Gothic Objects in DetailBrought to life by Shakespeare's great history plays such as Henry V and Richard III, the late medieval age included several defining moments in English history, from the Battle of Agincourt and the Wars of the Roses to the beginning of the Reformation. This was not just a time of war and conflict but also a period of conspicuous artistic consumption on a lavish scale. The monarchy, nobility and leading churchmen acquired the best works of art available, whether from England or the Continent.
The Boar and Bear Hunt tapestry
This huge tapestry depicts extravagant scenes of the hunting of boars and bears, both of which are now extinct in the wild in the British Isles. Hunting was considered a noble sport and was a popular pastime of the courtly elite. Hunting involved elaborate rituals and etiquette as it still does today.
The fine clothes worn by the hunt participants on the tapestry are inappropriate for the activity and are unlikely to have actually been worn on a real hunt. Some of the nobles are wearing patterned cloth, probably silk. It is common in medieval art for people to be shown in their best clothing.
Tapestries like this one were confined to the large homes of wealthy people. They were incredibly time consuming to make and therefore very expensive to commission. Tapestries made rooms more colourful and comfortable, insulating stone walls thereby keeping rooms warmer and proclaiming the owner’s wealth, power and status to visitors. At a time when the court was often on the move they could also be taken from place to place easily.
Although this tapestry was made before the first Tudor monarch came to the throne it was also used in the Tudor period and was probably owned by Bess of Hardwick, who would have displayed it at Hardwick Hall. King Henry VIII himself owned over 200 hundred hunting tapestries and hunting remained a popular pastime for the Tudors as it had been for earlier kings.
This tapestry is closely related to three other hunting tapestries also on display at the V&A in Room 94. These were woven from wool and coloured with natural dyes. The colours would have been brighter when the tapestry was new.
Stained-glass roundels of the Labours of the Months
Depictions of the Labours of the Months are common in medieval art, often in stained glass or in Books of Hours. Often makers of one type of artwork adapted the designs from another medium, so the images can sometimes be very similar. Each month is illustrated by a seasonal task or activity. Although they often appear to show ordinary people and their daily lives, and include plenty of detail of clothing, equipment and domestic interiors there is also an element of artistic licence. Depictions of peasants in art often reflect how the wealthy patron saw their position in society, rather than reality.
Here the seed-sower is dressed in a red doublet with a black hood for warmth. His legs are covered with patterned hose, or fitted trousers, all made of wool. The patterns on his hose are similar to those in the noble’s clothes on the Boar and Bear Hunt tapestry, but it is unlikely that a peasant would have patterned cloth. This is probably just the glass painter adding his own creativity to the piece. The boots, pouch and basket are highly realistic - the pouch would be made of leather and is slung over his belt. You can also see the ridge and furrow of the field. The man in the vineyard seems to be wealthier. His clothes look finer, particularly the embroidered band on his sleeve and his long flowing hair but he is wearing the same basic outfit of doublet and hose.
Medieval stained glass was produced using several techniques including leading and painting. Pieces of coloured glass were cut up to match a pre-drawn design. Details could be painted on in black using iron oxide and, from the fourteenth century, a silver stain was used to create a range of yellow colours. The glass was then ‘baked’ in a kiln and the pieces then fixed together with lead.
The Erpingham chasuble
The parish church and the priest played a central role in daily life throughout England. The status and importance of the priest was reflected in his clothing: he wore a chasuble during services. The backs of these garments were often highly decorated because it was this part of the garment that the congregation viewed most frequently during the service.
Wealthy people often commissioned vestments made from the finest materials and then donated them to the church to display their religious devotion, to demonstrate their status and to secure favour with God in the afterlife. This chasuble bears the coat of arms of the donor, Sir Thomas Erpingham, and it may have been made for his own private chapel or a local church.
The silk, with patterns of camels and flowers was made in Italy, where there was a huge industry producing exquisite silk cloths for export. The embroidered panel is known as an orphrey and depicts the Crucifixion. The embroidery was done by highly skilled professional embroiderers, usually men, in workshops. The luxurious metallic threads are silver-gilt made with a very thin ribbon of metal wrapped around a silk core.
