THE statistics for the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries at
the V&A in South Kensington are little short of remarkable:
1800 artefacts and not a catalogue in sight. It is, of course, easy
to be swayed by numbers. The in-flight inventory for a
transcontinental aeroplane includes more than 30,000 items, most
of them disposable, and Ginette Mathiot's indispensable classic of
French cooking (1932) boasts 1400 recipes.
Ten new galleries and a refurbished sculptural hall, however,
offer more than a chance to measure several lifetimes in coffee
spoons. The price tag exceeded £30 million, little more than the
Raphael auxiliary cartoon for the head of a muse sold a week after
the opening at a London auction house.
In the past decade, the V&A has returned with confidence to
its charter task, to offer the world a museum of decorative arts.
After decades of pouring funds into a café-restaurant (of variable
quality, to judge from my last two pitstops) and an overblown shop
in what had once been prime gallery space (who goes to a public
museum to buy clothes anyway?), the reopened galleries successively
show off the real gems of this collection with awesome elegance
and contemporary simplicity.
Upstairs, the change of fortune began with the British galleries
1500-1900 (Arts, 25 January 2002), and the silver galleries already
sparkle, astounding us with the craft and skill of the work on show
as much as with the sheer volume of bullion. Elsewhere, the
stained-glass windows illumine holiness, and even the Islamic
room (Arts, 29 September 2006) brings an entire civilisation into
the span of a single gallery.
The new spaces trace European cultures from 300 to 1600 with the
global dimension of the surrounding civilisations. The witty
designs of McInnes Usher McKnight Associates (MUMA), an
architectural practice that is not even a decade old, allow the
story to unfold chronologically while establishing at once a
certain equality between all the objects on display.
Where else might you find one of Leonardo's notebooks, a
tenth-century cameo of carved jasper of an enkolpion that once
adorned the chest of some Byzantine hierarch, the celebrated
Limoges "Becket" casket, now sadly lacking its drawer of treasures,
a 15th-century Burgundian tapestry depicting a boar and bear hunt,
or a Valencian tin-glazed earthenware flower vase, shown with
exceptional attention to detail?
When I came to the intricately cast Gloucester candlestick (58cm
high), with its riot of figures and half-imaginary beasts competing
in a game of eternal snakes and ladders which might have been
written up by J. R. R. Tolkien, and has suggested to some that it
demonstrates the ear1y-12th-century concern about heresy and the
struggle of good and evil, it was being carefully photographed and
studied by an expert in early-Romanesque carving.
The golden candlestick (it is in fact copper alloy) long since
lost to St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester (later the cathedral) had
been commissioned between 1104 and 1113, and was in the Cathedral
of Le Mans when the latter was consecrated in 1254. From there, it
came to South Kensington in 1861.
The photographer became my chance cicerone. As we
traded the names of Romanesque churches along the Saône and Rhône,
he explained how this piece might show that stone carving was in
part influenced by contemporary metalwork. The figures and animals
that scarper up and down the foliage are certainly reminiscent of
the carved inhabitants of many a church portal or, for that matter,
the border of illuminated missals and Books of Hours (a later
What fascinated me most, however, was what its purpose might
have been. When it was half-hidden in a corridor leading to the
art library, I had scarcely glanced at it, as it had been almost
impossible to see. Now, in its own spectacularly lit vitrine, it
poses all sorts of questions. Too short to be a paschal
candlestick, although intricate enough, I wondered whether it was
the candle carried before a mitred abbot, and later bishop, and
placed additionally on the altar when he celebrated mass.
This tally alone reveals a single, long-overlooked fact: the
V&A is one of the world's great museums when judged by its
proper purpose. The brilliance of the display makes me the hungrier
to know what else is kept in storage, frustratingly withheld from
view for lack of room; for it is space, not money, that is at
This brings me back to the desirability of having a reasonably
priced checklist for each room, and to my concern that the tables
of the moneychangers, whether the coffee shop or the boutique,
consume much needed exhibition space.
At first sight, the ground-floor sculpture halls are little
different from the previous arrangement. Indeed, at the opening,
several members of the press wondered what all the fuss and cost
was about, since it all looked the same.
But where else can you house an entire chapel from the 15th
century, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo for Santa Chiara in
Florence, with an altar reredos by Benedetto da Maiano? The
tabernacle holding the reserved sacrament is set high above the
mensa of the altar, suggesting that priests ignored all health and
safety warnings in order to ensure that it was seen by the Poor
Clares from their loft. Behind it, as if in the original
ambulatory, is an ecclesiastical treasury.
