Saturday, 30 July 2011

Heavenly Treasures

A major piece of hugely expensive Market Research has apparently revealed that you are 26% more likely to attend a cultural event if you live in London.

(A spontaneous piece of research among my nearest and dearest revealed however, that 100% of us are irritated by such patronising rubbish.)

So, my annual cultural visit to the big City, and two great exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum, and Devotion by Design at the National Gallery.

If you view the works in the Medieval Galleries in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, it is not immediately obvious what most of them are. Framed and exhibited as individual paintings, many of them were originally part of altar-pieces until subsequently broken up. This wonderful example, from the exhibition, is The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes (1260s), by Margarito of Arezzo.

Devotion by Design gives an opportunity to view a number of altar-pieces, sensitively lit, and at an appropriate height - there is even a quasi-altar, with cross and (inappropriately sized and positioned) lit candles, to put across something of the height and scale involved. Two 15th century pieces are shown in such a way that it is possible to examine the back as well as the front, to understand how they were originally put together, and how it has been possible to recreate them. An Exhibition that says as much about presentation as it does about art and meaning. Many of these works would only have been seen with any sort of clarity by the Priest standing at the Altar, or perhaps by a pious Benefactor, yet they were still painted with as much care and attention to detail as possible. Perhaps what the Exhibition is not quite able to get across, is that like the carved stonework high on a medieval Cathedral, which only the carver and the Angels would ever see, they were done for the glory of God, and that means only the best is good enough.

Although I was not wearing 'Clergyman', I noticed a clerical collar or two at both Exhibitions, and I'm sure that I wasn't the only one to quietly pause in prayer and reflection, as the spiritual and the mysterious quietly returns to public, secular, spaces. I wonder what Karl Marx would have made of a show of Reliquaries beneath the astonishing dome of the British Museum's Reading Room, the site of his creation of the Communist Manifesto!

Treasures of Heaven presents a collection of Reliquaries, and associated items, some chosen for the quality of the craftsmanship, others for what they have to say about the Christian approach to remembrance, and to the Saints over the Centuries. Hugely enjoyable, and sympathetically presented, the story continues after the dislocation caused by the Reformation, when many relics were destroyed or dispersed, and those that remained for use in devotion were scaled down and re-assessed. One case presents secondary relics of Charles I, King and Martyr, though not, sadly, the blood-stained table in the Deanery at Windsor, said to have been caused as his body was prepared for burial in St George's Chapel, and the exhibits conclude with a reflection on the Visit of the Relics of St Theresa of Avila in 2009, and with a contemporary film presentation on Remembrance. The sheer persistence of these items, regardless of what you might think about the efficacy of prayer and the saints, is a rejoinder to the secular mind-set, and, in its own way, a statement of the significance of the Spiritual.

The Reliquiary of St Baudime

This picture could have been taken in a Shop attached to a Pilgrim Shrine, as you can buy pilgrim badges, medals and pictures and both serious and popular Books on the Saints, but it is actually the British Museum's Gift Shop.


The Museum itself, outside of the Treasures Exhibits, (which you have to pay to see), was as uncomfortably packed as ever, so much so that I didn't linger for long in the Galleries, especially once I had re-acquainted myself with the Lewis Chessmen.

Most of these wonderful 12th Century figures, probably carved in Norway, but discovered off the Isle of Lewis, at Uig in 1831, are now on show here, with only a few to be found in the National Musuem of Scotland. I sense a campaign for their repatriation north of the border coming on!