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Archive for the 'Books and manuscripts' Category

Changing Manuscript Displays

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

An exciting element of museum displays is that they never stand still - in a very real sense, no gallery project is ever ‘complete’. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries have been open for over six months now, and the first changes are starting to be made. The pictures accompanying this post show you the arrival in the galleries of a new pair of illuminated manuscripts on loan from the British Library.

Installing British Library ManusriptsAs part of the new gallery complex, we came to an agreement with the British Library that they would show a changing selection of manuscripts from their collections within the area of one of our galleries that looks at Great Churches and Monasteries in the period 1050-1250. Manuscripts were an important part of the artistic production of major churches at this time. Churches needed service books in order to better administer the liturgy. They copied scholarly texts for their libraries; and they produced charters and other administrative documents as well. The V&A’s collection of medieval manuscripts is comparatively small, and our works from this period tend to be individual leaves or fragments from much larger and grander works. We wanted to work with the British Library to help further contextualise the displays that visitors will see, and to juxtapose V&A objects with relevant manuscript materials. Hopefully, over time, we will also have the opportunity to display some of the BL’s lesser-known treasures.

Installing British Library Manusripts


What really gives this collaboration life, though, is that because manuscripts are extremely light sensitive, and their bindings often fragile, they can only be displayed for a relatively short time. This forces us to regularly change the display - in this case, we are aiming to change the loan every six months. Of course, for regular visitors to the Museum, this means that there will be new and unfamiliar material to see and enjoy, so although it’s a lot of work choosing, preparing and organising each new display, there is a real benefit for the visitor.

The manuscripts here were chosen to show how monasteries and churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries survived through their close links with the ruling elite. Both parties benefited from this relationship. The church provided careers for some of the children of the nobility, provided political support and expertise (for example, in diplomacy) and safeguarded treasures and archives. In return, it was granted lands, tax breaks and other privileges, and could count on royal and noble patrons to help in setting up new churches and monastic foundations.

Installing British Library ManusriptsOne of the new manuscripts is a chronicle of the Abbey of Saint Martin des Champs, near Paris. The image we are showing, a little the worse for wear from water damage, but wonderfully lively, depicts King Henry I of France (1031-1060) standing beside the church building, which he had financed, and signing the foundation charter document. If you’d like to find out more about this manuscript, or see stunning images of the British Library’s other treasures, then their website is here: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/index.html

Next time: just what is it about Italian art that the English love so much?

The Role of the Catalogue

Monday, July 19th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

You may be wondering why this post is accompanied by a photo of a party. Where is the art, you say? What does this have to do with the Medieval and Renaissance periods? Have I stumbled on someone’s Facebook page?

Well, I thought you might like to see one of the less obvious results of our work preparing for the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. While the galleries were being designed and built, there was a huge amount of research going on behind the scenes to re-assess some of our greatest treasures. One of the curators carrying out research was Dr Paul Williamson, the head of the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass department, who is one of the world experts on medieval ivory carving. Paul spent a year researching and writing a new catalogue of our early medieval ivories - one of the most important parts of our earlier collections. We weren’t able to publish it in time for the opening of the new galleries in November, but the advance copies have now arrived, and the book will be going on sale to the public soon. Paul, by the way, is the man with the glasses and dark jacket sitting towards the front.

Medieval Ivories Book Launch

I’m often asked why we didn’t issue a catalogue to accompany the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The answer to this is simple - we issue catalogues to accompany temporary exhibitions, but not permanent displays. The permanent collections are catalogued according to media type, and we have been issuing catalogues of different areas of the collection every few years for a long time now!

Paul’s new book is the first of a series of three which will completely catalogue all the V&A’s ivories, a collection of about 500 objects. Ivory may today seem an odd sort of material to be a major art form during the middle ages, but it enjoyed periods of real popularity during the period. It’s hard to know why exactly this was, but it is noticeable that most of the luxury arts of the medieval period used raw materials that were exotic and hard to obtain - think of silk, gold and silver, or the lapis lazuli pigment used for the finest blue details in paintings. The whiteness of ivory, its durability, and the very tactile nature of ivory carvings (you have to really restrain yourself from touching them) were all probably part of its appeal.