Few textiles of this period survive as they are easily damaged by damp, insects or prolonged exposure to light. Only the most precious, like this, have tended to survive in England, often secretly kept by Catholic families, or through earlier export to Catholic countries in Europe.
The Bedingfield chalice and paten
This chalice and paten (or plate) were once used to hold consecrated wine and the eucharistic wafer during the Catholic Mass. On the foot of this chalice are the initial IHS and CPS meaning Jesus Christ. The Christian churches today still remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist during the Mass, when bread and wine are consecrated and distributed.
Transubstantiation is the act whereby the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, are believed, by Catholics, to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is unusual for church plate like this to survive in England as most was destroyed or confiscated during the Reformation, when the belief in transubstantiation, and other aspects of Catholicism, were challenged. Some chalices were converted by Protestants for use as communion cups during Holy Communion, but few survive with their associated patens.
This set is a very fine example made of parcel-gilt silver with enamelled decoration. Enamel is produced by fusing small amounts of coloured glass into a design by firing it in a kiln. Other decoration is produced by engraving lines into the surface, and the addition of moulded faces on the stem of the chalice. Products like these were produced to order by goldsmiths in London. Most of London’s medieval goldsmiths worked in Cheapside, a street near St Paul’s Cathedral.
Stoneware was hard wearing, quite cheap to produce and relatively common all over Northern Europe. This example was found in the wreck of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, by a diver in around 1840 and was probably used on that ship. More recent finds on the Mary Rose suggest that most of the crew used wooden vessels for eating and drinking, so this decorated pot was probably used by the officers. It was imported to England from the Cologne area of modern Germany. Imported products were more expensive than those made at home and therefore more desirable.
The bearded face and trailing oak decoration was first used in the early 1500s and soon became very common, but it is not known now if there was a symbolic significance to either design. It is possible that the trailing leaves refer to the Tree of Jesse, which showed Christ’s ancestry.
The Howard Grace cup
This cup was possibly used as a ‘grace cup’, meaning that it would have been passed round at the end of a meal for the sharing a drink. However it is so luxurious and delicate that it may have only been used as a decoration. Fine gold and silverware like this was presented on the buffet or cupboard at the side of a room when a meal was served.
The oldest part of this cup is elephant ivory and is traditionally associated with the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), although there is no firm evidence to support this.Catholics believed that saints could intercede with God on their behalf, and relics associated with saints were therefore highly prized. The cup was passed as a gift among court circles for several decades and was for a long time owned by the Howards, a family who remained Catholic after the Reformation.
The silver-gilt mounts for the ivory cup are richly decorated with a combination of Gothic style motifs such as the trefoils (three leaf decorations) around the base of the ivory cup, and the scrolling and jewelled Renaissance style of the rest of the cup. The jewels used are rubies, pearls and garnets imported from Asia. It is topped with a figure of St George slaying the dragon.
Saint Michael Attacking the Dragon and Weighing a Soul relief
Saints played a crucial role in medieval society prior to the Reformation. The cult of St. Michael was particularly strong in England from an early date. His principal feast is held on 29 September and is often referred to as St. Michael and All Angels.
In the Book of Revelation he is the principal fighter of a heavenly battle against the devil (or dragon), and in medieval art he is often depicted as slaying the latter. Here the archangel Michael is shown trampling on a many-headed dragon, with the Virgin behind him. In his left hand he holds a pair of scales, the arms now broken off, but the weighing pan holds a devil’s head, attempting to tip the balance. On the left the Virgin lays her rosary on the arm of the scales to tilt them in favour of a soul once held in the now-missing weighing pan on the left. St Michael, dressed in a feathered costume, holds a falchion, or curved sword above his head and carries a small shield on a strap over his left arm. The feather costume may come from Mystery Plays where characters playing angels would wear suits covered in feathers. This large figure probably stood near the high altar in a church dedicated to St Michael.
