Last week I woke up at an ungodly hour (4:45am!) to catch the train to Gatwick and then an early morning flight to Basel (or Basle), Switzerland. I went with my old friend Joanna, a historian at English Heritage, and we were both shattered by the time we fell into our seats on the plane. This was to be a pre-Christmas mini break, with a wander around Basle’s Christmas market, but first we had some very important work to do.
I have recently been awarded the Geoffrey Bond Travel Award to allow me to travel to undertake research necessary for my MA dissertation. This had allowed me to book the trip to Basel to visit their wonderful Antikenmuseum, as well as a trip in the New Year to Glasgow to see some statues at the Kelvingrove Museum.
Basel is a great city for a short visit – it possesses all the order and efficiency I’ve come to love about Switzerland, as well as a fine old town nestled on the banks of the Rhine. Basel is not the chocolate box alpine vision one imagines of Switzerland though – it sits at the western corner of Switzerland where it meets Germany and France, and the airport is situated just over the border in France. After a quick bus transfer into Basel, we dropped our bags at our hotel and were given free travel cards – one of the perks of staying in any Basel hotel (what a good idea – maybe Boris should suggest it to London’s hotels!). We didn’t need this immediately though, as we could walk easily to our first destination, and the main purpose of the visit: the Antikenmuseum.
Situated in a group of historic houses arranged around a courtyard garden, the Antikenmuseum is a marvellous gem. It houses a stunning collection of mainly Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. Basel is lucky in having the remains of a large Roman city on its doorstep – Augusta Raurica – and so many of the objects seem to have been found within the vicinity.
In the museum cafe you can eat your sandwiches while gazing upon a larger than life-size statue of Dionysus. However, it was the Egyptian collections I had come to see, and a statue of Sekhmet (surprise, surprise) that had travelled from Egypt to London and then finally to Switzerland. British Museum statue EA 60 is currently on loan to the Antikenmuseum, and I had come to Switzerland especially to see her.
And what a stunning lady she is too. The seated figure shows no evidence of a sun disc and lacks an inscription, and yet she is most certainly one of the most beautiful statue of Sekhmet I had seen so far on my travels. It might have been the excellent lighting, but there is something special about this particular statue.
Firstly, it’s the colour – a soft grey granite, speckled throughout with large areas of pink granite, and finally an underlying sparkle of tiny silver flecks imbedded in the stone. As Joanna began to sketch and I took my notes, we were both struck by how the surface sparkled under the spotlights. It may be that the lighting had changed my visual perception of the stone, but certainly the spotlights gave some idea of what the statue might have looked like in full sunlight – pink and sparkly like a sunset. I had already read enough to believe that the Egyptians consciously chose certain coloured stones to convey a symbolic meaning, even when they most likely were going to paint it. And here was visual proof – this Sekhmet visually reflects the goddess’ relationship with the sun-god Re, her father.
As this statue is in such a fine state of preservation, we could appreciate the fine craftsmanship of the statue. The mane and whiskers are beautifully carved, the ears finely delineated. But we were both struck by the exquisite cheekbones – yes, the lighting did enhance the shadows, but what we both found amazing was that a sculptor, who might have to produce dozens of these statues, would put in so much time and effort to carving a cheekbone with such subtlety and beauty.
While this Sekhmet had been my main purpose for the visit to Basel, Joanna and I managed to fit in quite a lot of sightseeing too. Across the street from the Antikenmuseum is the Kunstmuseum, another fabulous treasure trove – in the entrance courtyard the Burghers of Calais by Rodin is on display, while inside you can see one of the finest collections of paintings by Holbein – including a portrait of Erasmus. Both Erasmus and Holbein had lived in Basel, and something of their intellect and artistic skills have rubbed off on this city, brimming with museums and libraries.
Having gorged ourselves on art, Joanna and I found a bit of time to wander the old town and enjoy the Christmas market – if you love gluhwein, fondue and gingerbread, there is no better place to visit in December than a Swiss Christmas market (Germany does some great Christmas markets too). Traditional gifts, carved wooden toys and Christmas tree ornaments in wood or blown glass are popular favourites.
I came back with a tiny carved wooden cat for the tree. We crossed the Rhine and viewed the Munster and medieval houses, almost hanging over the river, and found our way to the town hall, or Rathaus, almost garishly painted and gilded.
I can’t imagine such a building would have survived the post-war planners in Britain, but here it is still used as the administrative centre of the town, civil servants working busily inside. We wandered Basel’s Christmas stalls and old streets and enjoyed tea in a 19th century tea shop, buzzing with locals enjoying an afternoon of Christmas shopping.
It was a fun little pre-Christmas trip, all the more enjoyable for having uncovered something new about the British Museum Sekhmet statues – I now feel fairly certain that each and every Sekhmet statue in the British Museum collections is slightly different for one another, a unique object of human production.
So Christmas is now just a few days away – I’ll enjoy myself until it is time to think about Sekhmet again in the New Year, when I travel to Glasgow to see two more of the British Museum statues. Until then, I wish you all a very happy holiday season!