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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for July, 2007

The Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela

Friday, July 27th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I have to confess that I am guilty of claiming one particular object of being my favourite, and then next week I declare something else to be the greatest artefact in the V&A’s collections. Hopefully you’ll overlook my inconsistency. This week though I am writing about an object for which I do have unique affection, and it isn’t even the real thing!West facade of Cathederal of Santiago de Compostela, Charles Thurston-Thompson. Museum no. 62:598

The V&A collections include a vast nineteenth-century plaster copy of the Portico de la Gloria from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  Pilgrims entering the cathedral today via the main entrance in the west façade pass through the Portico de la Gloria, a masterpiece of late twelfth-century architectural sculpture. The photograph reproduced to the right shows the vast Baroque façade of the cathedral behind which the medieval masterpiece is now hidden. Click on the image for more information about the photograph.

The V&A’s plaster copy of the Portico was created in 1866 when casts were taken from the original by a team of specialists commissioned by the Director of the South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was then known). The Portico is now acknowledged as one of the great works of art of any time and place, but this wasn’t always the case.Plaster Cast Portico

Before 1865 detailed accounts of the Portico were not available and it had recieved little attention. The displaying of the plaster cast copy of the Portico at the South Kensington Museum, and the publication of a series of photographs by Charles Thurston Thompson, played a crucial role in raising public and scholarly awareness of this great work.  Where as a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David has long been admired and appreciated, the medieval Portico languished in relative obscurity for many centuries.

In my last posting I wrote about the feast day of St James which was celebrated on the 25 July. The shrine of St James is in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the saint has a prominent position on the Portico de la Gloria welcoming pilgrims to the church. Vast numbers of pilgrims of all ages and from diverse backgrounds still tread along the long route to Santiago each year, a route which people have been following for over a thousand years and which shows no sign of waning in popularity. 

PORTICO DE LA GLORIA, SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAINI confess that St James and Santiago de Compostela have been on mind recently because I’m looking forward to my next holiday, the flights for which I booked a few weeks ago. Later on this summer I’ll be meeting up with a few friends in St Jean-Pied-de-Port, before walking across the Pyrenees into Spain following the pilgrim route to Santiago. Unfortunately I don’t have enough leave to be able to walk all the way in one go.  So I’ll get as far as I can in ten days this year, and then pick up where I left off next year!

To search the V&A’s collections for objects which have a connection with St James or Santiago de Compostela visit Collections Online

If you’re interested in finding out more about following the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela you may find the website of the Confraternity of St James

Saint James and Santiago de Compostela

Monday, July 9th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I wonder how many people in England today are aware that the 25th July is the feast day of St James?  This celebration of this feast day began in the middle ages and is still the focus of impressive celebrations in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. I’m determined that at some point in the future I’ll be in the city to enjoy the festivities, hopefully after I walked all of the way to Santiago from the French side of the Pyrenees.Figure of St James, Museum no. 4845-1856

St James was a popular saint throughout the middle ages and his shrine in the cathedral of Santiago became a major focus of pilgrimage, giving way only to Rome and Jerusalem in terms of popularity. The donations of pilgrims helped turn the cathedral into a treasure house of religious art and architecture. Thousands of pilgrims still journey every year from St Jean-Pied-de-Port in France up into the Pyrenees down into Roncesvalles and Spain, through villages, towns and cities, across vast plains and over the Cantabrian mountains towards the shrine of St James. The scallop shell was adopted as an emblem by those who walked along numerous pilgrim routes to Santiago. 

The painted oak figure of St James above and to the left holds a scallop shell in his left hand. The garments of the figure were originally gold. This sculpture was once part of an altarpiece from the Johanneskirche in Lüneburg Germany and is testament to the popularity of St James outside of Spain.

The photograph to the right shows a detail of the tomb effigy of Don García de Osorio who died shortly after 1502. Dressed in armour and holding a sword, his hat is decorated with a scallop shell which in this instance indicates his membership of the Order of Santiago. Click on the image for a closer view and more information about the effigy.Effigy of Don Garcia de Osorio, Museum no. A.48-1910

There are a numerous other objects in the V&A’s collections that have a connection to St James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Many examples can be viewed via the V&A’s database, Collections Online. Click on the link below and enter an appropriate search term like Santiago or St James.

In my next update in two week’s time I’ll focus on what I think is one if the most impressive objects in the V&A’s collection, a vast nineteenth century plaster-cast copy of the Portico de la Gloria. Pilgrims entering the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela via the main entrance in the vast  west façade pass through the Portico de la Gloria, a masterpiece of later twelfth-century sculpture.

To explore many objects from the V&A’s collections online visit Collections Online

If you’re interested in finding out more about the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela you may find the website of the Confraternity of St James helpful.