The picture shows a little reception that Paul held to celebrate the completion of the book. I say ‘little’, but even with a single-author book like this, you can see that a large number of people ended up contributing to it! In the photo are staff from the V&A Conservation studios, who carried out scientific examination and testing on the objects; staff from the Photo Studio, who took the wonderful photographs that fill the book; experts from other parts of the Museum, like Rowan Watson, the curator responsible for our medieval manuscripts; the editors and staff of V&A Publications; and many more. Paul is having a more official launch party this week - but it was lovely for all those closely involved in the project to come together to mark its completion.

But of course, it’s never complete. No catalogue is truly the last word on the subject. And now Paul and I have started work on Volume II, which will take up where this catalogue leaves off, and go from 1200 to 1550, covering another 300-odd objects. Volume III is also in the process of being written, by Marjorie Trusted. This kind of scholarship on the collection may not be of any obvious significance for many of our visitors. But in reality, it decisively shapes the ways in which the objects are presented and discussed within the galleries. Many people who would never read Paul’s academic catalogue will certainly see our objects differently because of his research. For instance, one of our greatest treasures, the ivory crozier telling the story of Saint Nicholas, has always been described as English (have a look at it on http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70467/staff-head-the-st-nicholas-crozier/). Paul convincingly demonstrates that it is French, and this will transform the ways in which it is presented in the future.

A Missal from the Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris

Monday, January 4th, 2010

By Stuart Frost

Page from a missal from the abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346.The pages that illustrate this blog entry are from a magnificent missal in the V&A’s collections, one of the finest surviving examples of a fourteenth century Gothic manuscript. A missal is a book which contains all the texts and music needed by a priest to celebrate Mass. This particular missal was made for use at one of the altars in the royal abbey of St Denis, Paris. The book is displayed in Room 9 The Rise of Gothic 1200-1350.

Visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to see manuscript but also to explore a larger selection of openings from the book through a touch-screen interactive placed nearby. In addition, for the first time visitors will also be able to hear a recording of one of the chants preserved in the musical notation written on the missal’s pages. 

The missal waA missal from Saint Denis, Paris. MSL/1891/1346 393vs commissioned for the abbey of St Denis and because it was used there it includes specific references to both the abbey and its patron saint, Saint Denis. Saint Denis is the patron saint of France. He was believed to have been sent to Gaul to convert pagans to Christianity in the third century. Although St Denis preached initially with great success he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded. His martydom is depicted in the illumination depicted in the photographs that heads this blog entry.

The strong connection between the manuscript and Saint Denis dictated that if we were to record only one piece from the missal it should ideally be a piece that related to the abbey or its name saint. Staff, students and professional singers from the Royal College of Music recently recorded Salve Pater Dyonisi (Hail Father Denis). the notation and words for which can be seen in the images to the left and below.  This piece would have been performed on the Feast Day of Saint Denis. Salve Pater Dyonisi comprises seven verses which praise St Denis and two other saints who were martyred with him, Saint Rusticus and Saint Eleutherius. The words are sung in Latin to music that was adapted from pre-existing pieces to create a fresh work.

A missal from Saint Denis, Paris. MSL/1891/1346 394rA short film that introduces the missal and which documents the recording of Salve Pater Dyonisi has just been posted on Vimeo. If you’d like to see the film please click on the link provided below. The superlative artistic qualities of the missal are easy to appreciate but the recording of some of the music that its written upon its pages will hopefully give visitors a greater feel for how the manuscript was originally intended to be used. 

I’m delighted that visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to hear for the first time a piece of music that was originally performed in Saint Denis abbey around 1350. The recording will also be made available online. Watch this space for more information. Happy New Year to everyone!

Click here to see the film about the Saint Denis Missal and the recording of Salve Pater Dyonisi on Vimeo.

Music from the leaf of a choirbook

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Leaf from a choirbook, about 1250, Germany or northern Netherlands.  Museum no. 1519I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog entry with a manuscript leaf that was orginally part of a choirbook made around 1250, probably in Germany. The leaf is decorated with an illuminated letter that depicts the Annunciation, the moment when the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary and tells her that she will give birth to Christ. Click on the image for a larger picture and more information about the choirbook leaf.

