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Visual arts: Treasury Objects of the Middle Ages

16 July 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees a rare exhibition of fine medieval craftsmanship. Click on the gallery below for more photos of the exhibits

Sam Fogg

Installation view of part of the Sam Fogg exhibition “Treasury Objects of the Middle Ages”. In the fore­ground is the large micro-architectural custodia or monstrance from northern Spain c.1400-50, with feet ad­­apted from a late-15th-century struc­ture. Gilded silver with cast, hammered, chased, and engraved elements held together with silver and iron pins, with later silver window inserts of basse taille enamel in blue and green added in the modern period. It was in the 1966 posthumous sale, ‘Collection du Baron James de Rothschild’, Palais Galliéra, and has since been privately owned

Installation view of part of the Sam Fogg exhibition “Treasury Objects of the Middle Ages”. In the fore­ground is the large micro-architectural custod...

MATTHEW REEVES for Sam Fogg, with the help of Jana Gajdošová, has brought a treasury of objects of the Middle Ages to the heart of Mayfair in the first major selling exhibition of such sacred wonders for a century.

Many of the 45 objects shown here offer a wealth of gold, while others are the detailed enamelwork associated with Limoges in France as well as Romanesque bronze work from northern Italy and Germany. What is quite staggering, also evident from the lavishly illustrated online catalogue, is the extraordinary detail of craftsmanship on display.

The figure of St Martin dividing his cloak with the beggar is no more than 3.5cm tall. Next to it, an angelic figure that seems about to break into dance is a mere 2.9cm tall. Both figures were adornments intended to be mounted on larger structures like the similar-sized angels that attend either side of the glazed ostensory of a markedly simple gilt-copper monstrance that comes from southern Germany (c.1425-50).

That is set alongside the early-15th-century custodia from northern Spain which was once owned by James de Rothschild (1878-1957). Made of gilded silver with cast, hammered, traced, and engraved elements neatly put together, it suggests a decorated spire of a fantasy church housing relics and the Blessed Sacrament.

Given the depredations brought about by the European Reformation and then the Wars of Religion and later Napoleonic closure of monastic communities, church treasuries were either destroyed or passed into lay ownership. As a result, we are offered a prized glimpse of the materiality of medieval faith.

This is evident in the richly engraved processional crosses shown alongside chasses and reliquary caskets, seven of them in all, including a chrismatory guarded by salamanders that slither down the roofline.

One such chasse, showing Christ in Majesty (c.1200), was deconsecrated and deaccessioned from the basilica of St Servatius in Maastricht as recently as last year. In fairness to the authorities of the cathedral built there honouring the fourth century Armenian apostle to Holland: it had been only recently acquired, in 2006.

The familiar image of Christ the King in the act of blessing, enthroned on the rainbow, holds in his left hand the book, signifying the Word of God. Like the attendant saints on the same chest, his crowned head has been separately moulded and attached to the enamelled panel, providing an unearthly three-dimensionality.

Another casket (formerly Wyvern Collection, London), which has retained its gable decoration and mounted cabochons along the roofline, shows Christ in Majesty between the Alpha and Omega above the Calvary.

Individual details demonstrate both the freedom of the artist and the compulsion to believe in faith. One features the journey of the Magi along the roofline above its main panel with the Adoration of the Magi; two of their horses appear to be just arriving stage left, suggesting the continuous narrative of Matthew 2.

The earliest piece (c.1160-80) on show is a fragment from a reliquary depicting Jacob with crossed arms, blessing his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim; the craftsman has mistakenly labelled them Joseph, Esau, and Jacob, understandably confusing the narratives of Genesis 27 and 48.8ff.

Looking like the topmost part of a steeple is a silver candle-snuffer from northern Italy (c.1400). How many hours must have been taken in the sacristy after each high mass to clean it of its carbon deposit before putting it away! This unique survival from Christendom is ample testimony to devotion at the table of the Lord in the house of God.

“Treasury Objects of the Middle Ages” is at Sam Fogg, 15D Clifford Street, London W1, until 30 July. Open Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Phone 020 7534 2100. www.samfogg.com

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