lost_carcosa: (Default)
lost_carcosa ([personal profile] lost_carcosa) wrote2009-12-04 01:29 pm

The Medieval Treasury, Paul Williamson (V&A, 1986)

OK, I know this one isn't exactly a recent book, but it's still well worth reading, so I'm going to ramble about it for a while.

*

The Medieval Treasury: The Art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria & Albert Museum is a slightly misleading title for Paul Williamson's exhibition catalogue. It does focus on the contents of medieval treasuries for the most part, but the main thrust of Williamson's very interesting introductory chapter, and a lot of the examples chosen, are Late Antique or Early Byzantine rather than medieval.

[It might seem a bit pedantic on my part to make this distinction, but there's a reason for certain labels in art history, just as there's a good reason not to allow yourself to be constrained by them. :P]

Rather than being specifically about art objects produced during the middles ages, this catalogue collects together (with a very few exceptions) objects which were used and re-used between the C4th and C15th, and which were displayed in the treasuries and/or sachristies of significant medieval churches. A large number of these objects have a certain provenance, being tracable to the collections of major cathedrals.

The objects themselves are fascinating, but what I also found really interesting was the description of the re-use of antique objects in medieval ecclesiastical paraphernalia. Although classical themes never vanished during the middle ages, as some studies of the Renaissance would have us believe, it's difficult to appreciate how influential the classical past was until you can see the objects that would have been visible to medieval churchgoers (which, as Williamson points out, was the general public at the time).

Williamson's short introductory essay has changed the way that I think about the context of artistic production during the middle ages, and has enriched my appreciation of the sources medieval artesans and craftsmen had to draw upon. In short, this is an eminently readable and very accessible catalogue.