By Glyn Davies
An exciting element of museum displays is that they never stand still - in a very real sense, no gallery project is ever ‘complete’. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries have been open for over six months now, and the first changes are starting to be made. The pictures accompanying this post show you the arrival in the galleries of a new pair of illuminated manuscripts on loan from the British Library.
As part of the new gallery complex, we came to an agreement with the British Library that they would show a changing selection of manuscripts from their collections within the area of one of our galleries that looks at Great Churches and Monasteries in the period 1050-1250. Manuscripts were an important part of the artistic production of major churches at this time. Churches needed service books in order to better administer the liturgy. They copied scholarly texts for their libraries; and they produced charters and other administrative documents as well. The V&A’s collection of medieval manuscripts is comparatively small, and our works from this period tend to be individual leaves or fragments from much larger and grander works. We wanted to work with the British Library to help further contextualise the displays that visitors will see, and to juxtapose V&A objects with relevant manuscript materials. Hopefully, over time, we will also have the opportunity to display some of the BL’s lesser-known treasures.
What really gives this collaboration life, though, is that because manuscripts are extremely light sensitive, and their bindings often fragile, they can only be displayed for a relatively short time. This forces us to regularly change the display - in this case, we are aiming to change the loan every six months. Of course, for regular visitors to the Museum, this means that there will be new and unfamiliar material to see and enjoy, so although it’s a lot of work choosing, preparing and organising each new display, there is a real benefit for the visitor.
The manuscripts here were chosen to show how monasteries and churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries survived through their close links with the ruling elite. Both parties benefited from this relationship. The church provided careers for some of the children of the nobility, provided political support and expertise (for example, in diplomacy) and safeguarded treasures and archives. In return, it was granted lands, tax breaks and other privileges, and could count on royal and noble patrons to help in setting up new churches and monastic foundations.
One of the new manuscripts is a chronicle of the Abbey of Saint Martin des Champs, near Paris. The image we are showing, a little the worse for wear from water damage, but wonderfully lively, depicts King Henry I of France (1031-1060) standing beside the church building, which he had financed, and signing the foundation charter document. If you’d like to find out more about this manuscript, or see stunning images of the British Library’s other treasures, then their website is here: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/index.html
Next time: just what is it about Italian art that the English love so much?