- Museum number
- Object: The Fuller Brooch
Circular brooch of hammered sheet-metal, slightly convex in section. It is extensively inlaid with niello and has an open-work outer zone encircling a central roundel which is framed and divided by broad milled borders, into a central lozenge shape surrounded by four subsidiary lentoid fields. These are punctuated at the four points of intersection by bosses, with a fifth at the centre; three of these conceal rivets attaching the (lost) pin mechanism behind.
The decorative scheme consists of personifications of the Five Senses in the central roundel, surrounded by the open-work zone of smaller roundels containing alternating geometric animal and human motifs symbolising the different aspects of Creation in a not-quite-symmetrical arrangement.
The large central field is occupied by a three-quarter length personification of Sight, with large oval eyes. In each hand he holds a drooping foliate spray with double nicked details; above his head is a three-staged leaf, and on either side of it a triquetra. The points of the lozenge, each with a domed rivet, touch the border of the circular field, creating four lenticular panels, each with a full-length human figure depicting one of the other Senses. They wear short jackets and belted tunics. Any background space remaining is filled with an assortment of foliate scrolls or interlace.
In the upper left panel is Taste, with one hand in his mouth, the other holding a foliate stem, while profiled Smell, in the top right, is flanked by two plants, and has his hands behind his back. Touch, in the bottom right panel, places his hands together, and Hearing, in the bottom left, appears to be running, and cupping his hand to his ear. Everything is set upon a nielloed ground. The back is plain and the pin mechanism is now missing. Two small holes at the top may have been for suspension.
- Production date
Diameter: 114 millimetres
- Curator's comments
The brooch is decorated with personifications of the Five Senses - a topic otherwise unknown in Anglo-Saxon art. Sight, perceived as the dominant sense in medieval times, commands the central position with staring eyes; he is flanked by figures representing Hearing, Touch, Taste and Smell. The outer border contains human, bird, animal and plant motifs, which may represent the variety of divine creation.
The brooch is one of a small number of large late Saxon silver disc brooches. In addition its superb state of preservation and its unusually erudite iconography mark it out as an exceptional survival from a troubled period of Viking invasions. Its history is unknown before the late nineteenth century, though its fine condition suggests that it may have passed from hand to hand since it was made.
We know from inscriptions on them, and from manuscript depictions, that such prestigious brooches were worn by both women and men. They would probably have been worn singly, and on an outer garment for maximum effect. The occurrence of human figures in metalwork of this period is certainly unusual, though the confidence with which they are depicted suggests that there was probably at least as lively a tradition of such representation in metalwork as there is in the manuscripts of the period.
Webster & Backhouse 1991
The history of the Brooch is quite unknown before the late nineteenth century, though as it has a custom-built seventeenth-century sharkskin case of its own (1952,0404.2), it was evidently already a collector's item by that date. As a uniquely suave and sophisticated piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery it is, without contention, the most splendid of the great series of Late Saxon silver disc brooches (cf. reg. nos. 1980,1008.1-6 and 1949,0702.1 ). Indeed, its exquisitely controlled decoration and glossy condition for many years duped scholars into believing it could be a fake. Iconographic and stylistic study, and scientific examination of the niello inlay and silver structure, proved once and for all that this view was wrong; but it remains, in sheer excellence, a piece set apart from most other surviving metalwork of the late ninth century, to which it stylistically and intellectually belongs. Its subtle iconographic programme, first identified by E.T. Leeds, is only matched in metalwork by two other surviving pieces, the Abingdon sword (Hinton, D.A., 1974, ‘A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork in the Department of Antiquities’, Ashmolean Museum Oxford, cat. 1) and the Alfred Jewel (Held by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. 1836, 371). The (possible) evangelist symbols on the sword, and the personification of Sight/Wisdom on the Jewel, like the Fuller Brooch's elaborate scheme, reflect the renewal of interest in intellectual and exegetical matters to which Alfred devoted much of his energies.
Stylistically, the Brooch also accords best with a date late in the ninth century: its fleshy plant lobes and elegant biting birds are elements which come into prominence in metalwork and manuscripts of the earlier tenth century, and which certainly represent, if not go beyond, the further edge of Trewhiddle-style tradition.
Select bibliography: Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, no, pl. 1.
