A Romanesque Candlestick – Conservation & Research

March 11, 2009

 By Stuart Frost & Catia Viegas Wesolowska

Detail of the Gloucester Candlestick, Museum no. 7649-1861. One of the most extraordinary surviving pieces of Romanesque metalwork is without doubt the Gloucester Candlestick. There will be an opportunity to admire this remarkable piece in the forthcoming Medieval & Renaissance galleries at the V&A when they open in November 2009.

The detail to the right highlights the candlestick’s wonderful interlaced ornament. Entwined within the foliage lurk one-eyed beasts, half humans and birds.The photograph also highlights a join between two of the the three seperate sections that make the candlestick. It also shows areas where the gilding has been worn away revealing the base metal beneath.

The candlestick has been the focus of some recent and exciting research by Stephanie Seavers and Catia Viegas Wesolowska at the V&A. All of the information that follows in this blog entry was provided and written by Catia, Senior Metals Conservator at the Museum. To find out more read on.

The candlestick stands at about 55 cm high, is cast in three sections and made of a peculiar copper alloy. Past analysis and our own recent research have shown it to be a brass with an unusually high silver content. This is very unusual. Silver is expensive today, but back in the early 1100’s silver was even more precious so it was unusual to mix it with other less precious metals.

The Gloucester Candlestick, Museum no. 7649-1861.The Gloucester candlestick was commissioned for the church that is now Gloucester Cathedral during the reign of Abbot Peter (1104-1113). We know this because there is an inscription that runs along the stem of the candlestick. It was later given to Le Mans Cathedral, France where it remained until the nineteenth century when it was sold to a private collector. In 1861 the candlestick was acquired by the V&A.

The candlestick has been studied by historians, scientists and others interested in its history and the technology used to make it. It has been mentioned in various publications with different theories about its origins but many questions have remained. How was the candlestick made? Who made it? And why was alloy with such a high content of silver used?

The candlestick was disassembled allowing its construction to be studied, and its stability and conservation needs to be assessed. Lacquer which had previously been added to the surface was removed and at the same time the surface studied. Marks were found in the form of little crosses to indicate the join between two of the cast sections, where one beast craftily whispers in the ear of another. Taking the candlestick apart meant its original construction and each section could be studied individually.

Copper tubing from inside the Gloucester Candlestick, Museum no. 7649-1861.The inside of the candlestick contains copper tubing which holds the candlestick sections together. It is possible that this tubing might represent an early repair after the initial method of fixing the sections together broke. To attempt to answer this question, the composition of the copper tube will be analysed and the results compared to a database at the British Museum. This will allow the tubing to be dated accurately.

A sculptor was commissioned to cast a section based on the candlestick. The aim was to discover more about how the candlestick was made and to explore why so much silver was used in the alloy. You can see the small section based on the candlestick that was cast in the photograph below to the right. The casting of this section demonstrated that silver made the metal flow much easier when it was poured into the complex mould. The final surface was also easier to carve and for such an intricate design this was certainly a bonus.The finished surface of the replica section was a silvery yellow, a very light tone of gold.

Cast of a section based on the Gloucester Candlestick. These results lead to yet another question. The Gloucester candlestick was gilded after it was cast and carved. However if the surface already appeared gold after it had been cast, why did gilding need to applied at all? Might the gilding have been applied at a later date? Another unanswered question,for now at least!

Catia is currently waiting for the result of the analysis at The British Museum. Updates will follow here in due course. Many thanks to Catia for providing the content for this blog entry. Click on a picture to find out more about what it shows. Other pictures have been posted on the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance site on Flickr. If you have an questions or comments please post them below.

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