Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

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