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Archive for the 'Paintings' Category

Italian Art in Britain: a love story

Monday, November 15th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

Anyone who’s visited the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries can’t fail to have noticed their strongly Italian flavour. Italian art and craft is one of the strengths of the Museum’s historical collections, and it’s telling that we possess probably the most important collection of Italian renaissance sculpture outside Italy. Visitors can see works by big name artists such as Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Giambologna, as well as medieval masterpieces like the figure of the prophet Haggai by Giovanni Pisano that was once on the facade of the cathedral in Siena. But why is this? Why does the Museum’s collection put so much emphasis on Italy, particularly during the period 1250-1600?

The short answer to this question is straightforward - when the Museum was building its collection in the mid-nineteenth century, Italy was seen as the well-spring of art. Pisa's CamposantoA formative part of the education of any culitivated (and wealthy!) young man or woman from Britain, and increasingly from America too, was the Grand Tour. The Tour was what today might be called a route for cultural tourism around Europe, but its heart was Italy, and in particular the cities of Venice, Florence and Rome.

But these tourists weren’t just passive consumers of a pre-packaged storyline. In fact British, German (and later American) visitors to Italy were instrumental in re-discovering a whole class of art which had been neglected - the art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For a British audience, writers like John Ruskin, and the huge history of Italian painting produced by Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle provided a way in to a fascinating new world of late medieval and early renaissance art. Books and writers like these also shaped the art market and the interests of museums like the V&A. An example of the sort of thing the V&A bought in its early years, under the influence of this writing, is this object in the new galleries: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93870/virgin-and-child-virgin-and-child/. This mid-fifteenth century Florentine work is typical of the sort of sweet style with simple, clear design which was much admired in the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, the V&A bought large numbers of artworks in Italy, forming the core of the renaissance collections.

So why am I talking about all this now? Well, I recently spent several weeks in Italy doing research. One of the places I visited was Florence. It’s a town about which I’m oddly ambivalent. At least part of this is down to the fact that Florence has become a victim of its own success. It often seems as if there are more foreigners living in Florence than Italians. Many of them are students - to study Italian art is to enter into a wonderful United Nations-like world, with representatives from many nations. In fact, the most important art history institutions in Florence aren’t even run by Florentines. I Tatti is run by Harvard University, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut is part of the German Max Planck Society. The same goes for the tourists, who come in huge numbers from all over the world. And all of them are fed the same story - of how Florence created the renaissance, and modern art, in a series of masterpieces produced in the years after 1400.

Florence under stormy skiesFlorence’s success leads to strange anomalies, where some artworks, such as Botticelli’s Venus, are must-sees, but you’ll never find tourists in Ghirlandaio’s wonderful Sassetti chapel in the church of Santa Trinita. And I can’t help contrasting it all with the situation I find myself in more often - looking at wonderful works of art with nobody else there. This is often true in Germany. On a trip to Munich a few years ago, I spent a long time looking at the incredible German renaissance sculpture in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum with only a single security guard for company. The galleries were so empty that the guard was able to follow me from room to room. But there’s so much in German art to get excited about. Have a look at the photo below, for example, which shows the clustering buttresses of the enormous Cologne Cathedral. Who could fail to get excited about this?

So what’s my conclusion? Well, I wanted to ask - is our love of Italian art really because the works are so much better than the rest? Or is it more because of the long history of interaction between the English-speaking world and Italy? And given how popular the story of the birth of renaissance art has become, have we entered a period when the popularity of Italian art has become counter-productive? Or am I just being an art snob? I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts, so get posting!

Buttresses at Cologne Cathedral


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?

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.



Scenes from the Apocalypse

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.Since February 2008 one of the most enigmatic objects in the V&A’s collections, and one of the earliest acquisitions, has been the focus of a remarkable programme of conservation work. The object, a larger central panel with two hinged wings, is an altarpiece. The panels were made and painted in northern Germany around 1400.

The photograph to the right shows the altarpiece in the paintings conservation studio at the V&A. The wings have been detached to facilitate conservation work.

