Things Medieval

One of the goals for this holiday in London is to see things I haven’t before. I thought this meant I would finally get around to visiting the Tate Modern, but instead I found myself walking up the steps to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A could take me an entire week, if we take into account that I spent three hours in the medieval galleries alone. What can I say? I am a medievalist.

I love all things medieval. Literature, music, architecture, clothing, art. My favourite medieval art is personal devotional art pieces: folding altar pieces, diptychs and triptychs, whatever. I love the amount of detail and care and, yes, devotion is put into each relief carving of an ivory triptych. This no doubt is influenced by the triptych in the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, which I researched and curated when I worked there. Triptychs, diptychs, and folding shrines are worship aids for personal devotional use; they are made to be portable, the sides folding over the main part of the shine to protect the fragile carvings. The V&A had an absolutely beautiful fourteenth century French ivory folding shrine. There is evidence that it was once gilded and painted red, remnants peeking through in cracks and corners. Each side panel depicts a different episode from the Bible or a saint’s life (depending on the piece).

I knew I already loved carved ivory and stained glass, but my new favourite thing is medieval enameling. Enamel combines my love for small, portable religious pieces with the vibrant colours of stained glass, and the enamel altar pieces in the V&A simply took my breath away. Just look. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?

A fourteenth century English triptych depicting the life of St Edward.
Enamel on gold.

Master of the Louis XII triptych. Early sixteenth century, portraying King Louis XII on the left panel, kneeling in front of his patron St Louis, and Queen Anne of Bohemia on the right panel. The center panel shows the Annunciation.

And with a stroke of serendipity, I came across two beautiful cups: one, the Luck of Edenhall, a goblet believed to be have been left behind by the fairies, and the other the Meróde Cup, the plaque of which mentioning Jean, duc de Berry, none other than the patron of my beloved Melusine. The Luck of Edenhall goblet is actually an example of medieval Syrian glasswork, remarkably in pristine condition. It was probably back to England from pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It eventually became the talisman of the Musgrave family of Edenhall in Cumbria. Legend says that when the fairies left it behind, they cried, ‘If this cup should break or fall / Farewell the luck of Edenhall!’ What is particularly fascinating to me is that this goblet reinforces the connection between Fairy and the East in medieval literature.

The Meróde Cup did not belong to Jean duc de Berry, but there are descriptions of similar cups as having existed in his collection, and of his brother’s, King Charles V of France. The main body of the cup is gilded silver. The Meróde Cup is the only medieval example of plique-à-jour enamel. Stunning.

I had another moment of medieval delight this morning in the British Library. I had ordered, and the librarian handed over to me, the manuscript of Jean d’Arras’s Melusine. It was enormous. It is amazing. If cameras had been allowed into the reading room I would have taken a picture to post here. I had no real purpose in mind when I requested to see it, since I have already finished my chapter on Melusine, but, well, I wanted to see it. I spent the day leafing through it, taking notes as whatever I saw caught my fancy (fodder for an article or conference paper), and reading my favourite passages from the romance.

And, it seems as though London knew I would be in town this summer. The British Museum is having a special exhibition on none other than ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. I’ve already booked my ticket to see it.

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