At the press view this morning there was still protective polythene in evidence, altar pieces were being vacuumed and capitals lowered into place atop pillars. But these finishing touches did not detract from the visual and spatial impact of the ten galleries which span 300 AD to 1600. On display are some of the most beautiful works of European art and craftsmanship of the period and although aesthetically the objects speak for themselves, their appreciation is unquestionably enhanced by this creative overhaul.
The architects in charge of the reconfiguration of the original 1909 galleries, MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects), have also been responsible for the design and this, together with a close curatorial input, helps to explain the successful cohesion of the project. Large-scale architectural pieces, many of which have not been seen for decades or more, are integrated within the gallery scheme; one can take a view from an Italian stone balcony, walk through a vast marble choir screen from the Netherlands and examine from all angles a three-storey wooden spiral staircase from Morlaix in Brittany dating from the 1520s.
The overwhelming impression is of light and breathing space for objects large and small. The design is confident and contemporary without being self conscious or intrusive. I especially liked the onyx window screens in the lower galleries, inspired by medieval alabaster, which delicately filter natural light behind the brilliant stained glass, and the artefact labels of beaten ‘gold-leaf’.
The galleries, which have been funded by £20 million of private donations and a £9.75 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, are arranged broadly chronologically but also thematically, enabling the exhibits to shine a broader light on the times and allowing artefacts from different places to sit alongside each other. The famous enamel Becket Casket, made within twenty years of Becket’s murder in Limoges and believed to have held his relics, is displayed close to a 12th-century church-shaped metalwork and ivory tabernacle from Cologne in the section ‘Faiths and Empires 300-1250’. In ‘Devotion and Display 1300-1500’ religious celebration is explored through works of art commissioned by civic groups as well as by individuals. Here stained glass window panels commissioned by Bishop William of Wykeham for Winchester College c.1393, are shown alongside fragments of Giovanni Pisano’s late 13th-century sculpture of the prophet Haggai, which once graced the façade of Siena cathedral.
There is too much to see in one visit, but this is somewhere I will look forward to returning to linger over the treasures and dig deeper into the layers of interpretation on offer.