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Archive for the 'Myths and Legends' Category

The Local Past - Barcelona

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

By Glyn Davies

Facade of Casa Amatller, BarcelonaOne of the things that the curators tried to incorporate into the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries was the idea that the past survives, often in evocative fragments, all around us in the modern city. At various points since, artists and designers have chosen to go back and take inspiration from those fragments. And one of the most interesting things that I find while travelling around Europe is to see the very different ways in which that inspiration has manifested itself. Works inspired by gothic art, or medieval buildings here in Britain look very different from medieval-inspired architecture in France, or Spain.

This trend was especially noticeable in the late nineteenth century, when artists were especially keen on developing ‘national’ styles that reflected local traditions and techniques. Often, artists working in this style had close links to the literary scene, and to nationalist and localist politics, both left wing and right wing. One of the best examples is Catalunya. I was recently in Barcelona, and while of course I had to go and see the wonderful medieval and renaissance art displayed at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (a long walk uphill to the area called Montjuic), I ended up spending most of the holiday doing walking tours around the city to see the buildings of the Modernista period, roughly contemporary with the Art Nouveau style throughout the rest of Europe.

Casa de les Punxes, BarcelonaThe artists and architects of Barcelona, concerned with their Catalan, rather than Spanish, identity, had a particularly intense relationship with their local historic building styles. The buildings of the Eixample district in Barcelona often display fanciful references to medieval building styles, but at the same time, they are eclectic, and usually built using the most up-to-the-minute engineering and construction techniques. The medieval look is only skin deep!

The first photo here shows you part of the street facade of the Casa Amatller, one of the more prominent Modernista buildings in the city. It was designed by Designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, with ironwork designed by Manuel Ballarín, sculptural reliefs by Alfons Juyol, and stained-glass windows by Eduard Amigó. Puig i Cadafalch was one of Barcelona’s leading architects, and this apartment building, constructed at the turn of the century, was designed to resemble a medieval palace. In the photo, you can see that the facade is entirely covered in tiles, a pointed reference to local Catalan building techniques.

The second photo is of one of Puig i Cadafalch’s rather more austere buildings. Whenever I look at this, I’m reminded of its cousin in London, Saint Pancras station. Both buildings take their inspiration from fifteenth-century northern European castles, particularly in the round towers with their pointed roofs. In this case, though, the spectacular ironwork is a strongly Catalan element. This building is known as the House of Spikes (Casa de les Punxes)!

The last image is one of my favourites. Everyone has heard of Antoni Gaudi, who’s become probably the most famous of Barcelona’s turn of the century architects. But among aficionados, another name is often mentioned: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. This architect’s undoubted masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, not far from the Sagrada Familia church. The site has been closed for ages now, but recently, work has started on restoring the buildings, and as a result, limited guided tours are available. If you get the chance, then I can heartily recommend it. Even in a degraded state, the Hospital is hugely impressive. The photo below shows you just one of the ward pavilions. And immediately, you get a sense of how the architect was throwing together ideas from a whole variety of medieval and renaissance building styles to create something new. The tiled onion dome looks Byzantine. The arches are inspired by romanesque churches, while the tall columns and window forms come from a variety of gothic architectural sources. More subtly, I think, the integration of architecture, sculpture and pictorial representations on the outside of the building reflects the inspiration of the unashamedly ‘multi-media’ approach of medieval buildings. Walking around this hospital complex, I had a real sense of how the past could be used creatively to make beautiful and useful buildings and objects for the future.

Hospital Ward, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Barcelona



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.



Tintagel Castle and Arthurian Myth

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Tintagel Castle, May 2008.

The pictures that I’ve reproduced here are of the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the remains of which cling perilously to the north Cornish coastline. Tintagel is linked intimately with the legend of King Arthur. Given the popularity of Arthurian Romance in north European medieval culture, especially literature, I’m surprised that I haven’t written about Arthur before. In my defence there are only a small number of objects in the V&A’s medieval and Renaissance collections that have a connection with the legends that developed around King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most of those relate to the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The reason for addressing the subject of Arthur now is simply because I’ve been looking at some photographs I took of Tintagel Castle during a recent visit to Cornwall. I’ve reproduced a couple here to give a sense of the ruinous state of the remains and to try and reflect the romance of the location. 

