The V&A created its new Medieval and Renaissance wing to house objects drawn from its world class collections of art and design, spanning a period of 1300 years. Ten new galleries opened in December 2009 at a cost of £31.75 million, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a number of generous donors. Spread over three floors, they form an elegant contemporary home for nearly 2,000 objects that tell the story of European art and culture from the fall of the Roman empire to the dawn of modern Europe. The displays span European art, amongst them are treasures of British heritage, like the 12th century Beckett casket and English stained glass, crafted for Winchester College. Masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance include sculptures by Luca della Robbia, Donatello and Michelangelo. Leonardo da Vinci’s precious notebooks are exhibited for the first time in a changing display.
In 2002 curators and educators began re-thinking the displays. The south-east corner of the V&A was transformed into a place where the Medieval and Renaissance collections could be explored together for the first time. Architects MUMA were commissioned to re-configure this wing of Aston Webb’s 1909 building. Their scheme restored and enhanced existing galleries and turned a hidden space into a dramatic top lit gallery and circulation hub. Meanwhile, hundreds of objects were being moved and re-housed to bring a new accessibility and coherence to their presentation. And conservators were spending thousands of hours restoring and preparing sculptures, textiles, paintings and other works of art for display. The passion driving all these experts and specialists was a desire to give these magnificent collections a setting they deserved, a setting that brings all the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance treasures to life.
In each of the ten galleries objects are placed and considered within their original artistic and cultural context. So you can walk from the Renaissance home onto a balcony from a 15th century palace in Treviso overlooking the Renaissance courtyard and garden below. The engaging presentation caters for visitors who wish to explore the story of art and design chronologically from 300 to 1600 as well as for those who just want to focus on part of it. Each gallery tells its own story.
The first – ‘Faiths and Empires’ – examines how Christian art forms evolved from 300 to 1250. Objects from this stunning 5th century ivory to the intricate Gloucester candlestick provide the lens through which to explore the past.
‘The Rise of Gothic’ shows how the Gothic style emerged in 13th century Europe together with concepts of chivalry and heraldry. Dramatic displays of stained glass and textiles illustrate the narrative alongside delicate ivories including Giovanni Pisano’s exquisitely carved ‘Crucified Christ’.
The third gallery – ‘Devotion and Display’ – shows religion’s impact on daily life and artistic production, examining art commissioned as good works as well as the rituals of religious devotion. Objects include precious reliquaries and an altarpiece by the German Master Bertram that vividly depicts scenes from the book of Revelation.
In ‘Noble Living’ the focus is on secular life, on hunting, dining and courtly love expressed through the luxury goods found in the grand houses of the wealthy elite. The Boar and Bear Hunt tapestry which links all the displays, fills an entire wall. Nearby is the enamelled Mérode Cup made in the 15th century for the opulent court of Burgundy.
‘Donatello and the Making of Art’ houses a wonderful collection by 15th century Italy’s most influential sculptor. Donatello’s famous Chellini Madonna and subtly carved Ascension Relief are seen with other masterpieces by his Italian contemporaries, like Carlo Crivelli’s decorative ‘Virgin and Child’.
‘Renaissance Art and Ideas 1400-1550’ looks at the preoccupations that underpinned Renaissance art such as the fascination with antiquity and the image of the individual. Its highlights include an immaculately restored Flemish tapestry illustrating the Trojan War. At the centre of the gallery is a display on the scholar’s study, its decorated ceiling tiles created by Luca della Robbia for the study of Piero de’Medici in Florence.
‘The World of Goods’ gallery reveals how Renaissance designers took ideas from around Europe and beyond. Highlights include rare pieces of Francesco de’Medici’s porcelain, experiments that rival Chinese and Turkish blue and white ceramics.
Rich domestic furnishings form a setting for ‘Splendour and Society’, a gallery exploring social ritual and luxury goods in the 16th century. These include fashionable armour, intricate jewellery and the Burghley Nef, a nautilus shell transformed into an elaborate salt cellar in the form of a ship.
The biggest gallery ‘The Renaissance City’ houses some of the most impressive exhibits. Giambologna’s ‘Samson slaying a Philistine’ stands at the entrance and sculptures are set within a space evocative of the Renaissance courtyard and garden with a pool and bubbling fountain. Beyond the vast choir screen is an atmospheric display of masterpieces of church art. The epic centrepiece is the High Altar Chapel from the Convent of Santa Chiara in Florence.
Behind the chapel the new ‘Living with the Past’ gallery soars four storeys to a glass beamed roof. Conjured out of an unused space once lost between buildings, this tour de force is both the gallery’s circulation hub and a dramatic home for monumental exhibits like this fragment from the grand façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s London house which miraculously survived the Great Fire of London.
Beautiful and practical, this extraordinary space exemplifies the thinking that makes these galleries such an exciting development in the museum’s history. The V&A’s amazing new Medieval and Renaissance galleries not only show these spectacular collections at their best, but throw new light on the era that transformed European art and design.