The painting on the front of the altarpiece consists of forty-five scenes illustrating most of the chapters of the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible that describes events at the end of the world. The scenes from the last five chapters are missing which suggests the altarpiece is no longer complete. Most of the scenes are accompanied by text taken from the work of a friar who in the mid-13th century attempted to explain the events of the Book of Revelation in historical terms.

The altarpiece will be included in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. In preparation for this the painting was the subject of a technical examination and assessment by conservators Lara Wilson, Rachel Turnbull and Nicola Costaras. X-rays, for example, revealed the extent of later over-painting as well revealing clearly the structure of the wooden panels. Tests were carried out to establish the age of the restoration (probably 19th century) and to assess the condition of the original painting beneath the later layers of dirt and varnish.Detail from a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.

Conservators and curators discussed different options for conservation work, assessed the consequences of each and then agreed the final programme of work. What conservation work did the object require and how could the object be displayed to best effect? Some of the paint had become loose and needed to be consolidated. The dirt that had accumulated over time and the varnish had both muted the original colours so it was agreed that both would be removed.

The vast majority of the painting is original but some areas where paint has been lost had been restored. The team at the V&A have decided to remove the areas where restorers had painted over losses with their own speculative compositions. Although work is still in progress it is clear that triptych will be transformed by the conservation work. The pictures that I’ve reproduced here show how vivid the colours are once the surface is cleaned. Detail from a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.

The close inspection of the painting as work has progressed has provided new insights and raised other avenues for research. The question of the attribution, for example, is being assessed again. The quality of the painting revealed by the recent work suggests that the altarpiece was made in the workshop of Master Bertram and that it should be added to the number of other surving paintings associated with this artist.  A number of articles exploring different aspects of the triptych will be published in due course and I will post-updates here. If you’d like to know more please post questions below and I’ll do my best to provide answers.

Thanks to Nicola Costaras and Rachel Turnbull for providing the information and pictures for this blog entry. I’ve posted additional images on the Medieval and Renaissance V&A site on Flickr. Click on each of the images here to find out more.

Conservation and Research

Friday, April 4th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Kuppelreliquiar V&A, Dach nach Abnahme der Beschläge mit GrubenschmelzA remarkable amount of work has been going behind the hoardings in the Museum and away from the public gaze elsewhere. In fact there is so much activity taking place that its impossible to mention it all here.

There is an increasing amount of effort going into the creation of new content for the website with a large number of colleagues across the V&A contributing. Much of this will only go online when the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries open in 2009.

However we have just added three subjects to the website highlighting recently completed work on a trio of very different objects. These online-only subjects provide short summaries of projects that were extremely complex and which involved wide-ranging specialist expertise.

The deinstallation of the facade of Sir Paul Pindar's House, Museum no. 846-1890Stephanie Seavers, part of the curatorial team in the Metalwork department, has produced a summary of a collaborative research project that focussed on a beautiful twelfth-century enamelled container previously thought to be a reliquary from Cologne. The image I’ve used here, above and to the right, gives a wonderful impression of just how  rigorously and carefully the object was examined. Enamelled panels have been removed exposing the wooden core.

Nick Humphrey, a curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department focussed on the recent deinstallation of the vast timber façade of a town house built around 1600 for the wealthy merchant Sir Paul Pindar. Visitors to the V&A may remember the façade in its previous location in the old Museum shop. However I suspect that many people failed to notice its considerable presence due to the distraction of all the colourful merchandise at eye level. The façade will be reinstalled in a new daylit gallery which in itself will represent another significant technical achievement.

Zoe Allen, a specialist frames conservator in the Conservation section has written about work she undertook on a frame associated with a magnificent panel painting of the Virgin and Child by an artist known as Peregrinus (or Pellegrino di Giovanni). Here there were questions about whether the frame associated with the panel painting really belonged with it. There was also a significant amount of work needed on the frame which had become very fragile and warped over time. You can see the painting minus the frame in the image below.

