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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for December, 2007

A medieval and Renaissance Christmas….

Friday, December 21st, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The Adoration of the Magi, Germany, about 1500. Museum no. C.74-1919, C.75-1919. Given by J. Pierpont Morgan Jnr.Christmas is almost upon us. Everyone working on the project is looking forward to having a well earned break.  Naturally enough Christmas has been a popular subject for discussion in the press this week.  Midnight Mass, for example, is being held earlier in many churches this year to avoid disruption by members of the public who have over indulged in pubs and bars. Apparently attendance at churches at Christmas has been increasing since 2000.

The subject of whether Nativity plays should be held or not has been raised and debated again. Apparently one school cancelled their play so that the students could concentrate on their studies instead. The band Girls Aloud are taking part in their own version of a Nativity play on TV. It sounds interesting but I will probably give it a miss.

I’ll avoid any controversial contemporary debates here. Instead I’ve just selected a couple of images of beautiful objects that have a festive connection. They are both linked by the theme of gift-giving. The glass panel above illustrates the Adoration of the Magi. Here the three kings have brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to present to the infant Jesus. In medieval and Renaissance art the three kings were often understood as representing the known world, Europe, Asia and Africa. The three gifts also had symbolic meaning.

St Nicholas Crozier, Winchester, England (probably) 1150-1170. Museum no. 218-1865

The ivory crozier head to the left was once part of a ceremonial staff that belonged to a bishop or abbot. It’s connection with gift-giving is through the presence of Saint Nicholas. If you look carefully at the outer curve of the crozier, to the right, you should be able to Nicholas stretching upwards.  He is giving a bag of money to an impoverished nobleman, thus saving the three daughters of the man from prostitution. In the centre of the crozier head an angel supports a tendril which places Jesus at the centre of the composition, on one side is the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), on the other the infant Christ.

The crozier head is an exquistely carved object that required a remarkably high level of skill and craftsmanship to make. It was probably owned by an abbot or bishop who belonged to an institution dedicated to Saint Nicholas or perhaps simply shared the same name. The story of Saint Nicholas was a popular one at this time. 

Today, of course, it is the names Santa Claus and Father Christmas that tend to dominate the Christmas festivities and celebrations. I hope that everyone enjoys the festive break. The next blog entry will be posted here early in January 2008.

Giants of the Renaissance

Monday, December 10th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Leonardo da Vinci, Forster Codex I, 6v-7r.The V&A is the National Musuem of Art & Design but it is also far more than that. We know that our visitors use the Museum’s collections in many diverse ways. A few weeks ago a photograph in the supplement of a Sunday newspaper caught my eye. I recognised the location as the National Art Library at the V&A. On closer inspection I also identified the object that the people in the photograph were looking at, a facsimile copy of one of  Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. On the next page was a photograph of Michelangelo’s vast marble sculpture, David.

The article was about Antony Sher’s new play, The Giant. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are two of the central characters in the drama. The completely fictional protagonist, Vito, is the model for David and the focus of both Michelangelo and Leonardo’s desire. Whilst the play accurately reflected the culture of male same-sex desire that existed in Renaissance Florence the actual relationships in the play were fictional. 

In writing the play, which is centered on the creation of Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, Antony Sher had undertaken a great deal of research. Both he and the director, Greg Doran, had visited the National Art Library to look at the three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that the Museum is fortunate to possess. Rowan Watson, the V&A’s expert on Leonardo notebooks, was on hand to answer questions and provide advice.

I went to see the play a few weeks and enjoyed it immensely.The attention to detail was extremely impressive. Leonardo, played by Roger Allam, had a notebook with him on stage into which he periodically wrote throughout the performance. When doing so he wrote from right-to-left with his left hand, just as the real Leonardo did. I wonder whether any other members of the audience also noted this minor but accurately observed mannerism? It did help engender a tangible sense of convincing authenticity. I took a little while to adjust to the fictionalised characters of the two artists, purely because I’ve read enough about them to have formed my own sense of their personalities. I suspect most people develop their sense of Michelangelo or Leonardo through the artists’ work rather than a detailed knowledge of their biographies.

Plaster-cast copy of Michelangelo's David.The set design was ingenious. A vast ‘marble’ block was gradually transformed into the statute as the play progressed. The V&A has a late nineteenth century plaster-copy of Michelangelo’s David which you can see in the image I’ve used here to illustrate this entry. The fig-leaf with which it was provided, usually hung displayed on the back of the plinth, is currently making a guest appearance at London’s Barbican Gallery in Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. 

Unfortunately The Giant has now closed but if you’re quick you’ll still be able to see the fig-leaf in its temporary home! The plaster cast version of David can be seen from Room 111 at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks

Click here to find out more about the Cast Collections