition was just south of the site of the 1851 (on the south side of Hyde Park) and in the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens (now the Science and Natural History Museum).

Burges is one of the great Gothic Revival architects and a designer in the Arts & Crafts Movement with an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite painters, 14 of whom he asked to paint panels on his bookcase. The decorative scheme was to represent the Pagan and Christian Arts (Museum label).

Originall written for December 12 2022, revised and republished Decmeber 2023