The V&A created its new Medieval & Renaissance wing to house objects drawn from a wonderful collection of sacred and secular treasures spanning a period of 1300 years.
Ten new galleries opened in December 2009 at cost of £31.75 million, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a number of generous donors.
Spread over three floors, they form an elegant, contemporary home for nearly 2000 objects that tell the story of European art and design from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance
Exhibits span European art from North to South.
Among homegrown examples of sacred craftsmanship are the 12th century Beckett Casket and early English stained glass crafted for Winchester College.
Masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance include works by Della Robbia, Donatello and Michelangelo.
Leonardo da Vinci’s’s precious and awe-inspiring notebooks are also on display
In 2002, the V&A began reshaping the South East corner of its Cromwell Road site into a place where the Medieval & Renaissance collections could be displayed in a chronological sequence for the first time
Architects MUMA were commissioned to reconfigure this wing of Aston Webb’s monumental 1909 building from the inside out. Their scheme restored and enhanced existing galleries and transformed circulation by adding a dramatic top lit hub coaxed out of forgotten in-between spaces.
Meanwhile, curators were moving and re-housing hundreds of objects and bringing a new accessibility and coherence to their presentation.
And conservators were spending thousands of hours restoring and preparing sculptures, paintings, architecture, textiles and other artworks for display.
The passion driving all these experts and specialists was a desire to give this magnificent collection a setting that it deserves, a setting that brings all the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance treasures to life.
In each of the ten galleries, objects are placed and considered within their original social and cultural context.
So Splendour and Society, the gallery devoted to the decoration of a Renaissance home, overlooks the courtyard and fountains of its neighbour, ‘The Renaissance City’, from the Treviso Balcony, an original marble carved balcony dating from 1490.
The engaging presentation caters for visitors who wish to follow the whole art and design story from Medieval times to the Renaissance, as well as for those who just want to focus on part of it.
Each gallery tells its own story. The first, Faith and Empires, examines how Christian art forms evolved from 300 to 1250. The theme is illustrated with sacred artefacts such as the sensuous Gloucester Candlestick
The Rise of Gothic takes up the story, showing how the gothic style emerged in 13th century Europe, alongside concepts of chivalry and heraldry. Intimate displays of French Stained Glass, carved ivory book covers and Giovanni Pisano’s exquisite Crucified Christ illustrate the narrative.
The third gallery, Devotion and Display, shows religion’s impact on daily life, examining public art commissioned as ‘good works’ beside a private world of religious devotions from all over Europe. Objects include beautiful reliquaries and an altarpiece by the German, Master Bertram, that vividly depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation.
In Noble Living, Medieval history bursts out into a secular world, where rich nobles and wealthy merchants hunt, dine and court. It focuses on luxury goods found in the grand houses of the rich, such as the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry, which fills an entire wall. Nearby, is the gorgeous Merode cup, made at the court of Burgundy, one of 15th century Europe’s most opulent.
Donatello and the Making of Art showcases a wonderful collection by15th Century Italy’s most influential sculptor and his followers. Donatello’s famous Chellini Madonna and his poignant Ascension relief share space with other Italian masterpieces of the era like Carlo Crivelli’s highly decorative Virgin and Child.
Renaissance Art and ideas 1400-1550 looks at the preoccupations that underpinned Renaissance art: the fascination with antiquity, for example. Its highlights include an immaculately restored Belgian tapestry illustrating the Trojan War.
At the centre of the gallery is a display of a scholar’s study, its ceiling roundels created by Luca Della Robbia for the home of Piero de Medici
The World of Goods gallery reveals how Renaissance designers took ideas from around Europe and beyond. Highlights include a Medici flask from 1580 which borrows design inspiration from Ancient Rome, the Near East and China
Rich domestic furnishings form the setting for Splendour and Society, a gallery exploring social ritual and luxury goods. Among the jewellery, furniture and armour are an exquisite 16th century Salamander pendant and the Burghley Nef, a Nautilus shell transformed into an elaborate salt cellar.
The Wing’s biggest gallery, the Renaissance City houses some of the most impressive exhibits. In the courtyard garden stands Giambologna’s ‘Samson slaying a Philistine’, while Valerio’s Narcissus gazes at his reflection in a working fountain.
Beyond the immense choir screen, the garden leads into an atmospheric display of masterpieces of the church interior. The epic centrepiece is the complete High Altar chapel from the convent of Santa Chiara in Florence.
Beyond the chapel, the Living with the Past gallery soars four storeys to a glass-beamed roof. Conjured out of an
unused space once locked between buildings, this tour de force is both the galleries’ circulation hub and a dramatic home for huge exhibits like the grand 17th century façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s London house, which miraculously survived the Great Fire of London.
Beautiful and practical, this dramatic space exemplifies the thinking that makes these galleries such an exciting development in the museum’s history.
Its Medieval & Renaissance wing is both an unmissable new V&A attraction and an indispensable new source of learning about an era that transformed European art and design forever.