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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for March, 2008

Anglo-French Relations: Old and New

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

The detail you can see here is a heraldic device that adorns a vast bronze jug, destined for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The coat-of-arms is that of King Richard II. If you look closely you can see that the shield is quartered, and decorated with the fleur-di-lis of France and the lions of England. The coat-of-arms reflects the English claim to the French crown. Click on the image to find out more about the coat-of-arms and the object it adorns.

Jug cast with the royal arms of England, Museum no. 217-1879.The French, of course, no longer have a monarchy. President Sarkozy is making a state visit to Britain this week and it appears that a closer relationship between Britain and France is developing. In recent years there has occasionally been friction between the French and English governments but fortunately nothing to compare with the hostility that existed during the later Middle Ages when the French and English kingdoms were almost constantly fighting in a period now known as the Hundred Years War.

Today we have the media to keep us informed about diplomatic relations, and a great deal of less essential information about the private lives of the great, the good and the d-list celebrity. For the Hundred Years War the greatest chronicler was Jean Froissart, perhaps the closest parallel for a modern journalist in the fourteenth century. I have to admit that the journalist parallel isn’t a very good one.

Froissart was born in 1337 into a Europe very different to our own. His home town was Valenciennes, Hainault (now on the French-Belgian border) but he travelled widely. Around 1361-62 he crossed the Channel to England to join the court of Philippa of Hainault, King Edward III of England’s queen. Here he wrote a rhymed history of the recent wars between England and France, but continued to rewrite and expand his work throughout his life, turning from poetry to prose. His Chronicles cover the period between 1325 and 1400 including evocative accounts of the great English victories at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).

The reason I mention this is that I’ve been reading his Chronicles in search of quotes that we might be able to use on subject panels to help try and give a personalised view of the period covered by the Medieval and Renaissance displays. I also visited an exhibition, The Chronicles of Froissart, at the Royal Armouries in Leeds at the weekend. 

The temporary display at the Armouries is based around a single illuminated manuscript of Froissart’s text known as the Stonyhurst Chronicles. This manuscript was brought back to England after the Agincourt campaign by Sir John Arundell in 1415. In 1837 James Arundell gave the manuscript to Stonyhurst College, and the College have loaned the manuscript to the Royal Armouries for the exhibition. I’m always interested to see how other museums go about developing displays around manuscripts as books aren’t the easiest things to display and we’re integrating a significant number throughout the new galleries.
The Chronicles of Froissart exhibition runs until 6 April 2008 so you haven’t got much time if you want to see it. However you can find out more via the exhibition microsite on the Royal Armouries website. For the most vivid insights into the events of the fourteenth century, and the life of a man who lived through remarkable times, I’d recommend reading the Chronicles themselves. Froissart’s book is in print, is easy to track down and it is also great read for anyone with an interest in history.

Click here to find out more about The Chronicles of Froissart exhibition.

Easter in Art

Friday, March 14th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

What does Easter mean to you? What images and memories does it bring to mind? For many people I’m sure it is bound up with long Bank Holiday weekends spent with family and visiting relatives. Across the length and breadth of the country there is also widespread over-indulgence in the consumption of chocolate eggs and rabbits. I usually travel back to the north-east to visit my family, although sadly its been a long time since any of them bought me an Easter egg. The religious significance of Easter is increasingly overlooked in popular culture although the forthcoming BBC drama will help redress the balance.

Christ on an Ass (Palmesel), German, about 1510-20. Museum no. A.1030-1910 Easter is the most important and oldest festival in the Christian calendar. Christianity has been the most enduring subject in western art for almost two thousand years. Therefore it isn’t surprising that art related to Easter is well represented in many museum collections, and the V&A is no exception. The central elements of the Easter story are the betrayal of Jesus, his suffering and death on the cross, his resurrection and finaly his ascension to heaven. The events which are remembered during Easter are known from the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, begins on Palm Sunday when Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on an ass is remembered. I could have picked from any number of objects to illustrate this blog entry. The Palmesel figure (Christ on an Ass) has always been one of my favourite objects. The V&A’s Palmesel no longer has the four wheels it once had which allowed it be pulled along as part of Palm Sunday processions. Click on the object to find out more about it.

Events associated with the events leading up to the Crucifixion, like the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Christ’s Betrayal by Judas and the Trial of Christ have all been represented in art, although some scenes were represented more frequently than others. The belief that Jesus was the son of God, that he was crucified and died upon the Cross is absolutely fundamental to all Christians. The Gospels tell us that Christ’s body was placed in a tomb late on Friday. They also tell us that on the Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. The belief in the resurrection of Jesus is another keystone of Christianity.

Christ’s last appearance on earth and his departure to Heaven is known as the Ascension. The scene was a challenging one for artists to depict convincingly, and there are several examples in the V&A’s collections where Christ appears to have taken off rather like a rocket with only the lower part of his legs visible in the picture frame. The depiction that I’ve chosen to use here is one of the more innovative in several significant ways. 

The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter, Donatello, about 1428-30. Museum no. 7629-1861 The sculpture is known as The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter and was created by the great Florentine artist, Donatello. The relief combines two events which actually occurred at different times and the subtlety of the carving seems to lend the Ascension a more convincing or realistic quality than most artists achieved.

It can be fascinating to compare to different approaches to the same subject. If you’d like to do that, or if you simply like to see more examples of objects from the medieval and Renaissance collections,  visit Search the Collections on the V&A’s website and enter an appropriate search term.