Here is the pastoral staff of the Aldobrandini Bishop of Gubbio
from 1370-75 and a silver chalice from the 1450s from L'Aquila,
where St Bernardino of Siena died in May 1444. Canonised by Pope
Nicholas V in 1450, his portrait head appears as one of those
saints in enamel which surround the stem of the chalice.
Where better, too, to install the seven-metre-high choir screen
that came from a cathedral in the South Netherlands, St John's,
Hertogenbosch, and which is dated 1610-13? Ironically, that had
been designed by Conrad von Norenberch to replace one mutilated in
the Protestant iconoclasm of the 1560s.
Since 1924, it has dominated the sculpture hall, with its
columns of red jaspered marble, and decorated with mouldings of
black Tournai stone with richly carved English alabaster. The
biblical scenes make you think of the much earlier Ghiberti and the
golden gates of the Baptistery in Florence for the theatricality of
These delights include the marriage at Cana in Galilee, the
feeding of the five thousand, the transfiguration, and the events
of the Passion narrative, from the betrayal to the resurrection and
ascension, and also the adorations of both pastors and rulers.
Beyond this screen, which was removed in the 1860s when the
cathedral authorities felt it blocked the view of the east end from
the nave (call me old-fashioned, but I understood that this was
its inherent purpose) and came to London in 1871, Gothic triptychs
and altarpieces vie with one another in a blaze of glory,
recklessly carved with saints now not so well known.
Giambologna's Samson Slaying a Philistine of 1560-62
stands at the opening of the principal gallery where once it
surmounted a fountain in Florence designed for the Medici. Within
100 years, it was the most celebrated Italian work of sculpture to
be found in Albion. It was the Flemish sculptor's first commission
for the Tuscan family, and he proudly blazoned his signature on a
strap that runs across Samson's naked chest.
In 1601, the statue was taken from its Florentine herb garden
and sent as a diplomatic gift to the Duke of Lerma in Spain; when
Charles, Prince of Wales, visited Madrid in 1623 with a view to
making the Infanta his bride, a dynastic choice to seal the
Anglo-Hispanic treaties of his father James VI and I, it was
presented to him. In turn, he gave it to his favourite, the Duke of
The V&A obtained it in 1954 and became its eighth owner.
There is a fountain near by, so that we hear the lap of falling
water; but why is the installation not restored to its earlier
function? The smell of rosemary and thyme is long gone, but it
commends the opulence of a different era.
The expansion of Liverpool Street Station in 1890 led to the
demolition of the last timber-framed Elizabethan house to survive
the Great Fire of 1666. It was once the home of Sir Paul Pindar,
who was born and educated in Wellingborough, and who had acted as
consul for the English merchants in Aleppo and had been, from 1611,
ambassador at the Sublime Porte; but the fortunes of the house
changed after his death in 1650.
What is shown here now is the façade, set at the far end of a
new daylit space, with its curving panels of timber spars once
tossed on a river of glass, like a miniature Hardwick Hall, but now
looking somewhat marooned, skeletal timbers on a bare brick wall
with an incongruous statue group (a 19th-century cast of
Donatello's Judith and Holofernes) in the foreground.
Contemporaries called Pindar's place a palace, and it would not
have cost much to install glazing so that it could dazzle once
However well you thought that you knew items from the V&A
collections, what you now find is beyond imagination and memory,
with the scope of the material presented in a way that makes
coherent sense. Christ on a donkey, a boyhood favourite of mine, is
a carved wooden statue (c.1480) made for a Palm Sunday procession,
but looking for all the world like a child's toy. It used to stand
alone, dusty and mournful, with other religious artefacts
seemingly randomly disposed around it.
Now it leads a procession of its own, of copes, including the
famed Butler Bowdon cope - with all its English embroidery
untimely ripped from the British gallery where it had so recently
been installed - and crosiers, thuribles, and candlesticks. Purists
like me may jib at the infelicities of dates and styles, but the
imagination recreates a breathless medieval pageant from the age of
All of this could risk becoming overwhelming. I was fortunate to
have the chief curator, Peta Motture, show me round (with a certain
misplaced modesty, I should add, for all she has achieved); but
threading one's way through the ten galleries is breathtakingly
straightforward. How long it remains so will be a test for future
curators, but at the moment all seems set for a fair wind.
At what seems to be a junction, there is an extraordinary
hand-coloured German woodcut of 1571, depicting the fallen Ali
Pasha, the Muslim commander at the battle of Lepanto who was
captured and executed. The Nuremburg artist portrays him in a
turban, whereas at the battle he had worn a jewelled helm decorated
with verses of the Qur'an. East meets West. Hurrah.
The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, V&A South
Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7. Phone 020 7942