Webster et al 1984
The brooch is in excellent condition. The back is plain: the pin and its attachments have been removed, and the top of the brooch has been perforated for suspension.
Dismissed as a forgery when it was first exhibited in London (‘Proc. Soc. Ants’ 1911, 337), but later vindicated, the Fuller Brooch reflects the intellectual and technical sophistication of Anglo-Saxon taste and craftsmanship in the later ninth century, and is the finest example of a group of silver disc brooches inlaid with niello, and decorated in the Trewhiddle style (Wilson, D.M. and Blunt, C.E. 1961, The Trewhiddle Hoard, ‘Archaeologia’ 98, 75-122). Leeds identified the iconography as the Five Senses, with the decorative roundels indicating different aspects of Creation (Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. 1956, Late Saxon Disc Brooches, D.B. Harden (ed.), ‘Dark Age Britain’, 183-4). That the concept of the Five Senses was familiar to the Anglo-Saxons may be seen in a number of late tenth- and eleventh-century sources, such as Ælfric's ‘Homilies’ (British Library, Royal MS 7 C.XII; cat. 158).
Full-length human figures, although comparatively rare, do occur on other pieces of late Anglo-Saxon metalwork, for instance on the Abingdon sword (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1890.14; cat. 14), but the fine quality of those on the Fuller Brooch makes them difficult to parallel satisfactorily. Similar roundels can be found on a finger ring from the River Reno at Bologna (Wilson 1964, 31). However, the general design and ornament of the brooch place it firmly in a ninth-century context.
Provenance: Formerly in collection of Sir Charles Robinson.
Exhibitions: British Museum 1976, no. 207, PL. 14.
Bibliography: Bakka, E. 1963, Some English Decorated Metal Objects found in Norwegian Viking Graves, ‘Årbok för Universitetet i Bergen: Humanistik Serie’, no. 1, 17, 21, 41; Wilson, D.M. 1964a, Two ninth-century strap-ends from York, ‘Medieval Archaeology’ 8, 216; Bakka, E. 1966, The Alfred Jewel and Sight, ‘Antiquaries Journal’, 281-2, PL. XLIX:C; Clark, J. and Hinton, D. 1971, ‘The Alfred and Minster Lovell Jewels’ 3rd edn., Oxford, 5-6, PL. 11; Cramp, R. 1972, Tradition and Innovation in English Stone of the Tenth to Eleventh Centuries, ‘Kolloquium über spätantike und frühmittelalterliche Skulptur’ III ed. V. Milojcic, Mainz, 140; Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. 1974, ‘Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology’, London, 306-26, PL. 99, figs 53b-55; Hinton, D.A. 1974, ‘A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork in the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum’, Oxford, 5-6, 19, 24, 38-9, 42, 44, 53; Hinton, D.A. 1975, Late Saxon Metalwork – an assessment, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ 4, 172; Wilson, D.M. 1975, Tenth-Century Metalwork, ‘Tenth Century Studies’ ed. D. Parsons, London, 201, fig. 21e, 203; Wilson, D.M. 1976, ‘The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England’, London, 11; Hinton, D.A. 1977, ‘Alfred’s Kingdom, Wessex and the South 800-1500’, London, 152-3, 155; Campbell, J. ed. 1982, ‘The Anglo-Saxons’, Oxford, 137, no. 126.
The object is named (after the part donor) the Fuller brooch.
The brooch's history (as recounted by Bruce-Mitford) is that it was bought from a London bric-à-brac dealer by an unnamed man who did not know its history, he passed it to Sir Charles Robinson who published it in 'The Antiquary'. A few years later Mr. E. Hockliffe, the son-in-law of Sir Charles Robinson, offered the brooch as a loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. E. T. Leeds, then an assistant at the museum, persuaded the then keeper D. G. Hogarth to accept the loan. On the advice of the then keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum (Sir Hercules Read, P.S.A.) and his assistant keeper (R. A. Smith) the brooch was pronounced a fake and withdrawn from exhibition with the approval of the Ashmolean Museum's technical specialist, W. H. Young. The brooch was eventually purchased by Capt. A. W. F. Fuller and, apart from occasional mentions (e.g. by Sir Alfred Clapham), was not thought of seriously until the Strickland brooch (registration no. 1949,0702.1) was brought to the British Museum. On the advice of Sir Thomas Kendrick the Fuller brooch was traced by Mr. Bruce-Mitford and after laboratory examination it was acquired by the British Museum.
