Stunning. Spectacular. And even awesome. I need to reach for the biggest adjectives in my quiver to do justice to the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries unveiled for us last week at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Exciting. Magnificent. Impeccable. They all fit. But the adjective that I will get the most pleasure from firing off at you, because it is the most surprising, is courageous. On top of all the sophisticated museum work being accomplished here, the V&A is managing to display some brutishly large cojones. This is not just an excellent museum addition. It is also a particularly brave one.
What is being challenged? Everything. The complete caboodle. Before we even set foot inside this theatre of delights, its title warns us of a revolution ahead. Medieval and Renaissance are, after all, two slabs of civilisation that we generally keep well apart. These two epochs are usually understood as near opposites, driven by dramatically different world-views. The medieval age is felt to have been gloomy, backward and propelled by fiery belief, while the Renaissance was enlightened, progressive and propelled by reason. King Arthur was medieval. Leonardo da Vinci was Renaissance. Yes, I am drawing with a big brush, but you surely recognise these outlines. We have all been confronted by them since we were babes in arms.
The V&A, though, is insisting otherwise. Not only has it conjoined the two supposed opposites into one continuous river of civilisational achievement, it has chosen to understand each of them anew. What is being proposed here, put crudely, again, is that there was far more of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages than we usually admit, and far more of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance. Since the Renaissance has invariably been understood as the rebirth of civilisation – the regaining of a lost cultural paradise – this conceptual rethink is truly momentous.
All this needs appreciating before you actually enter the new suite of galleries, because once you are in there, you will be too busy drooling and cooing at the treasures within, displayed in perfect viewing conditions, to grasp the full civilisational heft of their new arrangement. An entire wing of the museum has been gutted, rebuilt and reimagined. Ten new galleries, spread across two floors, have been ambitiously carved out of some of the old V&A’s most muddled reaches. The project cost £32m, gathered in from a mix of private money and lottery goodies. Every penny appears well spent.
We begin in about AD300 and continue to about 1600. Which is a gigantic chunk of civilisational time. Organising it into meaningful clusters has taken 7½ years of intense plotting. My fears that the V&A might follow the London Tates down the tempting rogue’s short cut of employing vague thematic connections to get round difficult corners – playing Snap through the ages – were unfounded. The new displays are chronologically arranged, so we can all see what happened, when. Hallelujah.
The first object on the new circuit is a gorgeous carved ivory from the 4th century, showing a delightful classical priestess posed alluringly before a crackling altar. It was made for the Symmachi, a family of tasteful Roman pagans who were holding out against that fashionable new religion that every one else at the time appeared to be taking up: Christianity. I’ve seen the Symmachi Panel at the V&A before, but never this clearly or this closely. One of the joys of this display is the unfamiliar access it keeps giving you to familiar masterpieces.
The final gallery, meanwhile, is dominated by a morbid Catholic choir screen, roughly the size of a motorway flyover, which was removed, heaven knows how, from the nave of a very big and very bleak Flemish baroque church in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In terms of sophistication and elegance, I would give the contest of the bookends to the tiny Symmachi Panel. The point being that nowhere along the route is this a predictable journey.
Although the galleries follow a broad chronology, the V&A allows itself to skip impishly sideways in places, into exciting little mini displays and pertinent thematic clusters. There’s one about alchemy, for instance, a persistently important influence at both ends of the epoch. And a startling set of cases looks at how the trade in luxury goods throughout the medaissance period ensured a constant two-way flood of influences between east and west. Which is how Japanese finery came to influence Italian finery. And how Portuguese bronzes fetched up in Africa and inspired the miraculous bronzes of Benin.
It all feels so fresh and delightful and revisionist. Remember those poky downstairs galleries to the right of the V&A’s main entrance, where the Toulouse-Lautrec posters used to hang, and where you needed a torch to see them? These are now a set of light-filled medieval spaces that appear to have set themselves the task of challenging the myth that the Middle Ages were dark. A row of room-high onyx screens, newly mounted against the old V&A windows, glows with a poetic and pinkish light that provides a perfect background for a group of passionate Tuscan crucifixions, mixed up with a beautiful selection of French and English stained glass.
Whoever worked out the lux levels down here deserves an MBE for services to museum display. They have finally ensured that this great medieval art, which has always previously been shown in a moodily misleading museum twilight, can be viewed properly. Even the great History of the English, written and decorated by Matthew Paris in about 1250, lent generously to the V&A by the British Library, one of the most precious tomes in the whole of this island’s literature, can actually be enjoyed in excellent reading conditions.
The point keeps being made that the levels of sophistication reached in these exciting medieval stretches were already remarkable. The Gloucester Candlestick, an exciting 12th-century tangle of golden figures and complex plant shapes, gets a case to itself, so you can walk round it and savour it from many angles. The Renaissance that lies ahead may occasionally have produced the Gloucester Candlestick’s equal, but never its superior.
It turns out that the supposedly backward English were inter nationally famed, not only for their exquisite goldsmithery, but for their needlework, which was deemed the best in Europe. A set of spectacular copes and chasubles proves the point.