Nicholas Cranfield visits the V&A's new stained-glass and silver
AS PART of the first phase of its FuturePlan, the Victoria & Albert
Museum has restored to public view its collection of ecclesiastical metalwork
and stained glass.
This is long-awaited; and the costs alone, £1.6 million, suggest that the
trustees have gained a bargain: the Gilbert Collection and its display in
Somerset House since 2000 reportedly cost £30 million from the Heritage Lottery
At the entrance to the V&A's new upper-floor gallery are two contrasting
pieces of glass, one profoundly moving, the other light-hearted to the point of
flippancy. Both are professedly Christian.
From the north transept of Sées Cathedral in Normandy comes an imposing
panel of 13th-century French glass. It depicts St Peter as a tonsured monk, and
has been restored so that his left hand is raised in blessing, while in his
other hand he holds a large key that is half his height. The oddity of this
(both the size of the key and the use of the left hand for blessing) argues
strongly that all is not as it seems.
Not all that we see is original, but the elegant posture of the lean apostle
and the subtlety of his gaze make up for this. We take breath, and then,
beyond, see panels of stained glass running the length of the inner courtyard
of the V&A, and glinting as if in a cloister.
Beneath the St Peter panel is a modern glass work by the British artist
Colin Reid, his ICHTHUS font. I saw this work before it was to be
blessed by Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira & Great Britain. It is quite
impractical as a font, and the design includes six (!) fish cut into the base,
presumably derived from some Deuterocanonical source.
The fish, though, are the clever part of the design, and are reflected
through the optical lens that serves as the basin for the "font". All of this
is pure whimsy, of course. Unlike the work of great glass artists, such as Rex
Whistler, it is little more than clever showing off.
Much of the stained glass, both ecclesiastical and domestic, that is
displayed here will be familiar from Paul Williamson's pictorial guide
Medieval and Renaissance Stained Glass; but whereas that volume
(published by the V&A in 2003 and invaluable) surveys glass in the period
1140 to 1540 only, this gallery allows the story to progress as far as the
Half of the wall that is given over to glass looks out over the John
Madejski garden with its elliptical pool and spear fountains, which have
recently become so much favoured by public buildings and private corporations
It is here, in the last part of the gallery, that we find a real gem in the
John Piper fragment of Christ between St Peter and St Paul. Dated to 1958, this
work comes after the great commission for Eton College Chapel. It reflects
something of the Romanesque, and there are hints of Graham Sutherland's figure
of the Creator from Coventry Cathedral.
Jesus stands surrounded by a mandorla, and on either side are the figures of
the first Bishop of Rome and the Founder of Christianity. Piper's conception
raises a wealth of theological questions. Unlike Reid's glass work (where
asking why there are six fish is both redundant and unhelpful), it is suitably
provocative: is Christ reconciling the two apostles, or is his message shown
through the two very different champions?
This particular work has rarely been reproduced - indeed, Piper makes no
mention of it in his own 1966 volume Stained Glass: Art or anti-art;
but it conforms to a prejudice of his own. Writing about the window that Henri
Matisse made for the Life Building in New York in 1953, Piper said: "What
nobody can see today is how to be simple. Only Matisse. He bought up the whole
rights of the 20th century for simplicity!" His own work is simplicity and not
The stained glass on show in Kensington includes work from all the great
churches of Europe: Canterbury, Sainte-Chapelle, St-Germain-des-Prés, Rouen,
and St-Denis as well as a swathe of German churches. That the V&A owns such
a permanent collection of glass from the earlier period is in part due to a
19th-century habit of restorers who removed whole panels and replaced them with
copies or simplified glass designs. The habit was not simply that of the French
republicans: John Piper himself learned, he said, more about medieval glass
from a fragment from Salisbury Cathedral which is now in the parish church of
Grateley in Wiltshire, as it was rescued from a ditch when the cathedral was
"Georgianised" by Wyatt in 1815.
The current exposition, so much to be preferred to the dark light boxes that
it occupied under the last regime, brings a hint of the cathedral and the manor
house to this corner of the museum. In doing so, it makes an obvious background
to the silver and metalwork, while never being dimmed by them.
To make most sense of the gallery's silver, it is necessary to proceed
through the gallery in a chronological order. This means beginning at the
National Library of Art end, not in the principal Whiteley Silver Galleries.
If you stand in front of the St Peter panel, and ignore the Reid bird-bath,
your view is at once dominated by the shrine of St Simeon. This comes from
Zadar in Croatia - or, rather, is an electroplate copy produced in Birmingham
in 1894 of a work undertaken in the Balkans for Louis of Anjou in 1380. It sets
the tone, sheltering several reliquaries, and then gives way to a progression
of artefacts that attest Christianity's rich inheritance across Europe.
We find pre-Reformation English chalices (one dated to 1527/28 has the small
face of Christ on the paten deriving from the famed Veronica), and learn that
the English Reformation and the access of the faithful to communion in both
kinds led to the establishment of provincial assay offices, at Chester, York,
Norwich, and Exeter, to cope with the demand for new church plate.
The effulgence of Spain, when the silver mines of Peru and Mexico supported
Europe's largest economy, is shown in a remarkable case of processional
crosses; and there are other real treasures, such as the pectoral cross that
belonged to Cardinal Pole (from St George's Cathedral, Southwark), and the
Pugin alms dish designed for the diocese of Rochester (1864/65) and loaned by
St Mary's, Lewisham.
To choose just four items seems crass, but the most flamboyant on show has
to be either the silver altar service originally from the Sardinian Embassy in
Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, designed by the Neapolitan artist Lorenzo Lavy
(c.1760-70), or the German monstrance confected by Johann Zeckel in Augsburg a
few years earlier, in 1705.
A silver bas-relief adorns the sunburst rays of the monstrance, showing the
Last Supper with the Twelve gathered at table. Judas turns away, while the rest
all gaze, not at our Lord, who is not represented, but up at the glass box in
which he is present in the sacrament.
I was also thrilled to find on display the chalice and paten given in memory
of Archbishop Laud's arch-enemy Dr Daniel Featley at his death (on 29 October
1637) to St Mary's, Lambeth. Featley stood for a Puritan body of scholarship
which opposed the beauty of holiness so much favoured by his Thames-side
neighbour; but in 1637/38 his executors obviously thought it wise to offer
altar silver that conformed to the new fashionable designs.
From a slightly earlier period, St Denys's, Severn Stoke, Worcestershire,
has loaned a flagon of 1619/20, given to the parish by Thomas Chapleyne and his
wife Joan. On it are three roundels in which Christ is portrayed as the Good
Shepherd. Here is a Jacobean scene straight from A Winter's Tale, with
a hatted shepherd in doublet and hose.
All that glisters is not gold, but, as I left the galleries on a cold wintry
morning, the sunlight pierced through the myriad coloured glass and caught the
side of a small 15th-century English reliquary of St George and St Etheldreda
of Ely, itself a somewhat usual pairing. Copper gilt and enamel it may be, but
the shaft of light brought to life the little medieval scene of a knight riding
across a golden field, and I stepped out into the Cromwell Road with renewed
The V&A South Kensington is in Cromwell Road, London SW7 (phone 020