Splendours of the Mediaeval World
by Inga Walton
The recent and extensive exhibition Medieval Power: Symbols & Splendour (11 December, 2015-10 April, 2016) was curated specifically for Queensland Museum by Naomi Speakman (Curator of Late Medieval Europe), and her colleague Dr. Michael Lewis (Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasures) at the British Museum.
The decline and eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD marked the point at which the exhibition began, with material extending into the sixteenth century. Spread throughout three exhibition spaces, some 270 artefacts were grouped according to several broad themes: The Formation of Europe, Royal Power, Heavenly Treasures, Courtly Life, and Urban Life, with the addition of several sub-groups. However, a more chronological approach to the material might have made tracing the wider geographic developments, progress within government, industry and trade, the adoption of various social practices, and the proliferation of artistic styles within Western Europe somewhat easier to follow. LED display panels were positioned throughout the exhibition space to show enlargements of various smaller items. However, the large number of these objects (coins, jewellery, badges, tokens, and even a tiny ear scoop), many of which were displayed in quite low cabinets, conspired to make moving through the spaces quite a lengthy process.
One of the more significant loans included in the exhibition was a King figure from The Lewis Chessmen (1150-1200), intricately carved from Walrus ivory, and probably made in Trondheim, Norway. A hoard comprising ninety-three artefacts (seventy-eight chess pieces, fourteen pieces for the game of tables, and a belt buckle) was found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The story goes that Malcolm Macleod, who had gone to retrieve a wandering cow, came across a small stone kist containing the items in the dunes behind Camas Uig. The large number of chessmen (eight kings, eight queens, sixteen bishops, fifteen knights, twelve rooks and nineteen pawns), which do not form complete sets, coupled with their lack of wear, suggests that they were the stock-in-trade of a dealer in such refined goods. During the period when The Lewis Chessmen were probably made, Lewis belonged to Norway and not to Scotland, so perhaps they came from a merchant ship wrecked off this well-travelled water route between Scandinavia and Scotland, were subsequently hidden, and then not recovered.
Eleven chess pieces from the find were eventually donated to the Museum of Scotland, and the British Museum has the remaining pieces that it purchased outright the year they were first publicly displayed. Since that time, The Lewis Chessmen have proved immensely popular with viewers, owing to their intense, staring eyes, and often rather comedic expressions. Their exaggerated attitudes would not have been intended by the maker(s) to be humorous, nor perceived as such by the potential owner. The pieces represent archetypes, displaying qualities suitable to their role whether it be ferocity, loyalty, wisdom, or piety. This particular chess King represents the ideal of a mediaeval leader; a symbol of masculine strength, with a thick beard and moustache. The sword, symbolising both justice and military prowess, rests across the King’s lap and he grips it with both hands. The carving seen on the Chessmen is consistent with a style found in both Scandinavia and East Anglia. Examples can be seen at Lund Cathedral in Sweden and Ely Abbey, Cambridgeshire, regions that were linked by trade, and by close political and ecclesiastical contacts. A five-minute excerpt from the BBC release Masterpieces Of the British Museum (2007) provided further background about the hoard. Fans of J.K. Rowling may have spotted that Ron Weasley’s chess set in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) is based on The Lewis Chessmen.
At the apex of temporal power, royalty and the great land-owning nobles must have made a splendid spectacle to their vassals and the common folk who lived lives characterised by servitude, hardship, warfare, and uncertainty. Figure/Corbel; Head of a Queen (1275-1325), is a stone carving thought to depict Eleanor of Castile (1241-90), the first wife of Edward I (1239-1307), and was probably created as an architectural feature for a religious building. Although, in most cases, royal marriages were arranged for political expedience, they could also prove to be harmonious and happy. Edward was devoted to his wife and was reportedly a faithful husband – a rarity among monarchs of any period. Such was his grief following her death, Edward caused stone crosses to be erected at each point where Eleanor’s funeral cortège rested on its progress from Lincoln to London. The eleven monuments became known as the ‘Eleanor crosses’, completed between 1291 and 1294, of which three survive nearly intact, at Geddington, Hardingstone, and Waltham Cross.
