diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Victoria and Albert is a museum of the pretty, filled with pretty objects from around the world in times gone by. A lot of the pretty stuff is pretty old, but there's not always been enough room to put it all on display. Until last week, that is, when an entire wing reopened after a major refit. The V&A's new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries provide space over three floors to drag 1800 pretty old objects out of storage. And they're rather magnificent. [photo] [photo]

V&A Medieval & Renaissance GalleriesThere are lots of ways in, but you'll most likely be tempted to enter via the gallery off the main entrance. It's a huge space - one long chamber with a high arched roof - laid out with artefacts from half a millennium ago. Many, not surprisingly, have a religious feel. There are fonts and fountains and gateways, almost like somebody stole an Italian cathedral and stashed all the best bits inside a big white warehouse. Get up close, scrutinise the fine detail and you'll be reminded that craftsmanship is no modern invention. The largest item here is a richly decorated Dutch choir screen which divides the gallery in two, beyond which there's a pseudo-chancel complete with high altar and by gilded iconography.

Round the back they've pulled off a similar trick to the British Museum's Great Court, enclosing a horseshoe-shaped courtyard beneath a glass roof to drag the outside inside. Two extraordinary extra-large exhibits are a 500-year-old oak staircase (which used to spiral down a high street in Brittany) and a pre-1666 bow-fronted façade (from a timber-framed house in Bishopsgate). Not your usual museum fare, but then that's the V&A for you.

Back inside there are two more floors to explore. Smaller objects this time, mostly, although there's a rather marvellous tapestry dominating one eastern wall and some gloriously bright stained glass windows elsewhere. Jesus pops up a lot (not literally, but in various forms of reverent artistic depiction). Lesser mortals (and immortals) also get a look in, from toiling peasants to pagan goddesses, on plates and vellum and canvas. In a nice touch there are various ancient items which invite visitors to be tactile, with a description not just in plain text but in Braille as well. So much to see, sometimes in clinical surroundings, but always letting the artefact take centre stage.

One has to thank the Lottery-playing public for contributing nearly £10m towards the renovation of these galleries, even if most weekly gamblers would never dream of popping in for a look around. Their loss. If you have a cultured bone in your body, I'd recommend spending an hour of your future appreciating your past.

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