Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Medieval Gallery at the British Museum

The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery devoted to the Museum's pre-eminent collection of medieval material opened on March 25th. The third of four new galleries opening at the British Museum this year, the gallery is devoted to the British Museum's pre-eminent collection of medieval material. This gallery will place this great collection in its fullest historical context, integrating art with archaeology, covering the period from 1050–1500 AD. Some of the Museum's greatest British, European and Byzantine treasures will form the centrepieces for this new permanent space.

Unique, spellbinding objects such as the celebrated Royal Gold Cup, made in Paris between about 1370–80 AD under the patronage of the (princely) Jean duc de Berry, will act as gateways to the wider world of noble pursuits afforded by rare survivals of royal art from the Palaces of Westminster and Clarendon. The intricately carved citole, a unique medieval English musical instrument, will serve as a platform from which to understand the rituals and protocols surrounding aristocratic amusement. Centre stage within this context are the world famous Lewis Chessmen (around 1150–1200 AD), poignant survivals of a sophisticated courtly culture that existed along the seaboard of northern Europe.

Sacred art is equally well represented illustrating the major devotional developments of the age. The flourishing of the monasteries from the mid-eleventh century to their dissolution in the sixteenth is a topic given dramatic treatment from the Museum’s rich resource of objects associated with abbeys, priories and convents. The magnificent tiled pavement from Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, will be displayed alongside important monastic sculpture from Lewes Priory in East Sussex. The fundamental notion of religious images acting as an aid to devotion is developed by combining precious objects from the Byzantine world with contemporaneous pieces from western Europe in a stirring analysis of how the divine was represented in two different but related Christian cultures. Icon painting and ivories are juxtaposed with wooden figure carvings and jewellery to explore the imagery of Christ and the Virgin and to illustrate the periods of iconoclasm which affected Byzantium and western Christendom equally.

The Byzantine Empire was one of the major pivotal points on the medieval map. A section dedicated to Byzantium and its Neighbours examines its role as a trading capital and as a centre of intellectual and artistic ferment. Related displays developing the theme of internationalism demonstrate the vast movement of people and commodities around the medieval world at any one time by focussing on topics such as trade, pilgrimage and Crusade. All of the narratives are emphatically object-led and showcase many of the world’s greatest medieval treasures.

A number of events will accompany the opening of the gallery including an introductory Gallery talk by curator James Robinson on Thursday 2 April and Music in the Medieval Gallery – a performance by singer Helen Barber and the Misericordia instrumentalists on Saturday 11 April.

The gallery opening is accompanied by the publication of a new book Masterpieces of Medieval Art by the curator James Robinson. This magnificent book is the first illustrated guide to the highlights of this collection. The book is published by British Museum press, priced £19.99.

For further information please go to or telephone +44 (0)20 7323 8000 / 8299