Medieval Art in England
15D Clifford Street
From grand cathedral to parish church, and from castle to cottage, medieval England was filled with imagery. Yet only a tiny proportion of what was made has come down to us. Ravaged by war, iconoclasm, religious reforms, neglect and the vicissitudes of fashion, a number of England's medieval buildings may still be standing, but they have been all but gutted of their original artistic splendour. During the centuries since their destruction or the dispersal of their contents, many works of art once housed in churches and cathedrals up and down the country made their way into private hands, isolated fragments of what was once a rich, polychromatic abundance of visual and material stimulus. Stimulus to pray, exalt, celebrate, commemorate, and engage in private and communal rituals that glued society to common beliefs.
The objects in this exhibition have taken almost twenty years to bring together, miraculous accidents of survival that somehow escaped the many waves of destruction which have punctuated the last half millennium. Some may have been too hard to destroy, such as liturgical furnishings and architectural stonework, some perhaps less provocative to reformists and iconoclasts, including ceramics or private Books of Hours, and still others were presumably just overlooked or inaccessible in the fury of the moment, such as small stained-glass panels placed high up in church windows, or garments of opus anglicanum locked away in chests and vestries. Some of these survivals nevertheless bear the marks of attack and attempts at erasure. For instance, the large alabaster sculpture of the Trinity and several of the oak pew-ends in this show were singled out by iconoclasts and violently defaced. Even so, the works of art in this exhibition together evoke the incredible panoply of English craftsmanship from a period of history spanning almost a thousand years: from wearable objects of status and power made by the early Anglo-Saxon communities of East Anglia, to depictions of Heaven's host of angels and the omnipotent power of God; from stout, bulbous jugs which would have occupied the centre of a dining table and borne witness to its theatre, to meticulously-embroidered textiles that formed dramatic focal points for liturgical celebrations. All of these objects tell the story of England's complex history of ascendancy and decline, a country whose populations changed dramatically through war, plague and invasion, and whose artistic community embraced immigrants and indigenous craftsmen alike. England in the Middle Ages may have been a country in flux, but the art it produced continues to endure.
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