Tate Britain has signalled a change of policy with the launch of the exhibition “Image and idol: medieval sculpture”. The museum has hitherto taken the 16th century as the starting point of British art, the earliest example in its possession being a painting by John Bettes dating from the 1540s. This exhibition now pushes back the Tate’s start-date to the 12th century and heralds some of the central ambitions of Tate Britain: “expanding definitions of Britishness and British art, bringing together the contemporary and the historic”. The exhibition consists of 22 works of sculpture and has been designed by Phillip Lindley, a medieval historian, and the artist Richard Deacon for the Duveen Galleries. The master- and centrepiece of the show is the carved oak figure of Jesse from St Mary’s Priory Church in Abergavenny, the largest example of wood sculpture to have survived from the 15th century. The exhibition has two themes: one is to show the international connections between British and continental art, the example being the Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano’s effigy of Dr Yonge that shows the impact of early Italian Renaissance ideas; the other being to highlight the iconoclastic devastation of the Protestant Reformation during which, it is claimed, 98% of British religious sculpture was destroyed. The expansion of wealth in the later Middle Ages, accompanied by the iconoclasm, accounts for the expansion of secular sculptures, particularly tomb portraits of non-aristocratic patrons, the example on show being Sir Thomas Andrew’s alabaster monument from about 1560, restored with support from the dealer Daniel Katz. Mounting a major sculpture exhibition enters territory traditionally held by the V&A, and although the Tate’s acquisitions policy remains unchanged, one can only applaud its decision to extend backwards the date for the temporary exhibition of works so little seen. It has to be said, however, that one wonders about the anachronistic labelling of this art as “British”, except, of course, as an example of changing the meaning of “Britishness” by the time-honoured method of “reading in” contemporary definitions to make the past conform to the present.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate’s new date'