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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for the 'Metalwork' Category

Travelling Treasures

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Reliquary Bust of St AntigiusColleagues at the V&A have been working hard to develop a touring exhibition of highlights from the medieval and Renaissance collections. The show will open at its first venue in the United States on the 23 June 2007. The Medieval and Renaissance Treasures show will then travel to four other venues in north America and one in the UK. After the exhibition closes at the final venue in May 2009 the objects will return to the V&A ready for installation in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.

There is vast amount of work involved in creating a touring exhibition, especially one that travels to six different venues. The logistics involved are rather daunting and a large number of people have been involved in pulling the exciting displays together. The venues have all been confirmed, the objects have been selected and the texts and catalogue have been written and edited. Conservation work on objects destined for the show has been taking place for some time. In many instances work for the touring exhibition has raised some significant new questions about how the objects should be displayed. 

Conservation Work in ProgressThe object illustrated here, a reliquary bust of St Antigius, is a good example. The bust is hollow and was designed to hold relics associated with the saint. The bust can be easily dismantled into several pieces. The head and neck for example can be lifted out of the shoulders. The relics are no longer present. When they were present most worshippers would not have been allowed to touch them, the privilege would only occasionally have been granted to high-ranking or wealthy individuals. The reliquary was designed to provide relatively easy access to its precious contents.

At a later date in the reliquary’s history, in the twentieth century but before it entered the Museum’s collection, a new internal supporting structure was added to hold the head more securely in place. During a recent examination of the object it became clear that the head and neck have been displayed at the V&A lower than originally intended. As a result St Antigius looked rather stocky and bull-necked. The photographs reproduced here show the head in the two different positions, with the head higher and lower. The images were taken in one of the Conservation Studios and show Metals Conservator Donna Stevens assessing the object. Click on the images for a larger picture and more information about the object.

Conservation Work in ProgressI don’t there is any doubt that the St Antigius looks more elegant when his head is supported on a longer neck. The head has now been raised about half-way up to its original height. It isn’t possible to fully extend the neck without revealing earlier iron repairs.

I’ll add more information about the touring exhibition here at a later date. If you’d like to ask a question about the reliquary bust or the exhibition please use the comment link. I’ll do my best to provide a helpful answer promptly.

Love and Romance

Monday, February 12th, 2007

By Stuart Frost
February 12th, 2007


Valentine’s day falls on Wednesday 14th February this week so it was inevitable that it would provide the subject for this blog-entry. Whilst there are many statues or images of saints in the V&A alas, as far as I am aware, there is not one of St Valentine. A reference book informs me that St Valentine’s day probably commemorates two Valentine’s rather than one. One was a Roman priest martyred around 269AD, and the other a bishop of Terni who was taken to Rome and put to death there. Neither appears to have had a strong association with romantic love or courtship.

Salt cellar known as the Burghley Nef

Whilst there aren’t any images of St Valentine to illustrate this entry, there are many objects in the V&A’s collections that have a clear link with desire, love or marriage. Some of these have a strong connection with romance literature. Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet may feature the two most famous lovers of medieval and Renaissance literature, but before Romeo and Juliet (as the marketing for the recent Ridley Scott film went) there was Tristan and Isolde. The Ridley Scott film doesn’t follow the original romance particularly closely, but it is entertaining and is testament to the enduring appeal of the epic medieval masterpiece.

The Tristan Quilt - Detail

The story of the two lovers was one of the most popular romances of the Middle Ages and existed in many versions written by different authors. The earliest of the surviving versions were written around 1160. Scenes from the legend were depicted on a wide range of luxury objects including ivory caskets, textiles and tiles. I’ve included three examples here, a quilt, a hanging and a magnificent metalwork salt (or table decoration). Click on the photographs for more detailed views and further information. Even if you look carefully at the salt I’ll doubt you’ll be able to see the small figures of Tristan and Isolde playing chess underneath the main mast of the ship. It is easier to see the figures of the sailors manning the deck and climbing the rigging around Tristan and Isolde. It was on this voyage that the fate of the two lovers was sealed. Tristan had been instructed to bring Isolde from her native Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Mark. On the ship the couple drank a magic love potion prepared by Isolde’s mother, intended for her daughter to share with King Mark. As a result Tristan and Isolde share an unbreakable and everlasting love, rather than Isolde and her husband King Mark. After many events and adventures their relationship, like that of Romeo and Juliet, ends tragically. 