If castles are viewed as purely military structures then Tintagel makes little sense. It is on a site that could be easily isolated and starved into submission. However castles were always far more than just military structures. The site of Tintagel was associated only with the conception of Arthur (Camelot that was King Arthur’s own fortress). The historical associations of the site of Tintagel were probably as important as its defensive qualities.

The ruins that we can see today are largely the work of Richard Earl of Cornwall  (born 1209 – died 1272), a man whom we know to have had imperial ambitions. By associating himself with the legend of the great King Arthur by building a castle at Tintagel was he trying to present himself as Arthur’s true heir, and therefore entitled to the full support of the Cornish people? It is even possible that the castle Richard had built was deliberately anachronistic, that it consciously reflected an older mythological Arthurian age. What people believed to be true is as important as what was really the case.Tintagel Castle, May 2008.

The Arthurian legend has remained a potent source of inspiration for poets, playwrights and filmmakers.  Perhaps the greatest and most influential version of the story is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, first published by William Caxton in 1485 and still in print today. In the nineteenth century Arthurian Romance influenced figures such as the designer William Morris, the artists Aubrey Beardsley and Sir Edward Burne-Jones and writers of the stature of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

In more recent years actors such as Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Keira Knightly have starred in films with an Arthurian theme. I’m sure that we will have a film season as part of the programme of events that will support the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries in November 2009. I’m equally sure that one of the films is bound to be a swashbuckler related to King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. If anyone has a favourite swashbuckling film do let me know! Likewise it is always useful to know if there are films that should be avoided at all costs!

Tintagel Castle is now under the care of English Heritage.  If you are interested in finding out more about the castle or would like to plan a visit their website.

King Alfred the Great?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Reliquary Cross, about 1000. Museum no. 7943-1862.It is the nature of history that only the names of a comparatively few people are remembered after their deaths. For the medieval period the people we know most about tend to be the most powerful, exceptional or notorious figures. 

Medieval chroniclers were fond of adding an adjective after an individual’s name. Some rulers were more fortunate than others in the label posterity gave them. Charles the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion Heart are all at the acceptable end of the spectrum, but who would want to be known as Louis the Fat, Charles the Bald or John Soft-sword?

The word great is arguably over-used today. Such and such is a great singer, footballer or actor. It is difficult to really assess someone’s merits without the perspective that the passage of time brings. However if there is one English figure who truly deserves the epithet great then it is Alfred of Wessex (849-899), ruler of the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive the Viking onslaught in the ninth century. 

If you need convincing about Alfred’s credentials then I’d recommend visiting Winchester to see the exhibition: Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. The exhibition closes on 27 April 2008. The display is small but it includes some beautiful objects which are also of immense historical importance. The V&A has loaned the remarkable Anglo-Saxon reliquary illustrated above to Winchester for the duration of the display. Click on the object to find out more about the object and its link with Alfred’s achievements.

The legacy Alfred left his sucessors allowed them to consolidate the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and eventually bring all of England under the control of one monarch. The origins of modern England can arguably be traced back to Alfred’s reign. Winchester became Alfred’s main city and throughout the middle ages the city was extremely important. There is enough evidence around the modern town to give a sense of just how impressive medieval Winchester was.

Alfred’s achievements ensured that he would never be forgotten. The photograph illustrated below shows 19th century remodelling at Arundel Castle. The relief sculpture is difficult to see but it shows ‘King Alfred instituting Trial by Jury on Salisbury Plain’, evidence of Alfred’s enduring reputation as a model monarch.North Side of Quadrangle, Arundel Castle, 1852-54, Benjamin Brecknell Turner. Museum no. PH 44 1982

Click here to find out more about Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom.

Venus Unveiled

Friday, February 15th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Statuette of Venus, 1560-1570, Museum no. A.13-1964The last entry posted here focused on the male nude through two sculptures of David by Donatello and Michelangelo. This week I thought I’d focus on the female nude and more specifically on representations of Venus. Given that Valentine’s Day fell on 14 February the Roman goddess of love is a particularly appropriate and topical subject.