A royal lady and her suite would have the use of numerous beautifully made jewels, the finest clothes, accessories for grooming, personalised household objects (writing sets and seals), and amusements (such as playing card sets and other games). They kept elegantly caparisoned horses and perhaps more exotic pets such as lap-dogs and falcons. Wonderful examples of these domestic and courtly luxuries were displayed, including Fragment of a crown or head band (1250-1300). This represents a rare example of such a circlet, as a family’s jewels were often refashioned or repurposed, meaning that little mediaeval headwear survives today.
Displays of piety were also expected of the wealthy, and as such, movable objects for their personal devotion became important parts of such a household. These items might include valuable illuminated prayer books with covers of precious metal and enamel, fine carved rosary beads, finger rings and pendants with religious imagery, figurines of the saints, plaques and hinged diptychs depicting Biblical scenes, and embellished caskets to house saintly relics. It was expected that the wealthy would also donate substantial works to decorate and enrich church buildings, such as the silver-gilt and enamel Chalice (1450-1500). It is thought to have been gifted by Don Pedro Fernández de Velasco, 2nd Count of Haro (c.1425-92), to the Hospital de la Vera Cruz at Medina de Pomar, as the inset enamelled shield with the arms of the Velasco family attests.
Royalty had its counterpart in the immense influence and spiritual power wielded by the Mediaeval Church. Those in high office often enjoyed a similarly ostentatious lifestyle and maintained impressive households, often the equal of any great aristocrat. The Church represented a source of consolation and reassurance to the people in a harsh and often inhospitable world, offering salvation in return for earthly obedience. The decoration to be found in church buildings and official residences was as sumptuous as any palace. Processional cross (1400-50) would have been mounted onto a staff so that it could be carried in church ceremonies ahead of the clergy, elevated so all could see it. The front shows the Crucifixion, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, with St. Nicholas of Myra at the bottom. It is beautiful from every angle; translucent enamel compartments on the reverse depict saints and other religious figures and symbols. Church objects were designed to convey meaning to the illiterate through pictorial imagery, and to inspire awe with their beauty and dazzling richness. Even the smallest receptacle is exquisite, such as a Pyx (1230-40). This little box was used to hold consecrated communion bread in order to transport it safely to those unable to attend church, such as the ill or infirm. This example, from the Limoges workshops, is champlevé enamelled with heraldic devices set out on dark blue ground and made of copper-alloy.
The conclusion of the exhibition, The Medieval Legacy, was the least successful aspect, and seemed a bit tagged on, almost as a join-the-dots element to satisfy school groups. The excerpt of looped score that droned on throughout the latter stages of the main room turned out to be newsreel footage from the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The trumpet-heavy fanfare arrangement of God Save the Queen by Gordon Jacob, CBE (1895-1984), of the Royal College of Music, certainly became rather wearing after a while. Representations of monarchy as an abiding civic and religious institution were glimpsed through a small selection of images and objects. A Cast of the Bayeux Tapestry (1817) depicting the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold II (c.1022-66), enthroned with the tokens of majesty, was contrasted with scenes from the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Both were crowned at Westminster Abbey, and in Coronation of Queen Victoria (1838), printed by William Kohler, we see the continuity of tradition and ritual in the English ceremony that dates back to at least the 900s.
Of particular interest to the local audience was the Seal matrix (1859) for making wax seals in the name of the Colony of Queensland, a territory formed on 6 June, 1859, when Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent that separated it from New South Wales. Indistinguishable from a mediaeval queen, Victoria is depicted enthroned under a Gothic canopy, holding the orb and sceptre. The regulation of manufacture and quality marks; organisations such as guilds, charities, and professional bodies; heraldry, orders of chivalry, and the custom of bestowing royal Honours upon citizens all persist from the mediaeval period. Positioning some of these themes within the local context, perhaps by making reference to companies that hold a Royal warrant, or have been granted a Royal charter, and the recent controversy over the brief revival of the rank of Knight and Dame in the Australian Honours code, might have been of more relevance.
The exhibition concluded with the enduring and ever-evolving idea of Pilgrimage, a theme introduced much earlier in the displays focusing on Royal Power and Personal Devotion. Pilgrim badges and tokens, bought by the faithful and kept as souvenirs of the holy places they visited, are still popular today. Many believed that the badges could become wonder-working objects when touched on holy relics, imbued with the miraculous properties associated with the saints in question. One of the most important saints of the Middle Ages was Thomas à Becket (c.1119-70), also known as St. Thomas of Canterbury, and Thomas of London, the former Lord Chancellor of England (1155-62). After falling out with his former friend Henry II (1133-89) over the rights and privileges of the Church, Becket was murdered in his own cathedral by four of the king’s knights. His death shocked the Christian world, to the extent that Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173, little more than two years after his death.