The leaf also contains the musical notation and the Latin words for a piece of Gregorian chant, Missus est Gabriel or the Angel Gabriel was Sent. Thanks to the efforts of staff and students and the Royal College of Music visitors to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will be able to listen to a recording of this piece of music in the gallery where the choirbook leaf is displayed. The music will be delivered through headphones and an audio-point built into one of the gallery seats.

If you’d like to know more about the choirbook leaf and the recording of the piece of music I’ve provided a link below to a short film that we made to document the work. In the film curator V&A Rowan Watson explains why the V&A has a large collection of individual manuscript leaves, the female choir is shown rehearsing the piece of music and Jennifer Smith of the Royal College of Music explains the work involved in transcribing the notation from the original manuscript.

Recording peformances of medieval chant in a church, 17 June 2009. Photograph by Lorena Meana.Chants like Missus est Gabriel originated in monasteries where the singing of the Divine Service seven times a day was required of those following the Rule of St. Benedict. Gregorian chant accompanied the celebration of Mass and other services that took place throughout the liturgical year. Chant has a long history and although it has been subject to many changes and reforms over the centuries it remains in use for worship today.

The choirbook leaf will be displayed in Gallery 8 Faiths & Empires 300-1250 as part of a display about Great Chuches and Monasteries. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will open to the public on Wednesday 2nd December 2009. It is hard to believe that after so many years the project is almost finished.

Click here to see the film about the choirbook leaf and the recording of Missus est Gabriel on Vimeo. The recording of Missus est Gabriel will also made be available on the V&A’s website in due course.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

The Listening Gallery project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Listening Gallery Part 2: Medieval to Baroque

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009. Photograph by Lorena Meana.Music was part of daily life in medieval and Renaissance Europe and talented musicians and composers were often as highly regarded or sought after as other artists. Music was an important art form in its own right. The central role of music in medieval and Renaissance culture is reflected in many objects in the V&A’s collections. Thanks to a partnership with the Royal College of Music funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) we will be able to integrate a large number of high quality recordings into the Medieval and Renaissance galleries in an innovative and exciting manner.

Rehearsals and recordings of music for the new galleries have been taking place over recent weeks, thanks to the efforts of Giulia Nuti at the Royal College of Music. I’ll focus on one example here. The picture below this paragraph and to the left is of a page from a medieval manuscript known as the Saint Denis Missal. The book was made in Paris around 1350 and was used at the royal abbey of Saint Denis. Click on the picture for more information about it and to see other openings from the book. The Saint Denis Missal is a remarkably fine example of a Gothic manuscript and features some magnificent examples of calligraphy and illumination. It is largely because of the artistic qualities of the book that the V&A acquired it.Page from a missal from the abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346.

The pages of the missal, however, also carry countless lines of musical notation and it is some of this notation that was performed and recorded earlier this week. The work of Professor Anne Robertson on the service books of St Denis allowed Jennifer Smith of the Royal College of Music to prepare sheet music that could be rehearsed and performed by a choir of talented singers. Listening to the choir perform a piece of music that was originally sung in Paris over seven hundred and fifty years ago certainly stands out as one of my personal highlights whilst working at the V&A. The pictures  at the start and end of this blog entry show the choir at work with Jennifer.

Each of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A will contain at least one audio-point, most of which will be built into seats. Visitors will be able to sit down, select an option from a small touch-screen and listen to an audio track delivered through a handset or a set of headphones. Many of the audio-points have been placed in a direct relationship with a key object. Visitors will be able to look at the Saint Denis Missal, for example, whilst listening to music that is written on its pages. Each of the audio-points will include recordings provided by the Royal College of Music. We hope that the recordings will help visitors to the galleries understand the culture that produced the objects displayed around them, to stimulate their imagination and to enhance their feel for medieval and Renaissance culture. Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009.Photograph by Lorena Meana.

