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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for February, 2007

Roodlofts and Candlesticks Part 1

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Roodloft from Hertogenbosch

There is a vast amount of work taking place behind the scenes to ensure that the new galleries are ready to open in November 2009. The project architects, MUMA, are about to commence detailed design. Curators at the V&A are researching the objects that will form the new displays and entering the information into the Museum’s digital collection’s database. Some of the curatorial team have even begun to write their object labels. The graphic designers, Holmes-Wood, are working on the gallery panel, object label and subject text formats. These are just a few examples of the diverse range of work that is underway away from the public gaze.

There is major construction work involved in creating the gallery spaces. Before building work can begin the areas that will become the new galleries need to be cleared of objects. This is an enormous task. The removal of objects needs careful planning and highly specialised skills, especially when many of the artefacts are large architectural pieces. The V&A is fortunate to have a very experienced team of technicians, conservators and curators.

Some objects are so large that it isn’t practical to move them. The roodloft (or choir screen) in Room 50 is a good example. This vast piece of architecture was once located in a cathedral. It is adorned with a variety of finely carved sculptures, including figures of saints and four smaller figures who are holding shields once painted with heraldic devices. When the object came to the V&A it was first located in the Cast Courts. Click on the image above for a better view of the roodloft in its previous location at the Museum.

Work in Progress - Choirscreen from HertogenboschSome of the figurative sculptures will be removed temporarily, so that conservation work can take place, and also so that they can be stored safely during construction work. Once the sculptures are removed the rest of the object will be enclosed with protective hoarding.  Scaffolding was recently placed around the roodloft as part of this programme of work. This gave the team here a rare opportunity to view the sculpture up close. It also allowed several of us to climb up onto the platform on top of the screen, and to assess the condition of the set of candlesticks which were originally attached to the balustrade. The image on the left shows staff taking the opportunity to view the object more closely than is usually possible.

I’ll provide a further update about work-in-progress on this object in next week’s blog entry.

Find out more information about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project

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! 

Nothing stays the same

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I know nothing stays the same for very long, especially in large cities. New buildings are constructed and old ones are demolished or adapted. London is a very exciting city to live in lots of ways and the diversity of great architecture in the City is undoudtedly one of its many attractions. There aren’t many cities were you can see such a variety of buildings of different periods and styles side-by-side.

I was interested to read in the press recently debate about the impact of the construction of new buildings in proximity to the Tower of London. There is concern that these have had a negative impact on views of the City’s iconic castle. I first came to London eight years ago and remember the excitement I felt at seeing the Tower lit up at night as I waited on the platform at London Bridge for a train home. I still pass through London Bridge train station everyday, but I noticed some time ago that I could no longer see the Tower on my way to and from work. From time to time I still glimpse at where I used to be able to look across the Thames towards the castle.  The view is now completely blocked by recent developments. The White Tower is the most potent surviving architectural symbol of the Norman conquest and I feel clear views of it should be maintained. Whilst I recognise that change is inevitable, and that many new buildings are wonderful pieces of architecture in their own right, in this instance I’m more sympathetic to the view that some buildings and vistas are more important than others.

Canterbury Cathedral

I’ve been looking through the V&A’s collections of nineteenth century photographs recently, focussing on those that record medieval and Renaissance buildings and monuments. Many of these are wonderfully evocative images of buildings and cityscapes that have changed, often in quite subtle ways, sometimes more dramatic. They’re views of a world long gone. Some were taken of buildings before extensive restoration, or before urban growth tansformed their surroundings. Several examples even record buildings that no longer survive.

Click on the images for detailed views of two of my favourite photographs. We’re hoping to display a selection of twenty-five of the best photographs from the collections when the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries open. Selecting just twenty-five from the V&A’s extensive collection is, however, proving to be quite a challenge!

The object in last week’s Mystery Object blog entry is indeed a flower-holder. If anyone has seen a similar example elsewhere, either in another collection or a painting, please do let me know!

Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey