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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for November, 2006

Charing Cross

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

I take the train into work each morning. As it passes over the Thames I usually cast a glance towards the towers of Westminster Abbey which I can make out behind the Houses of Parliament. Westminster Abbey was (and is) one of the great medieval churches. I arrive into Charing Cross station with thousands of other commuters. I often wonder how many of them realise that the name also goes back to the Middle Ages? The underground station at Charing Cross does provide a summary of the story on the platform, but understandably most commuters are too preoccupied with other things to pay much attention to it.


When Eleanor of Castile, the Queen of King Edward I, died at Harby (near Lincoln) in 1290, her body was transported with ceremony to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. At each place that her body rested for the night, a cross was erected in the years afterwards dedicated to her memory. The monument that now stands outside Charing Cross station, that thousands hurry past every day, is not the medieval original. Of the twelve crosses built only three crosses survive: at Geddington, Hardinstone (Northampton) and Waltham.

You can get a sense of what the original figures on the Charing Cross were like at the V&A. A figure of Queen Eleanor from the Waltham Cross (on loan from Hertfordshire County Council), and dating from the 1290s, is on display at the V&A in Room 46. Click on the image below for a better view.

 This wonderfully evocative figure is the work of Alexander of Abingdon who was also responsible for the now lost images of the Charing Cross in London. I find it reassuring that, despite the continual construction of new architecture, echoes of our medieval past are all around us in our landscape, preserved in the buildings, monuments, place names and even the street patterns of our towns and cities.

You can find out more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project at:http://www.vam.ac.uk/futureplan/projects/med_ren/index.html

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