Painting by Peregrinus (without frame), dated 1428. Museum no. 6559 and A-1860I’m very grateful for all the work that colleagues have contributed to the website. We’re hoping to add more online subjects to the website as the project develops. I’ll also continue to use this blog for more updates on object-based work taking place in the Conservation Studios and elsewhere.

Click here to see the recently added content about a Medieval Tabernacle from Cologne.

Click here to see the recently added content about the façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s House.

Click here to see the recently added content about a painting by Peregrinus of the Virgin and Child with Angels.

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.

Putting it in Perspective

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

As I walked back to Charing Cross via Trafalgar Square at the weekend, I decided to briefly escape the cacophony of the city by seeking sanctuary in the National Gallery. I hadn’t intended to. I happened to be passing and thought that I’d spend thirty minutes or so looking at one or two paintings, then have a coffee and quickly look around the bookshop. Whilst I was there I reacquainted myself with one or two sculptures from the V&A’s Renaissance collections which are temporarily displayed in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

Virgin and Child

In the case of the della Robbia Virgin and Child for example, it’s presence in the National Gallery is used to highlight the fact Italian painters from the 13th century onwards sometimes used sculptures as sources for ideas for their works.  Anyone with a baby or young child will know that they usually don’t stay in the same position for very long. Sometimes sculptures provided models that were easier to draw, like the figure of the infant Christ in this sculpture.

Paintings could also influence sculpture. For example, some relief sculptures are quite similar to paintings in the way the figures are arranged. When relief sculptures were painted they could look even closer to paintings.

The redevelopment of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries has provided many similar opportunities for objects to be loaned to other museums and galleries. The sculpture highlighted here travelled (with many others) to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. It was on display there between 23 September 2004 and 27 March 2005 as part of an exhibition, Depth of Field: The place of relief in the time of the Donatello.  The show was a joint collaboration between curators at the V&A and the Henry Moore Institute (HMI). We found the process of developing the exhibition with the HMI a valuable learning experience that has informed our plans for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The exhibition also made some of the V&A’s most signficant objects easier to see for people who lived in the counties surrounding Leeds.

I’ll use future entries here to highlight forthcoming important loans and exhibitions.

Find out more about Renaissance sculpture from the V&A at the National Gallery

Find out more about Depth of Field: The place of relief in the time of Donatello

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.

Race and Rulership in Renaissance Florence

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

Anne-Marie Eze

Alessandro de Medici

A couple of weeks ago I gave a gallery talk in the Museum ‘Race and Rulership in Renaissance Florence’. The focus of the talk was a portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537), the first Duke of Florence. The V&A’s painting is based on a half-length portrait by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556). My talk was inspired by an article about Alessandro de’ Medici by John K. Brackett in the highly original book, ‘Black Africans in Renaissance Europe’. Brackett’s article revealed that Alessandro’s mother was thought to be a Moorish slave.

Now, how about this for a fortuitous coincidence? I was in the early stages of researching representations of black people in the V&A’s medieval and Renaissance collections to create an online resource. I’d just finished reading Brackett’s book when I noticed a colleague had doodled the name Alessandro de’ Medici on a piece of paper. “What’s that you’re working on?”, I enquired. “Oh, just trying to write the label text for a painting that’s going into the gallery soon”. “A painting! Not a portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici?” Having literally just finished Brackett’s book, I hadn’t had time to check whether the Museum had any objects relating to Alessandro. Even if I had come across the four objects - two medals, a cameo and this oil painting – their catalogue entries would not have alerted me to the fact that Alessandro was mixed race.

I’ve now completed my research into ‘Black Africans in Medieval and Renaissance Art at the V&A’ and my work will be added to these web pages in the near future. This turned out to be my last piece of work as an Assistant Curator at the Museum, as I left for pastures new the day I completed it. Being African and Caribbean myself and interested in this period more than any, I feel extremely fortunate to have worked on such a fascinating project. I hope the online resource will increase awareness of the relationship between Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, the period in which the large-scale enslavement and sale of Africans by Europeans began. Next year this country will commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade but I wonder how many will also think of slavery within the wider context of the Renaissance?