Good Impressions:  Image and Authority in Medieval Seals

11 January – May 2007

Room 69a

Admission free

Good Impressions takes a close look at medieval life and identity through the images used on seals.  Sealing documents was an ancient practice which came to the medieval world through the mediation of Byzantium.  However, in the medieval period the repertoire of forms expanded to include images of nobility and Church alongside colloquial devices drawn from everyday life or nature.  The golden period of sealing dates from the twelfth to the fourteenth century when even the peasant classes used lead seals decorated with simple flowers, stars and crosses.  By the sixteenth century the signature was replacing the seal and the practice fell out of favour apart from at the highest civic levels.

Seals were used customarily in financial transactions and abuses were common, whether it was the fraudulent use of a common seal (such as those used in religious orders) or the use of fake seals crafted to deceive. An example is the twelfth century forgery of Henry II’s Great Seal, which is made of lead whereas the genuine – now lost - seal would have been silver. The lead seal will be on display in the exhibition since it remains an accurate representation of how English rulers wanted to be seen from the time of the Norman Conquest until today. Splendid silver examples will be shown alongside it, such as that buried with Isabella of Hainault in 1190 and that of Robert Fitzwalter, opponent to King John and proponent of Magna Carta.

Fear over the validity of documents meant that many were countersealed. Kings, bishops, nobles and their ladies in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century were avid collectors of Classical gems and often used Roman intaglios to counterseal their documents.  The recent find of a thirteenth century seal-die from Swanley, Kent incorporates a high quality representation of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138-161). The find was made with a metal detector and acquired by the British Museum under the terms of the Treasure Act. His portrait is known from coins in the collection but this is the first example of an ancient gem carrying his image to be acquired by the British Museum.

For further information and images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk