A rich harvest for medieval art enthusiasts that includes the V&A’s exhibition catalogue, a study of stained glass, and a survey of folk art

A Medieval Renaissance for art of the Middle Ages


“Getting medieval”, in a phrase from the film “Pulp fiction”, does not always have positive connotations in either the popular imagination or political discourse, as the historian John Watts observes in the catalogue to the new exhibition “Gothic: art for England, 1400–1547” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see What’s On, p.12). Completing the medieval cycle that began with “English Romanesque art, 1066–1200” at the Hayward Gallery back in 1984 and the “Age of chivalry, 1200-1400” at the Royal Academy in 1987-88, the exhibition and its catalogue promise to challenge and reshape perceptions of the Late Middle Ages for visitors and readers of all kinds. The period has suffered from a range of lingering prejudices, not least that of implicit cyclical decline and decadence, both artistic and religious, in the period preceding the rebirth and renewal of Renaissance and Reformation. These and other themes are identified in the catalogue’s opening essay by Richard Marks and in a piece on the reception history of the art of the period by Alexandrina Buchanan.

The chronological span of the exhibition extends well beyond the accession of the Tudor dynasty after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, once a familiar historical definition of the end of the Middle Ages, to the death of Henry VIII. Professor Marks argues that, with a few exceptions, “the formal vocabulary of English art remained what we would define as Gothic throughout the period”. In 1547, too, the visual culture of the kingdom of England still remained intact to a substantial extent, in spite of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and attacks on places of pilgrimage. John Watts explores the political and military continuities, and those of public life, across this trajectory of 150 years in one of the 11 introductory essays. That these should include historical, economic and wider cultural studies by leading scholars (Rosemary Horrox on kingship and queenship, Derek Keene on national and regional identities, Eamon Duffy on late medieval religion and Margaret Aston on the use of images), is in keeping with the increasingly contextual emphasis in medieval art history. Several of these pieces suggest also that historians have become more interested in employing objects as evidence.

As Professor Marks observes in his introduction, there is no single narrative thread to be followed in the presentation of the art of the period, but many—post-modern diversity is the key. It is a period of nationalism, but also of thriving European trade; of regional crafts, but also of metropolitan manufactures and continental imports; of princely magnificence, but also of a widening social base for artistic consumption of all kinds. As Dr Aston, Dr Duffy and Professor Marks all stress, this was a period intensely aware of the visual: in religious devotion, in secular display and the many areas of coincidence between the two. Other pieces assess centralised and regional artistic production, its organisation and consumption (Nigel Ramsay, Phillip Lindley, Nicholas Rogers), and the import of luxury (and not so luxurious) products from the continent (Kim Woods and Catherine Reynolds). The happy integration of historical and art-historical themes in these overlapping introductory essays is a tribute to the collaborative exchanges and seminars that were part of the genesis of the exhibition. The presentation of the wider worlds within which art of all kinds was so eagerly consumed moves understanding away from the quality of contemporary English crafts (as sometimes criticised by contemporaries) and, indeed, beyond judgements of quality. As the title artfully encompasses, this was art not only made in England, but also for England.

Two essays are devoted to single arts, one on Perpendicular architecture by Christopher Wilson and the other on music by Margaret Bent, presumably because these represent outstanding and distinctively English contributions to the European cultural scene. Dr Wilson’s survey of this understudied period, the period of St George’s Chapel at Windsor, Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey and King’s College, Cambridge, should spur on further scholarship. It will also provide a readable introduction and broader context for the vast number of people who visit English churches, one aspect of late medieval culture that is paradoxically familiar to a wide audience. The presence of music broadens the scope of these exhibitions and it will be interesting to see how its performance is presented in the show. This is the earliest period from which English polyphonic music begins to survive in any quantity, although the surviving material evidence is now scattered across Europe. Dr Bent’s essay on “Music seen and music heard” is full of interest, ranging from the celebrated composer John Dunstaple, and special guest stars like the royal composers Henry V and Henry VIII, to the shawm recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. The author makes the startling and compelling case that “at no time until the Beatles did English music again have such an impact outside its own country as in the early to mid-15th century”.

There are over 350 entries in the catalogue, which is arranged thematically into sections with short introductions, most spanning the whole chronological range of the exhibition. They begin by running through the social hierarchy from royalty, noble families and mighty prelates to merchants, considering patronage and images of social status, besides chivalric concerns and warfare. Dress and domestic living, eating, drinking and the art of death are given separate treatment. Placed towards the end of the catalogue are sections on private devotion, the great church and the parish church, and pilgrimage. In the tradition of such exhibitions, this one will include the haunting (such as the funeral achievements of Henry V), the monumental (the gilt-bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick), the exquisite and precious (the crown of Margaret of York, the many superb illuminated books), the unfamiliar (objects from continental Church treasuries and the London livery companies) and much, much more. The volume is a substantial and lavish production, entirely in colour, and the generous treatment of larger items, such as architecture, is particularly welcome. The hardback is expensive, but well worth the money.

A whole range of events has been organised around the exhibition and the publication of another volume on a medieval subject has been timed by V&A Publications to coincide with the opening. This is “a book about the making of books”, in which Rowan Watson takes the museum collection as a basis for a survey of Illuminated manuscripts and their makers. The first part comprises concise chapters on the book trade, working methods and aspects of text, illumination and ornament. The second half focuses more upon the museum collection, with an illustrated “procession of manuscripts”, a select catalogue of particularly striking or interesting books and single leaves. The collection is placed within the history of a “museum of art and industry”. From the 1850s, it was intended to create a comprehensive range of ornaments from books for the use of contemporary craftsmen and designers, as part of a much broader educational mission. This explains the presence of highly accomplished facsimiles, and the willingness to buy single leaves and cuttings. Only in the early 20th century did connoisseurship come more to the fore, in the acquisition of some notable private collections and bequests. The author’s expertise in the field of post-medieval illumination and the revival of interest in the subject in the 19th century inform another chapter full of stimulating insights into the associations of this art form. In colour throughout (the photographs of excellent quality), the volume is reasonably priced in hardback.

The splendours of medieval art are not the chosen subject of a book by Malcolm Jones on The secret Middle Ages, setting up something of a contrast with the V&A catalogue. He sets out rather to reveal the “other” Middle Ages through little known artefacts made of non-precious materials, often of secular subject matter or for secular use, and of little commercial value. They include lead badges, popular prints, biscuit moulds and much else besides, although the illustrations reveal that “popular” themes were not necessarily confined to such materials, suggesting the difficulty of defining the “other” in these terms. The book is a lively read and a formidable compendium of material from all over Europe, some of it illustrated for the first time. Many themes overlap with those explored by the late Michael Camille in his work on marginalia in manuscript illumination or by Christa Grössinger in hers on misericords, as the author acknowledges. His knowledge of contemporary literature proves a rich seam for the contextualisation of such images, playing upon the changing and repeating preoccupations of mankind. Among the chapters can be found the iconography of humiliation and insult, attributes of folly and the representation of proverbs. Here you can “get medieval” in quite a different way.

o Richard Marks and Paul Williamson (eds), Gothic: art for England, 1400-1547 (V&A Publications, London, 2003), 496 pp, 65 b/w ills, 410 col. ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 18577401

o Malcolm Jones, The secret Middle Ages (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002), 374 pp, 129 b/w ills, 24 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 0750926856

o Rowan Watson, Illuminated manuscripts and their makers (V&A Publications, London, 2003), 144 pp, 128 col. ills, £30 (hb) ISBN 1851773851

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Medieval Renaissance for art of the Middle Ages'