I was interested to read in the press earlier this week that a 16th century painting of Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder had fallen foul of advertising guidelines for posters on the London Underground. Although I haven’t reproduced the image here, if you click on one of the links below you’ll be able to see the painting for yourself. The diaphonenous veil and necklace add to the erotic charge of the naked figure.

Venus was the Roman goddess of love and fertility and I’m sure that most of you will be familiar with classical statues that depict her in various naked or semi-naked poses. There is nothing obviously divine or classical about Cranach’s Venus which is probably why his painting still has the power to make one or two people feel uncomfortable about displaying it in such a public space. Traditionally a nude that followed classical precedents and models was unlikely to attract too much controversy. However even in classical times stories circulated that spoke of the power of sculpture to inflame the passions of the viewer.

Whilst I was surprised that Cranach’s Venus had been ‘banned’ I was also glad that the painting still had the power to generate so much debate and so many column inches in the papers.  I suspect that the Royal Academy won’t be too disappointed about the extra publicity for their forthcoming exhibition either!Venus Anadyomene, about 1510-15, Italian. Museum no. A.19-1964. Surely the vast majority of people feel that banning the poster is an over-reaction and that there are far more dubious or questionable adverts in the free newspapers that litter the trains?

I’ve illustrated this posting with several representations of Venus in the V&A’s Renaissance collections. Click on the picture to find out more about the sculpture shown. Amorous visitors to the V&A won’t have to look too hard in the galleries to find many other images of Venus, or male and female nudes, produced over a wide chronological span from the Renaissance onwards.

Click here to find out more about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of Venus.

Click here to find out more about the exhibition Lucas Cranach the Elder in Frankfurt.


Monday, November 12th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Brooch (fibula), Anglo-Saxon, 7th century. Museum no. M 110 1939 FavershamI saw a production of Faustus in Richmond two weeks ago. The play was loosely based on the text of the Tudor playwright Christopher Marlowe. However contemporary British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman were as central to the story as Dr Faustus himself. I’ve been enjoying watching the Tudors on BBC2 on Friday evenings and I’m looking forward to watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age at the cinema at some point during the next week or two. The public’s fascination with the Tudor history has been remarkably enduring. It seems as though the public appetite for Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s work is undiminished despite an endless stream of documentaries, dramas and plays. Ray Winstone’s Henry VIII is one of my favourite recent interpretations of England’s most famous king.

The medieval period, by contrast, maintains a lower and more erratic public profile. Recent highpoints have included The National Theatre’s excellent production of St Joan (Joan of Arc). The Globe Theatre company also staged a fantastic production, In Extremis, which was unsual in focussing on the twelfth-century characters of Peter Abelard, Heloise and St Bernard of Clairvaux. The earlier middle ages appear to have been even more under-utilised even though it is an age as rich in drama, stories and epic struggles as any other. Perhaps the forthcoming film-version of Beowulf will encourage other filmmakers and writers to look back to the so-called Dark Ages with new enthusiasm?

Brooch (Fibula), Anglo-Saxon, 7th century. Museum no. M 109 1939 MiltonThe film version of Beowulf is based on an epic Anglo-Saxon poem, a masterpiece of literature that vividly reflects the values of the culture from which it emerged. I’ve heard the poem skillfully recited in the original language which was a remarkable experience. Even though I couldn’t understand a word if felt as through the distance between the past and present had collapsed. The first part of the poem is the most well known. The young Beowulf comes to the aid of King Hrothgar whose people are terrorised by the monster Grendel. Whilst Angelina Jolie is ‘box office’ she certainly isn’t the most obvious choice to play the mother of the hideous Grendel. I hope that the film does the spirit of the poem justice.

I‘ve illustrated this blog-entry with a selection of objects which belong to the same era as the poem. Whilst the Museum doesn’t hold many Anglo-Saxon artefacts you can see from these pieces of jewellery that what material there is is incredibly beautiful. The people who were buried with these brooches may well have been familiar with the heroic deeds of Beowulf. Hopefully after the film version has completed its run a whole new generation will also be able to recount the outline of the story, and will have been inspired to go back to the orginal text.

Labour of Love: The Trojan War

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a magnificent tapestry continues in the Textile Conservation Studio. The tapestry is approximately 4.20 metres high, just over 7 metres long and depicts a scene from the Trojan War. The tapestry is part of one of the most important sets still surviving from the latter part of the fifteenth century.

