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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for April, 2007

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.

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.