The persistent view that it was a fake was quashed by a preliminary report on the brooch by the Keeper of the Research Laboratory, Dr. Plenderleith, who wrote as follows:
'The brooch has been so cleaned and burnished on the obverse as at first glance to appear to be modern, but the reverse suggests that it has a history. Here the metal is seen as base silver, which has been in contact with leather (? pigskin) and this has left a black imprint of the pore structure. There are traces of copper carbonate in a mineralised condition (malacite) arising from the segregation of the copper constituent of the silver. One can deduce that the metal is in the brilliant crystalline condition which is characteristic of silver of some considerable age by the fractures to be seen where a small triangular piece is missing near the top. It may well be that the two small holes in this part of the brooch were bored at a later date in its history, when the silver was already brittle, and that this was done so that the object could be suspended as an ornament. The tooling is all craftwork carried out with primitive implements in a free-hand manner: and under slight magnification it can be seen that there is no mechanical regularity anywhere. Such technical evidence as this object affords is, therefore, in my view entirely in favour of its antiquity.
Signed: H. J. Plenderleith.'(1)
Subsequently an analysis of the niello of the brooch was made by Dr. A. A. Moss in the course of a general investigation into the composition of niello.(2) He found the niello to consist mainly of silver sulphide, a type of niello that went out of use in the eleventh century. As Dr. Moss's researches were not concluded until 1953 it precludes the possibility that a forger had sufficient knowledge of the materials involved to make this brooch before 1910, and presumably earlier, for the brooch came to the Museum in a wooden leather-covered case, apparently made to fit the brooch in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Mr. Leeds' and Sir Alfred Clapham's faith in the authenticity of this object were thus justified. It seems unlikely that this brooch had even been buried.
Bruce-Mitford suggests that the human figures on the brooch represent the five senses.
See Appendix, p. 91-98 and pp. 3, 21, 25, 27, 30, 31, 40, 52 and pl. XLIV.
Bibliography: ‘The Antiquary', xlix, new series vi (1910), 268-9; Clapham, A. W. (1930): English Romanesque Architecture before the Conquest, Oxford, 130 and note; Bruce-Mitford, R. L. S. (1952c): 'The Fuller Brooch', British Museum Quarterly, xvii, 75-76; Moss, A. A. (1953a): 'Niello', Studies in Conservation, i, 61; Moss, A. A. (1953b): 'Niello', The Antiquaries Journal, xxxiii, 76; Bruce-Mitford, R. L. S. (1956a): 'Late Saxon Disk-Brooches', Dark-Age Britain, (ed. D. B. Harden), London, 173 ff., figs. 34, b and 35and pl. xx; Wilson, D. M. (1960a): The Anglo-Saxons, London, 145, 222 and pl. 65; Dunning, G. C. and Evison, V. I. (1961): 'The Palace of Westminster Sword', Archaeologia, xcviii, 143; Wilson, D. M. and Blunt, C. E. (1961): 'The Trewhiddle Hoard', Archaeologia, 98, 97 and 105.
(1) Letter in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities, British Museum.
(2) 'Studies in Conservation', vol. ii, 179.
- On display (G41/dc3/sA)
- Exhibition history
2018-2019 19 Oct–19 Feb, London, British Library, Anglo-Saxon England
2016-2017 15 Oct - 8 Jan, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, A Sense of Beauty: Medieval Art and the Five Senses
2008 1 Feb-27 Apr, Winchester Museum, 'King Alfred: Wealth, Wisdom and Warfare'
1999 08 Sep-2000 09 Jan, Museum of London, 'Alfred the Great 849-899: London's forgotten King'
1998 9 Feb-3 May, India, Mumbai, Sir Caswasjee Jahangir Hall, The Enduring Image
1997 13 Oct-1998 5 Jan, India, New Delhi, National Museum, The Enduring Image
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Captain A. W. F. Fuller offered the brooch to the Museum at a lower price than it would have been likely to reach on the open market. As such, he wished to be recorded as part-donor since in effect he was contributing to the purchase of the brooch.
(from notes in Object File)
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number