The most exciting artistic event in London before Christmas was the opening of the magnificent British Galleries 1500-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It coincided with the abandonment of entrance fees and once more the museum teems with visitors. The Victoria & Albert has one of the greatest, most diverse collections in the world, but at no time have British works of art in such a wide variety of materials and periods been exhibited together on a permanent basis. It is a triumph.
There is much for Catholics to admire in what is essentially a display that represents the artistic achievement of Protestantism. The first galleries, devoted to the Tudors, are the most poignant. Tantalisingly they show the end of Catholic England, represented as a side show which demonstrates the high standards of late Gothic church plate, embroidery and sculpture applied up to the reign of King Henry VIII, juxtaposed with the promise of a Catholic future influenced by the Italian Renaissance.
Conspicuous at the start is one of the most resplendent copes ever made in Europe. It has a fascinating history steeped in romance and came from the household of King Henry VII, but that is only part of the story. In 1509 the king's will bequeathed to the "Abbot, Prior and Covenant of our monastery at Westminster that now be, and that hereafter shall he, for a perpetual memory, there to remain while the world shall endure, the whole suit of vestments and copes of cloth of gold tissue wrought with our badges of red (and white) ruses and portcullises, which we of late at our proper cost and charge caused to be brought and provided in Florence in Italy, that is to say the whole vestments fol. the-Pness Deacon and Sub-Deacon and 29 copes of the same cloth and work".
They were made for the new Lady Chapel built in 1503 at the east end of the abbey, completed by King Henry VIII c1512. The chapel was begun as a shrine to King Henry VI, who Henry VII hoped might be canonised, and at the same time as a chantry for himself. In his will he stipulated that 10,000 Masses should be said there for his soul. The chapel is a fanvaulted, richly furnished perpendicular vessel of stone and glass, hung with the standards of the Knights of Bath. The walls are clothed with a wealth of sculpture unparalleled in any English church interior.
At the heart of the chapel is the tomb of King Henry and Queen Elizabeth of York, executed in 1512 by the young Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528), who had been a pupil of Bertoldo de Giovanni at the same time as Michelangelo. In company with the fine tomb of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the king's mother, in the south aisle, the royal tomb is the earliest work in a pure Italian Renaissance style in England and represents the new taste Torrigiano had brought with him. The monument is a tomb-chest with bronze gilt recumbent effigies urrounded four-childlike angels. The life-like portraiture, taken from death masks, and beauty of modelling is unprecedented in the country. The black and white marble sarcophagus, enclosed in a perpendicular gothic screen of brass with sinuous candle brackets, is decorated with wreathed medallions, winged cherubs, and figures of Our Lady and St Michael and St George draped in mantles like Roman soldiers.
The vestments are also attributed to Torrigiano. They were woven in gold tissue, raised on crimson velvet, in one piece without a seam. The pattern is composed of the crown of England resting on a portcullis enclosed in winding briars of Tudor roses. So splendid were they that in 1520 King Henry VIII took them to the meeting with King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The cope stands unrivalled as an example of 16th century Italian weaving. The king's desire for the vestments to remain in the Abbey "while the world shall endure" was soon arrested. By 1563 the number had dwindled to 24, to 11 in 1608 and in 1643 these were burnt by Puritans.
At this point, in the early 17th century, Fr John Gerard SJ enters the narrative. His autobiography records the relics and vestmeats tout Catholics had rescued from profane use and had given to him for safekeeping in the Jesuit college founded in 1593 by Fr Robert Persons SJ at St Omers in the Spanish Netherlands. Many of these still exist and are kept at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, and form part of the British Jesuits' historic patrimony. It is likely that Fr Gerard acquired two of the Henry VII copes from an eccentric hoarder of vestments in London and sent them to St Omers. One was cut down and made into a chasuble and they returned to England when, during the French Revolution, the college came to Stonyhurst in 1774.
A time comes in the life of sacred objects when they cease, through fragility and value, to be used on a regular basis. When they are also works of art a new element of responsibility arises. Three years ago some of the most historic Jesuit possessions at Stonyhurst, all of artistic and national significance, were generously placed by the trustees of the British Province on indefinite loan in national museums. Much still remains at the college.
The rarest vestments are in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, which has one of the best textile collections in the country; St Thomas More's seal and Jewels are in lie gallery devotedToEFiropean history 1500-1800 in the British Museum; most of the historic church plate is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, which has a major collection of Baroque religious art; the Jesuit archives are now accessible at Farm Street; and the King Henry VII cope noticeably features in the British Galleries. In their new surroundings they have already been seen by more people than in their entire existence, and they stand as a powerful witness to the hidden stream of English Catholic history.