The first phase of the Listening Gallery project led to the integration of a number of beautiful recordings of music within the recent temporary exhibition Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence. If you have visited the exhibition I’m very keen to hear your views about how the recordings playing in the exhibition space impacted on your visit. For those of you unable to visit the exhibition physically a number of recordings are available to download online.

The Listening Gallery Project has been a fascinating one to be involved with. The commitment, expertise and passion of all the staff and students at the Royal College of Music involved with the project has been truly inspirational. Thanks to Peter Kelleher and Maike Zimmermann at the V&A we’ve been able to film some of the behind-the-scenes work involved in making the recordings. A series of short online films will be made available over the coming weeks. Watch this space for more details and further information.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

Click here to download recordings of music associated with Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence.

The Listening Gallery

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

I recently had some good news about a collaborative project that I’ve been working on with colleagues at the V&A and the Royal College of Music. In November 2007 the Royal College of Music applied to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a grant that would allow the V&A to integrate high-quality recordings of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music with the forthcoming permanent Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and the temporary Baroque exhibition.Detail from St Denis Missal

The application to the AHRC has been successful which is fantastic news. The project will last for two years and will enable us to connect objects in the V&A’s collections with recordings of music with which they have a strong relationship. The grant from the AHRC will enable us to provide visitors with a rich multi-sensory experience and to help us bring remote periods of European history to life.

There will be fourteen audio-points in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Visitors will be able to sit down, pick up a pair of headphones and to listen to a number of recordings. There are countless objects in the collection which have a strong connection with music.

The Museum has an important collection of musical instruments that includes Renaissance lutes and harpsichords.  Many objects feature representations of musical instruments that no longer survive. Others like the St Denis Missal feature musical notation that hasn’t been recorded before.  As part of the project a signficant number of new recordings will be made. In other cases existing recordings will be utilised. The music will also be made available via the V&A’s website for downloading.

Music was a central part of life in medieval and Renaissance Europe and this project will highlight to visitors just how significant music was. I find it incredibly exciting to think that visitors will be able to sit in a new gallery looking at a display of Gothic stained-glass whilst listening to recordings of the music which once filled the cathedrals where the glass was placed.  Rather than looking at the Baffo harpsicord which I’ve illustrated here, visitors will be able to hear recordings of the music which it would have been used to play. Click on the image to find out more about the object.

Harpsichord by Giovanni Baffo, 1574, Venice. Museum no. 6007-1859The idea for the project to integrate music with the displays was first raised late in 2006 by Flora Dennis and Giulia Nuti. I’m delighted that thanks to the efforts of a large number of people the application was submitted successfully. Giulia will play a central role in delivering the project. She is a very talented musician and if you click on the link below you’ll be able to hear some recordings that she made for the recent At Home in Renaissance Italy exhibition. I’ll use the blog to post updates as things progress.

Click here to listen to extracts of music recorded for At Home in Renaissance Italy

Click here to find out more about the Royal College of Music / V&A Listening Gallery project.

Anglo-French Relations: Old and New

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

The detail you can see here is a heraldic device that adorns a vast bronze jug, destined for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The coat-of-arms is that of King Richard II. If you look closely you can see that the shield is quartered, and decorated with the fleur-di-lis of France and the lions of England. The coat-of-arms reflects the English claim to the French crown. Click on the image to find out more about the coat-of-arms and the object it adorns.

Jug cast with the royal arms of England, Museum no. 217-1879.The French, of course, no longer have a monarchy. President Sarkozy is making a state visit to Britain this week and it appears that a closer relationship between Britain and France is developing. In recent years there has occasionally been friction between the French and English governments but fortunately nothing to compare with the hostility that existed during the later Middle Ages when the French and English kingdoms were almost constantly fighting in a period now known as the Hundred Years War.

Today we have the media to keep us informed about diplomatic relations, and a great deal of less essential information about the private lives of the great, the good and the d-list celebrity. For the Hundred Years War the greatest chronicler was Jean Froissart, perhaps the closest parallel for a modern journalist in the fourteenth century. I have to admit that the journalist parallel isn’t a very good one.