With hindsight maybe I should have picked an object related to a story with a less depressing ending? Never mind. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

Mystery Objects

Monday, January 8th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The V&A has a very large collection of medieval and Renaissance art. It isn’t necessarily easy to identify the precise function of the more obscure objects, even for an expert curator with a lifetime of specialist experience. Many of the objects from these periods are fragmentary and it isn’t always clear what the piece that survives once belonged to.

Mystery Object

I have been enlisting the help of colleagues to scour the collections for a selection of the most challenging artefacts. This is because we’re developing a Mystery Objects display for a Discovery Area in the forthcoming Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. We actually have a very strong list of candidates and we now need to make a final selection of the best. I thought that I’d use this blog as a way of testing reactions to some of the contenders. The first candidate is reproduced to the right. Click on the photograph for a larger image.

There is no substitute for looking closely at a real object in order to fully assess it. In order to counter the difficulties inherent in examining an object from a digital image alone, I’ll provide some helpful background.

The object was made in what is now Germany in 1543. You can see the date at the top of the object in the centre. Above the date are a series of letters. These read as ‘GHIVITDWGPE’ and are probably the initial letters of a German biblical text. Be warned, these letters aren’t particularly helpful in establishing the function of the object! The object is ‘facing’ the right way up and is made of blackened steel. It is about 20cm in height.

To leave your opinion about this mystery object’s function click on the comments link at the bottom of the page. You can also use the comments link to ask for clues. If you post a comment or question I will endeavour to respond within twenty-four hours. I’ll reveal the identity of the object two weeks from today, at which point I’ll also post another candidate for our Mystery Objects display. Good luck!

Animating the past

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly familiar with the V&A’s fantastic medieval and Renaissance collections. Those of us fortunate enough to be developing the new galleries all have our favourite objects. The 19th century photographic copy of the Bayeux Tapestry is certainly one of mine, even though it isn’t a real medieval artefact.

Brass Jug. Museum No. M. 25-1939At the moment I’m particularly enamoured with a wonderful brass jug with three feet. Click on the picture to the right for a better view. The jug is destined for a new home in 2009, when it will become part of a display exploring dining between 1350-1500. I’ve been trying to think why I like this jug so much. It isn’t a world famous treasure, it wasn’t made by a well-known artist, nor was it owned by a famous patron. It isn’t made of a precious materials and its decoration is plain. It does, however, have undeniable personality and charm. When I first saw it I thought it looked as though it might come to life at any moment, scamper down of its shelf and start running around on its three stumpy legs. At first I thought this might be a sign that I needed a holiday. Then I realised that subconsciously I’d made a connection between the jug and a sequence in Walt Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey Mouse, dressed as a wizard, casts a spell that results in mops and buckets running amock.

In fact this type of connection isn’t as implausible or ridiculous as it might sound at first. ‘Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney’ at the Grand Palais (16 September 2006 to 15 January 2007) is an exhibition that highlights the sources of inspiration for some of Disney’s greatest animations. Many of the ideas were developed from medieval or Renaissance sources. The castle in Sleeping Beauty takes some elements from the castles of Louis II of Bavaria and others from the lavish illuminations of a famous book of hours (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). The wicked Queen in Snow White was based partly on a Gothic sculpture of Queen Uta that can be seen in Naumberg Cathedral, Germany. Pinocchio’s hometown was inspired by the medieval town of Rothenburg in Bavaria. Identifying these sort of obscure links and reference points is strangely satisfying.

Most of the films mentioned above were made before 1940 but medieval and Renaissance culture continues to provide inspiration for the film industry and theatre. The costumes and set designs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were inspired by the culture of the medieval and Renaissance world. The city of Gondar was inspired by Sienna for example, and I’m sure there must be many other examples in recent films and cartoons. Our initial audience research indicated that films like Robin Hood and the Lord of the Rings were important reference points for many of our visitors, helping shape their perceptions of the medieval period in particular.

As part of the plans to redisplay the collections we did consider developing a series of short animations to run on small screens in the galleries alongside the relevant objects but in the end we decided to develop other ideas instead. Still, given the links with the Middle Ages maybe we’ll be able to show Snow White as part of a film festival to accompany the opening of the galleries?

If you’ve yet to find your own favourite medieval or Renaissance object at the V&A highlights are displayed currently in Rooms 46 and 17-20.

You can also Search the Collections online


Click here to find out more about Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney: The Disney Studios’ Artistic Sources