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Archive for the 'Saints' Category

Vikings and Bishops

Monday, June 7th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

One of the great things (or perhaps one of the curses) of working in the history of art is that holidays always have a work edge. If you are travelling in Europe, you are almost never too far from a medieval or renaissance site that needs seeing. I’ve recently spent some time in Denmark, and while I was there I couldn’t resist taking the train out to the small town of Roskilde, once the capital of the Viking kingdom of Denmark.

Roskilde boasts an impressive cathedral, which for anyone used to English or French buildings of the same date is something of a surprise. Take a look at the photo, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s built almost entirely of brick - and Roskilde claims to be the first cathedral ever to have been built using that material. It was mainly constructed in the early thirteenth century, and already shows signs of responding to the gothic style that had developed in the area around Paris in the previous forty or fifty years. This new brick-built style was so influential in Denmark that many of the nineteenth and twentieth-century churches there still refer to Roskilde in their basic appearance.

Inside, the church is surprisingly small for a cathedral and burial site of kings, but there are interesting traces of medieval and renaissance wall painting surviving. This thirteenth-century painting caught my eye. The saint on the right is Olaf, the eleventh-century king of Norway who was an important saint throughout Scandinavia - it’s hard to make him out in the photo at this size, but you can see a much larger version on our Flickr pages.

The V&A doesn’t possess much material from medieval Scandinavia, but we do have one important piece that also depicts Olaf. It is a fourteenth-century crozier, and is almost certainly Norwegian - a piece that is very close to my heart, and forms part of a display looking at the international penetration of the gothic style in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in our new galleries (Gallery 9). You can take a look at it by clicking here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O65808/crozier-head-crozier/.

While I was in Roskilde, I also had to visit one other key site. In the 1970s, five Viking ships were salvaged from the fjord at Roskilde, and now form the centrepieces of a museum looking at the Viking relationship to the sea. The museum, which is also a working boat yard, is called the Vikingeskibs Museet. The display is very dramatic, as you are standing next to ships that are over a thousand years old. Outside in the harbour are authentic replicas, built using traditional techniques. Probably the most effective, and moving, part of the museum displays is the high-quality film showing a crew from Roskilde attempting to sail the largest of their ship replicas to Dublin. Why Dublin? Well, scientific testing has shown that the largest ship at Roskilde had been made there. The crew do succeed in making their way to Dublin, but not without being tested in appalling conditions. I felt very happy to be watching, rather than taking part!

 If you want to see some of the awesome footage for yourself, then click here: http://vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/index.php?id=1671&L=1.

I found the visit strangely moving. It was something to do with the fact that the ships are displayed so close to their find site, and in the context of practical archaeology. You’re encouraged to think about how the Viking community in Roskilde actually lived, and you come out of the museum with a sense of quite how adventurous these sea-farers were.



New Year, New Author

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that Stuart Frost, its regular author since 2006, has not been adding many posts recently. This is because he is now working at the British Museum as Head of Interpretation. For a few months after the opening of the V&A’s new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, Stuart has graciously kept up his work on this blog, but is now bowing out - leaving me with some pretty big shoes to fill.

My name is Glyn, and I’m a curator of medieval art here at the V&A. I was in charge of the area of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries on the lower ground floor. In a shameless piece of self-promotion, I should also mention that I was the co-author of the book to accompany the galleries, Medieval and Renaissance Art: People and Possessions (for details, see http://www.vandashop.com/product.php?xProd=4356&xSec=30&navlock=1). Over the next few months, I’m hoping to post on aspects of medieval and renaissance art and history that are relevant to the V&A’s collections, that give you an insight into the work we do behind the scenes, or which I simply find interesting and think worth pointing out. It’s more fun when there’s a discussion, so I’d like to begin by asking for recommendations from you for things to do or upcoming events in London that reflect the medieval and renaissance periods. Please post any good ideas or suggestions in the comments area below.