Froissart was born in 1337 into a Europe very different to our own. His home town was Valenciennes, Hainault (now on the French-Belgian border) but he travelled widely. Around 1361-62 he crossed the Channel to England to join the court of Philippa of Hainault, King Edward III of England’s queen. Here he wrote a rhymed history of the recent wars between England and France, but continued to rewrite and expand his work throughout his life, turning from poetry to prose. His Chronicles cover the period between 1325 and 1400 including evocative accounts of the great English victories at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).

The reason I mention this is that I’ve been reading his Chronicles in search of quotes that we might be able to use on subject panels to help try and give a personalised view of the period covered by the Medieval and Renaissance displays. I also visited an exhibition, The Chronicles of Froissart, at the Royal Armouries in Leeds at the weekend. 

The temporary display at the Armouries is based around a single illuminated manuscript of Froissart’s text known as the Stonyhurst Chronicles. This manuscript was brought back to England after the Agincourt campaign by Sir John Arundell in 1415. In 1837 James Arundell gave the manuscript to Stonyhurst College, and the College have loaned the manuscript to the Royal Armouries for the exhibition. I’m always interested to see how other museums go about developing displays around manuscripts as books aren’t the easiest things to display and we’re integrating a significant number throughout the new galleries.
The Chronicles of Froissart exhibition runs until 6 April 2008 so you haven’t got much time if you want to see it. However you can find out more via the exhibition microsite on the Royal Armouries website. For the most vivid insights into the events of the fourteenth century, and the life of a man who lived through remarkable times, I’d recommend reading the Chronicles themselves. Froissart’s book is in print, is easy to track down and it is also great read for anyone with an interest in history.

Click here to find out more about The Chronicles of Froissart exhibition.

Giants of the Renaissance

Monday, December 10th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Leonardo da Vinci, Forster Codex I, 6v-7r.The V&A is the National Musuem of Art & Design but it is also far more than that. We know that our visitors use the Museum’s collections in many diverse ways. A few weeks ago a photograph in the supplement of a Sunday newspaper caught my eye. I recognised the location as the National Art Library at the V&A. On closer inspection I also identified the object that the people in the photograph were looking at, a facsimile copy of one of  Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. On the next page was a photograph of Michelangelo’s vast marble sculpture, David.

The article was about Antony Sher’s new play, The Giant. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are two of the central characters in the drama. The completely fictional protagonist, Vito, is the model for David and the focus of both Michelangelo and Leonardo’s desire. Whilst the play accurately reflected the culture of male same-sex desire that existed in Renaissance Florence the actual relationships in the play were fictional. 

In writing the play, which is centered on the creation of Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, Antony Sher had undertaken a great deal of research. Both he and the director, Greg Doran, had visited the National Art Library to look at the three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that the Museum is fortunate to possess. Rowan Watson, the V&A’s expert on Leonardo notebooks, was on hand to answer questions and provide advice.

I went to see the play a few weeks and enjoyed it immensely.The attention to detail was extremely impressive. Leonardo, played by Roger Allam, had a notebook with him on stage into which he periodically wrote throughout the performance. When doing so he wrote from right-to-left with his left hand, just as the real Leonardo did. I wonder whether any other members of the audience also noted this minor but accurately observed mannerism? It did help engender a tangible sense of convincing authenticity. I took a little while to adjust to the fictionalised characters of the two artists, purely because I’ve read enough about them to have formed my own sense of their personalities. I suspect most people develop their sense of Michelangelo or Leonardo through the artists’ work rather than a detailed knowledge of their biographies.

Plaster-cast copy of Michelangelo's David.The set design was ingenious. A vast ‘marble’ block was gradually transformed into the statute as the play progressed. The V&A has a late nineteenth century plaster-copy of Michelangelo’s David which you can see in the image I’ve used here to illustrate this entry. The fig-leaf with which it was provided, usually hung displayed on the back of the plinth, is currently making a guest appearance at London’s Barbican Gallery in Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. 

Unfortunately The Giant has now closed but if you’re quick you’ll still be able to see the fig-leaf in its temporary home! The plaster cast version of David can be seen from Room 111 at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks

Click here to find out more about the Cast Collections