Reliquary panel (1200-1300), depicts the murder of the Archbishop, standing before the altar with his hands pressed together as if in prayer, and once decorated a châsse that probably held relics associated with him. Four Souvenirs associated with St. Thomas Becket (1300-1550) showed the variety of ‘mediaeval merchandising’, as we would probably term it today. Pilgrim badge of a sword (1350-1450) is a grisly reminder of the murder weapon which was used to strike off the top of Becket’s skull: the badge is unique in that the sword can be removed from the scabbard. Pilgrim badge of the bell (1350-1400) refers to the popular legend that the bells of Canterbury Cathedral rang out on their own when the Archbishop was killed. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386) is the most famous work associated with Becket’s martyrdom, as a group of pilgrims amuse themselves during the journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine. A section of the route near Sittingbourne in Kent is shown in the engraving The Canterbury Pilgrimage (1849-1912) by William Harcourt Hooper. Becket’s shrine at Canterbury was demolished in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII (1491-1547) during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as was the famous shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham at the Augustinian Priory in Norfolk.
Three Pilgrim badges of Henry VI (1485-1550) represent expressions of public devotion towards the memory of the earlier King Henry (1421-71), whose disastrous reign (1422-61 and 1470-71) provoked the long period of dynastic conflict known as the War of the Roses. The mentally unstable Henry, who was also recognised for his piety, died in the Tower of London, reportedly murdered on the orders of his rival Edward IV (1442-83). Following his death, Henry was buried firstly at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey, a floor tile from which (1200-1300) was also on view. Then, in 1484, Henry’s remains were moved to the high altar of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Miracles were attributed to Henry and he was widely regarded by many of his former subjects as a saint and martyr. Proceedings for Henry VI’s canonisation were under way by the mid-1520s, and had progressed to the stage where papal representatives sought to verify his miracles by gathering testimony. This process stalled after 1528 due to Henry VIII’s difficulties with, and eventual break from, Rome. By 1538, pilgrimage, votive offerings at shrines, and the veneration of relics had been banned by royal injunction: Henry VI’s cult diminished thereafter. A bronze Seal matrix of Henry VI (about 1437), seen earlier in the exhibition, depicts the King on horseback, a common martial posture. Seal matrices helped spread the authority of the King by acting as his signature on official documents. Henry used this matrix to appropriate local taxes from a vacant bishop’s seat at Durham, by sealing the bishop’s documents himself. Not quite so pious after all!
For Grayson Perry, CBE, RA, whose survey, My Pretty Little Art Career, ran concurrently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (10 December, 2015-1 May, 2016), his idea of pilgrimage involves visiting the British Museum. He curated the exhibition Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011-12), an installation that positioned some thirty of his own works alongside nearly 200 objects made by nameless craftspeople. Perry sought to commemorate the contribution of these unknown artists whose work represents the history and culture of humankind, and makes up such a large part of the Museum’s collection. Pilgrimage to the British Museum (2011), one of the works made by Perry for that exhibition, transports the venerable institution from its home in Great Russell Street to a position perched in the clouds atop a mountain range. In representing the Museum as more akin to a remote monastery or temple, Perry acknowledges his indebtedness to the unknown artistic forebears from many countries whose fascinating works have inspired his own. The weary travellers who trudge along the winding path to reach this pinnacle of civilisation represent both the holdings of the Museum and the millions who have visited them. ‘Alan Measles’, Perry’s childhood teddy bear, and the ‘god of his imaginary world’ makes a cameo appearance. Perry’s engagement with the collection continues; he was appointed as the Royal Academy Trustee to the Board of the British Museum in 2015.
Queensland Museum: Corner of Grey & Melbourne Streets, South Bank, South Brisbane (QLD) – qm.qld.gov.au | Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, Museum of Contemporary Art: 140 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney (NSW) – mca.com.au
All images © Trustees of the British Museum (2016).
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