Doubting Thomas on the Syon Cope

The image attached to this entry is a detail of a large embroidered cope (a sort of ceremonial cloak), which features in the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. This detail, depicting Doubting Thomas thrusting his hand into Christ’s side wound, because this is the only way in which he will believe that Christ has been resurrected from the dead, recently featured in the Easter editorial of one of the big national newspapers. The cope was made in London, probably not far from Saint Paul’s cathedral, in the early fourteenth century. It’s often surprising where images of V&A objects will show up. Usually, as in this case, it’s as a result of us re-presenting or publishing the object in some way. As well appearing prominently in the new galleries, the cope was also the subject of a talk I gave at a three day conference looking at Medieval and Renaissance Art that we held at the museum in February, so it’s certainly been receiving more attention. On the other hand, I’m sometimes surprised by the contexts in which I find our objects. One of my guilty pleasures is reading comic books. A couple of years ago, I bought an expensive hardback edition of one of Neil Gaiman’s series of Sandman comics (’The Wake’, for those who are interested). In it, the graphic artist Dave McKean had taken photos of a number of V&A objects, including a lamp by the Renaissance artist Riccio, and an ivory crucifix figure by the thirteenth-century sculptor Giovanni Pisano, and had manipulated the images to create the spooky atmosphere needed to set the scene for the comic’s stories. I’d be interested to hear about any surprising uses of V&A object images that you’ve come across…

St Thérèse of Lisieux

Friday, October 16th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Earlier this week relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux arrived at Westminster Cathedral in London as the culmination of a month long tour of Britain. The reaction from the public and the media has been remarkable. The relics of this French nun, who died in 1897 at the age of  twenty-four, have drawn massive crowds as they have travelled around the country. Over two thousand pilgrims an hour are expected to visit Westminster Cathedral to venerate the relics during their comparatively short stay in the capital.Conservation work in progress on a reliquary of St Antigius, January 2007.

The scenes of devotion that have accompanied the tour are a reminder that British society isn’t quite as secular as is often assumed. In a decade dominated by the cult of celebrity, the response to the tour of St Thérèse’s relics demonstrates that the cult of saints remains central to the lives of many Christians in the United Kingdom. The significant number of new saints created by the Papacy in the twentieth century also serves to illustrate the continuing centrality of saints in Roman Catholicism.

At the age of fifteen Thérèse became a Carmelite nun at Lisieux where she remained until her death from tuberculosis just eight years later. Her life became more widely known through her short autobiography. L’Histoire d’une Âme (The Story of a Soul). She was canonised, officially recognised as saint by the Roman Catholic Church, in 1925.

The veneration of saints was of course, extremely popular throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. The V&A’s collections include a number of extremely beautiful and significant reliquaries, elaborate containers made to hold relics associated with saints.  Almost all of these reliquaries are now empty, the relics they once held lost or removed long before the objects came to the Museum. At the V&A these reliquaries are now appreciated primarily for their aesthetic qualities but the response to St Thérèse’s relics is a reminder of the spiritual signficance they once had. I’ve written about a number of reliquaries over the last three years, most recently about  one associated with St Sebastian. The photograph that heads this blog entry shows conservation work undertaken in January 2007 on a reliquary of St Antigius.

Becket Casket, around 1180. Museum no. M.66-1977The most well known reliquary in the V&A’s collections is arguably one that is associated with St Thomas Becket and which was probably made in 1180, just ten years or so after the murder of the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral. The shrine of Thomas Becket become one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims in Britain and Europe. Relics associated with Becket were in great demand. 

The relics of saints (sometimes parts of their bodies) were often divided between churches and saints’ relics were sometimes removed (or stolen) from shrines. Some of St Thérèse relics have remained in France, and indeed have also been touring the country there. However In medieval and Renaissance Europe pilgrims tended to travel to visit the shrines of saints rather then the relics being brought to churches near them in the manner of the current tour of  St Thérèse’s relics.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the reliquary which contains St Thérèse’s relics. However there are plenty or articles and images on the websites of most of the major newspapers, testament to the manner in which the story of St Thérèse has captured the media’s attention.