Out of the Dark Ages: Richard Davenport-Hines on an Exhibition That Sheds Light on a Neglected Period of British History

Article excerpt

What does the word "gothic" mean to most of us today? At best it will evoke images of cathedrals such as Chartres, the magnificent expression in stone of the collective mentality of medieval Christianity and of a now lost vision of transcendental order. Or else the word conjures up skinny New Romantic musicians dressed in black, vampires, haunted men and gruesome dungeons, and generates a mood of festering indulgence in physical decay and dank sexual obsessions. All these associations seem hackneyed, even degrading, after a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition "Gothic: art for England 1400-1547".

It opens in the aftermath of Henry Bolingbroke's seizure of the English throne from Richard II and closes in the year of Henry VIII's death. This is the blood-drenched, strife-torn period of the Battle of Agincourt and the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare's great history plays, Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III, make us think of it as an era of English military triumphs over foreign rivals and of ruinous civil wars.

One of the glories of this exhibition is its insistence that 15th-century England was not a dark age for the visual arts, but a time when kings, noblemen, bishops and merchants were munificent patrons of the arts. Nor was it a time of unrelenting militaristic insularity: the wealthy patrons had a cosmopolitan outlook and commissioned craftsmen not only from England but also from France and the Low Countries.

Late gothic architecture, known as the Perpendicular Style, produced wonderful parish churches, especially in East Anglia, in addition to the magnificent King's College Chapel in Cambridge, but this exhibition is not really concerned with buildings. Instead, its curator, Richard Marks, has assembled a diverse mixture of sculpture, painting, tapestry, illuminated books, church vestments and artefacts, stained glass, tableware, coins, seals, armour, weaponry, and so on.

The display of power, possessions, status and family ties was crucial to this art. The great doors at the entrance to the exhibition are flanked by the four formidable Dacre Beasts--a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram (each with a splendid phallus) and a silver dolphin. These heraldic symbols, all carved from the same oak, dominated the great hall of the Dacres' castle in Cumbria and still seem an intimidating declaration of the family's power.

The next exhibit is a crown made for Edward IV's sister Margaret of York. One of only two medieval English crowns still in existence, it was probably worn by Margaret when she married Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468. Made of silver-gilt and decorated with pearls, precious stones and enamelled white roses, it is surprisingly unflamboyant yet extremely beautiful.

The textiles on show are particularly sumptuous. Henry VII's velvet heraldic cope, made in Florence and worn by his son Henry VIII for his rendezvous with the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, is conspicuous even among all the other objects of luxury and display. And the silk velvet cope worn by Cardinal Morton (Arch bishop of Canterbury from 1485), embroidered with angels and eagles, shows church vestments at their most richly decorated. …