Miracles were associated with saints and were regarded as proof of sanctity. In an age when medical treatment was rudimentary relics or bones of saints were regarded as instruments of divine healing power. Images also played an important role in devotion.
The cult of saints came under widespread attack at the time of the Reformation. Outbreaks of iconoclasm destroyed numerous statues, stained-glass windows and wall paintings. Henry VIII ordered the destruction of saints’ shrines to the benefit of the royal Treasury. In 1548 Edward VI ordered the removal of images of saints from all churches.
The sculpture is carved in alabaster, a soft stone found mainly in the English Midlands. A huge international industry was focussed around Nottingham where thousands of figures and scenes were carved and painted with natural pigments and even gold. The wide export of alabaster figures often helps explain their survival.
Twelve figures of the Apostles
The Apostles were Christ’s twelve chosen disciples, the saints Peter, Andrew, James (the Greater), John, Thomas, James (the Less), Jude, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Matthias (replacing Judas Iscariot). Here each of them holds a painted scroll with part of the Apostle’s Creed (a statement of beliefs) and his attribute, a symbol that shows who he is.
Apostle carvings were sometimes placed on the Rood screen, a decorative screen across a church, topped with the Rood or crucifix. Symbols like this were important in medieval churches where many of the congregation could not read, but could recognise familiar biblical characters in carvings, stained glass and wall paintings. At the same time, it is important to remember that symbolism in medieval churches and art could be highly complex, intended to be fully understood by only those who were highly literate and educated.
The draped robes worn by the Apostles show what medieval carvers thought biblical clothes might have looked like. Sometimes they are shown wearing medieval clothes contemporary to the time of the maker, perhaps because these were what the maker understood best and could therefore represent most convincingly.
These apostles are carved from alabaster, a soft stone found in the Midlands. Alabaster carvings were usually painted in bright colours, rather than left as bare stone. These ones still have traces of the original colour scheme.
Bust of Henry VII
This portrait of Henry VII is by one of the first Italian Renaissance artists to work in England under the patronage of the royal court. Pietro Torrigiano was a highly skilled artist who is also famous for having broken Michaelangelo’s nose during a fight when they were training together as youths.
Earlier representations of kings in the medieval period are usually idealised images, but here greater realism gives an increased sense of both individuality and personality. Although made after his death, the bust gives a reliable impression of what Henry VII looked like because it was modelled from a death mask, reworked by Torrigiani to flesh out the sunken features of the dead king.
The bust is made from terracotta - kiln-fired clay. Like most other sculpture of the period, this bust was painted using coloured pigments which further heightened the sense of realism. The bust has been repainted several times subsequently after manufacture.
The king wears his hair long and curly in the fashion of the time, covered with a felt hat with turned up brim. His gown, with slashed sleeves revealing the doublet underneath, is trimmed with ermine, the royal fur. The doublet fastens at the neck. For a king this is a relatively plain and modest outfit, particularly compared with the lavish silks seen on the nobles in the Boar and Bear Hunt (about 50-60 years earlier) or with later portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabethan courtiers.
Brasses of Henry and Agnes Fayrey with their sons
Memorial brasses like these were commissioned by wealthy individuals before their death, or by their surviving children. They were placed near or above graves in the parish church. An inscription on this brass reads: ‘Of your charity pray for the souls of Henry Fayrey and Agnes his wife which lyeth buried under this stone, and the said Henry deceased the 28th Day of December 1516.’
Wealthy people could often afford to be buried within the church, while people with less money were buried in the churchyard. These brasses show Henry and Agnes Fayrey naked in their linen burial shrouds. The top-knots on their heads are where the shrouds fastened. They hold their hands for prayer. Many memorials and tombs show the deceased in their finest clothes or armour, though figures in shrouds or as corpses became more popular in the later middle ages.
Smaller brasses show the couple’s five sons, and another brass of their daughters has been lost. The images of the children are mourners for the dead but there was also a high-infant mortality rate and it was not unusual for parents to outlive several of their children.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 9 October 2003 - 18 January 2004.