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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for January, 2009

Byzantine Intrigue

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Roundel with the Mother of God, Museum no.  A.1-1927.What does the word Byzantine mean to you? If the answer is not very much I suspect that you’re not alone. The word was one of the period terms we tested with focus groups. These took place in the autumn of 2002 when we conducted research to feed into the planning for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Byzantium was unfamiliar to almost all of the participants in the focus groups. This isn’t surprising as Byzantine history isn’t a subject that is widely studied in Britain. It isn’t, for example, included in the National Curriculum for England and Wales.

In 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great founded the city of Constantinople on the site of Byzantium. The new city was to replace Rome as the capital of the Roman world and to become the centre of an empire that endured until 1453. The modern label for this empire is Byzantine although contemporaries described it as the Empire of the Romans. The Byzantine empire was finally brought to an end by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Constantinople is now known better known as Istanbul. There are many reasons that help explain why an empire which endured for so long is not better known by the public.
The Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition at the Royal Academy provides a wonderful opportunity for those who are intrigued about Byzantine art to find out more. There are some stunningly beautiful objects in the displays. I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition ever since I heard about it for various reasons. I was particularly interested to see how the exhibition team would cope with the challenge of covering a chronological span as vast as 330-1453 in a comparatively small number of rooms. The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries have an equally challenging scope, covering all of Europe from 300-1600, so it is always illuminating to see the decisions that other institutions make when faced with a similar situation.Mosaic with Head of Christ,  Museum  no. 4312-1856.

Whilst the V&A’s own medieval and Renaissance collections don’t provide a comprehensive overview of Byzantine art history they do include a small but significant number of key objects. In fact a number of objects that will appear in the V&A’s new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries are on display currently at the Royal Academy.

It is endlessly fascinating to see how other institutions display and interpret objects from the V&A’s collections.  Seeing a familiar object alongside artefacts from different collections often generates new thoughts and ideas. I’ve illustrated this blog entry with pictures of a number of those V&A objects that can be seen in the Byzantium show. As always click on the image if you’d like to know more about the object.

Click here to find out more about the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.

Boars, Bears and Boxing Day Hunts

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Detail from a Tapestry depicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T 204 1957.Hunting animals with dogs became a criminal offence in the United Kingdom in February 2005. A recent article in the Times highlighted that the ban remains extremely contentious. Boxing Day has long been a key date in the hunting calendar and apparently the numbers attending hunts on the 26th December has increased over the last few years. This has lead to increased pressure for the ban on hunting to be overturned.

Hunting with hounds does, of course, have a long history. Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with curatorial colleagues to develop content for a touch screen interactive related to a vast tapestry with scenes of a boar and bear hunt. I’ve illustrated this entry with a selection of images of this tapestry. Click on the image to find out more about what is shown. The tapestry was woven around 1425-1430 in the Southern Netherlands. By the end of the sixteenth century the tapestry was probably at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. The history of hunting with hounds stretches back much further than the early fifteenth century.

Detail from a Tapestry depicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T.204-1957. The splendour and magnificence of the fashionable clothing worn by the participants emphasises that hunting in medieval and Renaissance Europe was the preserve of royalty and nobility. Boars were hunted for both the sport and their meat. Bears were hunted purely for the challenge. They were a dangerous quarry and several nobles lost their lives in their pursuit of the thrill that hunting bears provided. By the time this tapestry was woven wild bears were extinct in the British Isles.

Hunting provided nobles with an opportunity to escape from the rigours of political life. They could practice skills that were applicable to tournaments and the battle field. The social aspects of hunting allowed them to mix with and impress their peers. The scenes on the tapestry reflect the pursuit of men by women, and women by men. A tapestry like this one was probably hung from floor to ceiling inside a impressive residence. No doubt the scenes reminded the owner of pleasurable pursuits when engaged in more mundane affairs.

The scenes of a boar and bear reflect a closeness to nature that few of us share today. How many of us have seen the animals we eat being killed? The bear in the centre of tapestry has the tip of a broken spear in its chest, its jaws are clamped around the neck of a mastiff in a desperate struggle that it is about to loose. King Henry VIII owned over 200 hundred hunting tapestries but who would choose to decorate their homes with scenes like this now? 

A fifteenth-century noble would have been able to identify the different furs that are used to line the clothing of the participants: miniver, ermine and lynx. Like hunting today, the role of fur in fashion is frequently contested in our media.The lady in the red gown below reveals an ermine lining to her gown. Each of the black spots represents a tail. A similar display today would risk provoking a hostile response.

Detail from a Tapestry decpicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T.204-1957.Exercising packs of hounds and using them to follow a scent trail to flush out foxes to be shot remains legal. Apparently over 6,000 people attended a single Boxing Day hunt this year in Chipping Norton, near Oxford. Whilst the majority of the UK’s urban population may be in favour of the current ban, it is clear that hunting remains a popular pursuit in the countryside.

Although the scenes on the Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry, and the other three Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in Room 94 at the V&A, represent ideal hunts from a noble’s point of view the reality was more complex. Throughout the medieval period nobles and royalty vigorously maintained exclusive hunting rights on their vast estates. It is unlikely that the poorer people in society viewed these hunts with the same degree of enthusiasm as the aristocracy. However protesting wasn’t really a viable option for any fifteenth century peasant who valued their well-being!