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V&A sheds light on the dark ages

1 December 09 08:56 GMT

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

The Victoria & Albert museum opens its new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries on Wednesday. Ten galleries, occupying an entire wing of the Museum, tell the story of European art and design from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance period (AD300 to 1600).

Amidst the frantic preparations at the V&A just 48 hours before the galleries open, chief curator Peta Motture is enjoying a moment of calm contemplation.

"Standing here with you is the first time I've seen this," she says.

We are standing before a giant tapestry depicting a bear hunt from 1425-30. Nobles in courtly dress take part in the one of the most popular aristocratic pastimes. The impressive work takes up an entire wall of the gallery.

"It was brought in and covered up immediately, and it's only just been unveiled this morning. It's wonderful," says Ms Motture.

We are on a brisk walk-and-talk of the £30m galleries that are the biggest project the V&A has undertaken since the British Galleries opened in 2001. The funding includes a £9.75m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

As with any major exhibition, it is the little details that sometimes stick in the memory.

The room contains a small square of woven material that the visitor can touch to get some idea of of the feel of the bear hunt tapestry.

Also part of the exhibition is a late 15th century tapestry depicting the Trojan war. Once owned by Charles VIII of France, it took nearly 4,000 hours of restoration.

As we move through the galleries, Ms Motture points out one of the key elements of the new design.

"You'll notice that is gallery is actually rather light," she says. "We're wanting to shed light on the dark Middle Ages as it were."

Before us is a huge limestone window (1160-1170) composed of three arches, from a building in northern France. It has been in storage for about 26 years and dwarfs the other objects in this gallery.

"What we were pleased to be able to do was to bring together small-scale sculpture with objects that say something about the environment in which they were kept," the curator says.

'Beautiful blue'

We move on to a gallery entitled The Rise of Gothic. "We shout Gothic straight away with the pointed arch!" explains Ms Motture.

"We also have some of the most beautiful stained glass including pieces from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The beautiful blue in the stained glass has influenced the colour of the room."

The huge windows on display are lit by a mixture of natural and artificial light - essential during London's long, dark winter months.

In the gallery themed Devotion and Display - which looks at how religion affected daily life - the lighting is again a key part of the design.

"We filter the light through a series of onyx screens. The designers took the medieval practise of screening the windows with alabaster as their jumping off point.

"We do need to control the light because we have brought much more light sensitive material. You can see the colour in these vestments," she says, pointing to several robes that form part of a display called Christ Riding on the Ass.

It isn't all about light. The Royal College of Music has recorded music especially for certain exhibits, for example a book of sung prayers.

"We have the greatest collection of Italian renaissance sculpture outside Italy," says Ms Motture, as we reach one of the most visually-striking pieces in the collection.

"Amongst those are some key works by Donatello who to my find is the greatest sculptor of all time - and certainly the most innovative and exciting sculptor of his age."

It looks like a 3D photograph.

This piece is a low-relief carving called The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1428-30).

"When you get really close to it you can see wonderful little details like that little cherub coming out of the trees or the city of Jerusalem in the background," says the curator.

From a first floor balcony, the visitor can survey the large-scale works that populate the Renaissance City gallery: including Giambologna's marble sculpture Samson slaying a Philistine, with a working fountain beside it.

One of the largest items on show is the imposing choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at 's-Hertogenbosch (1610-13) in the Netherlands.

And beyond it is the Santa Chiara chapel (1494-1500) from Florence.

"It's the only renaissance chapel in a museum in the world - and you can walk into it for the first time," says Ms Motture.

"It's been seen here before, but it was closed off. What we've done is open it up and give it a terracotta floor similar to what it would have had originally.

"For the first time in living memory, you can walk right through and right up to the altar piece, and get a sense of being in the space."

The V&A's new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries open 2 December.

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