War of Troy Tapestry, 1475-1490, Museum no. 6-1887The Trojan War tapestries were made in Tournai (now in Belgium) between 1460 and 1490. Several sets were woven for some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in Europe including King Charles VIII of France, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and King Henry VII of England. The complete set consisted of eleven hangings. The tapestry in the Conservation Studio is the ninth in the series and is thought to have come from the first set. Click on on the images for a better view of the scenes depicted on it and the conservation work.

At some point in its history the V&A’s tapestry was cut into five separate parts. Not surprisingly for a textile that is over five hundred years old it has required conservation work from time to time.  The tapestry is currently undergoing a programme of treatment so that it will look at its best when it goes on display to the public in November 2009.Troy Tapestry

The tapestry has already been wet cleaned in Belgium using a special installation that uses water vapour and suction to ensure that the textile fibres are supported at all times and are not wet for too long. You’ll find more information about this stage of the work on the Conservation Department’s web-pages - follow the link below.

It is has been estimated that in total the work on the tapestry will take up to 3,500 hours. Expressed in different terms that’s one conservator working on the tapestry for two years!  At the moment the conservator in question is Albertina. She very kindly provided me with an update on progress. As you can see from the picture I’ve included here the cleaned tapestry is now being conserved on a frame in the Textile Conservation Studio. It is in the process of been given a complete support of fine linen scrim. Larger areas where loss is more pronounced are being supported with heavier linen.Troy Tapestry

I’ll add further updates about progress on work on this tapestry, and on other objects, in due course.  If you have any questions please feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.  If I don’t know the answer myself, I’m sure that one of my colleagues will.

Click on the link that follows to view a short-film about conservation work on the War of Troy Tapestry

St George’s Day

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

By Stuart Frost

St George and the Dragon:  Cast after DonatelloThis year St George’s day falls on Monday 23 April. There are a large number of images of St George in the V&A’s collections. Most of them are not English.  It may come as a surprise to many English people to discover that St George is a figure with a Middle Eastern background who was popular throughout Europe and even further afield. The image reproduced here features a cast taken from a sculpture made by Donatello. The sculpture was installed on the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. Click on the image for a better view and more information about the object.

St George’s cult has a long history. Churches were dedicated to him in Jerusalem and Antioch as early as the sixth century.  His story is told in the The Golden Legend, an extremely popular late medieval book.  Most memorably George defeated a dragon that was terrorising the local population, and rescued the king’s daughter from its jaws. In return the king’s subjects converted to Christianity.  George was believed to have been put death in around 303, the result of the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor. By the late middle ages George had become an extremely popular figure in England, but also in some Italian states, Portugal and Catalonia. The detail below is part of a painted altarpiece from Spain.

St George AltarpieceSt George has been an important figure for Christians in Ethiopia for a very long period of time. The cathedral in Addis Ababa, built in 1898 by the Emperor Menelik, is dedicated to the saint. Considerably older is the magnificent rock-hewn church of Bet Giyorgis (Place of George) at Lalibela. The churches at Lalibela are thought to date to the 12th or 13th centuries. The church dedicated to George is the arguably the most impressive. Its plan follows that of a square cross and the church is carved entirely out of solid rock.  St George is represented frequently in Ethiopian art, often following earlier Italian or Byzantine models that were introduced into the country and adapted subsequently.

George has recently been seen by some as a controversial figure for English society today. The press carried stories last year about a campaign for St George to be replaced by St Alban as England’s patron saint. It is inevitable that opinions about the role of the saint as a focus for national identity will vary. Some sections of the press have argued that the English fail to celebrate St George’s day enough.  Comparisons with St Patrick’s Day in Ireland are made each year. I have been sent a St Patrick’s Day card before, but not one for St George’s Day, even though they are now available.

That debates still resurface regularly in the media are evidence that the legacy of our medieval past still has relevance today. St George has been a popular figure for religious devotion, and national identity, for a considerable period of time. England may have one of the fastest secularising societies in Europe but St George still remains a culturally significant figure. In other parts of the world, like Ethiopia for example, St George also retains a strong relevance to daily life and religious practice. To find more images of Saint George search in the V&A’s collections visit Collections Online.