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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for October, 2009

St Thérèse of Lisieux

Friday, October 16th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Earlier this week relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux arrived at Westminster Cathedral in London as the culmination of a month long tour of Britain. The reaction from the public and the media has been remarkable. The relics of this French nun, who died in 1897 at the age of  twenty-four, have drawn massive crowds as they have travelled around the country. Over two thousand pilgrims an hour are expected to visit Westminster Cathedral to venerate the relics during their comparatively short stay in the capital.Conservation work in progress on a reliquary of St Antigius, January 2007.

The scenes of devotion that have accompanied the tour are a reminder that British society isn’t quite as secular as is often assumed. In a decade dominated by the cult of celebrity, the response to the tour of St Thérèse’s relics demonstrates that the cult of saints remains central to the lives of many Christians in the United Kingdom. The significant number of new saints created by the Papacy in the twentieth century also serves to illustrate the continuing centrality of saints in Roman Catholicism.

At the age of fifteen Thérèse became a Carmelite nun at Lisieux where she remained until her death from tuberculosis just eight years later. Her life became more widely known through her short autobiography. L’Histoire d’une Âme (The Story of a Soul). She was canonised, officially recognised as saint by the Roman Catholic Church, in 1925.

The veneration of saints was of course, extremely popular throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. The V&A’s collections include a number of extremely beautiful and significant reliquaries, elaborate containers made to hold relics associated with saints.  Almost all of these reliquaries are now empty, the relics they once held lost or removed long before the objects came to the Museum. At the V&A these reliquaries are now appreciated primarily for their aesthetic qualities but the response to St Thérèse’s relics is a reminder of the spiritual signficance they once had. I’ve written about a number of reliquaries over the last three years, most recently about  one associated with St Sebastian. The photograph that heads this blog entry shows conservation work undertaken in January 2007 on a reliquary of St Antigius.

Becket Casket, around 1180. Museum no. M.66-1977The most well known reliquary in the V&A’s collections is arguably one that is associated with St Thomas Becket and which was probably made in 1180, just ten years or so after the murder of the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral. The shrine of Thomas Becket become one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims in Britain and Europe. Relics associated with Becket were in great demand. 

The relics of saints (sometimes parts of their bodies) were often divided between churches and saints’ relics were sometimes removed (or stolen) from shrines. Some of St Thérèse relics have remained in France, and indeed have also been touring the country there. However In medieval and Renaissance Europe pilgrims tended to travel to visit the shrines of saints rather then the relics being brought to churches near them in the manner of the current tour of  St Thérèse’s relics.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the reliquary which contains St Thérèse’s relics. However there are plenty or articles and images on the websites of most of the major newspapers, testament to the manner in which the story of St Thérèse has captured the media’s attention.

Stained Glass from the Chapel of the Holy Blood

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

c. Stained glass panel from the Chapel of the Holy Blood, Museum no. C444-1918.The stained glass panel illustrated here was made around 1496 for the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium. The colourful panel depicts an angel holding the arms of Mary of Burgundy with those of Maximilian of Austria and was probably made to commemorate their marriage. You’ll not be surprised to learn that most stained glass panels dating from the 15th century have experienced some damage. This panel is no exception and is currently undergoing conservation treatment to prepare it for display. 

The picture that heads this page shows the panel before any work had begun. The photograph was taken a few weeks ago on a vertical lightbox in the Stained Glass Conservation Studio at the V&A. The panel was given a thorough assessment by conservators Ann Marsh and Sherrie Eatman in order to determine the treatment to be undertaken. A number of old lead repairs, where the glass had broken, are quite easy to spot. Several horizontal leads are also clearly visible in the photograph as is the heavy wooden display frame.

The first step in the conservation process was to remove the panel from its old frame. Wooden frames are no longer used because the wood can give off acidic fumes that may corrode the lead strips holding individual pieces of glass in place. All panels are now mounted in aluminium display frames because aluminium is an inert material. In this instance the frame also had to be removed so that the panel could be reframed in a style appropriate for the new galleries. A number of innovative shaped frames are being used throughout the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries.e. Detail from stained glass panel, Museum no. C444-1918.

The face of the angel holding the shield exemplifies many of the issues that needed to be addressed with this particular glass panel as a whole. The panel had been repaired previously, in this instance most noticeably along the left-hand side of the face. Replacement pieces of glass had been added, including the hair and neck on the left-hand side, and the triangular piece in the cheek. As you can see these old repairs were not particularly sympathetic to the original appearance of the object.

In order to make new repairs all of the existing leads were removed except those within the shield held by the angel. However before any leads were removed a rubbing was taken of the entire panel and this was used to create templates. As each piece of glass was removed from the panel it was placed on top of one of the templates in the correct location. The picture below shows the individual pieces of glass laid on a template in the conservation studio after the leads have been removed.

The use of templates ensures that when the panel is reassembled each piece of glass goes back in the same position but also that the overall size of the panel remains exactly the same. Many of the leads that were removed were fatigued and will be replaced over the coming weeks.

Epoxy resin is being used to make subtle repairs by creating strong bonds between breaks in the glass. Dyed resin is also used to fill small areas where the original glass is missing. Work is underway on gently cleaning the front and the back of each glass piece. Deionised water and cotton swabs are used to remove the dust and grime that have accumulated over time.o. Placing the glass on the template rubbing.

Once the panel is reassembled it will be set within a new metal frame so that it can be installed in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The production of the frames for the stained glass is a fascinating story in its own right and I’ll also cover that in a future blog entry along with the installation of the panel in the new gallery.

I’ve already posted a larger number of photographs illustrating the conservation work, courtesy of Ann and Sherrie, on Flickr. If you’d like to know a little more detail about the work that has been undertaken please have a look at those photographs. Click on one of the images here to visit the Flickr site. 

I’ll provide an update on work on this glass panel at some point over the next couple of weeks. It will be fascinating to put photographs of the panel before and after treatment side-by-side.

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