AT FIRST it may seem sad to see rows of ecclesiastical objects laid out behind glass in a museum. One wonders if the chasuble will ever again be worn at the altar or the candlestick hold a lighted candle. For a moment it is as if the Faith is lost or officially banished.
However, the viewing of church treasures is an old habit. Abbot Suger of St Denis in Paris enlarged his church in 1144 in order that more people could see both relics and treasures. St Mark's, Venice exhibits its treasures and 800 years ago was already holding occasional special exhibitions — the forerunner of the touring Treasury of San Marco which stuppcd oven at the British Museum a couple of years ago.
Now in London's Victoria and Albert Museum has, thanks to Trusthouse Forte, just opened its new Medieval Treasury. Nearly every object can be viewed from four sides and Paul Williamson, who planned the new gallery, argues that most of these vestments, crosses, candlesticks and liturgical vessels were in very many cases also meant to be openly displayed between use.
The V and A has one of the richest collections of medieval art in the world and now there is an attempt to explain something of each object's original function. The need for treasures, which were often to serve as models for future generations of artists, ensured a thriving market in the Middle Ages for ivory carvers,
goldsmiths and other craftsmen. The Eltenberg Reliquary, currently appearing in the posters on the Underground,
shows a rich beauty and, like many of the other objects, it had a roundabout journey to South Kensington.
This domed casket was hidden up a chimney after the Benedictine nunnery at Eltenberg was suppressed. There is a panel of stained glass commissioned by Abbot Suger for his new building which was to have great influence on the subsequent development of Gothic architecture.
Also 12th-century is the remarkably small Alton Towers Triptych. It only arrived in Staffordshire in 1858 so its origin is disputed although the engraved gilt figures from the Old and New Testaments suggest the work of Rhineland goldsmiths. It is contemporary with a German portable altar showing St Pancras with a martyr's palm.
Of the same period is a leaf from a psalter probably used at Canterbury and both sides of the page reveal the largest series of New Testament illustrations to survive the 1100s. The book would have come into daily use just before Becket became Archbishop and his mitre, the example of English embroidery, is displayed nearby.
The early 14th-century Syon Cope takes its name from the Thames-side convent which became Syon House. The nuns took the cope into exile early in Elizabeth I's reign and brought it back under George III. Known to be part of another 14thcentury cope is a magnificently embroidered panel of Christ In Majesty which has been passed on from St Dominic's, Haverstock Hill, where nobody can recall when or how it was acquired. The Butler-Bowden Cope, which is on full display, was once made into a chasuble, frontal, stole and maniple before being reassembled in the 1850s.
The Erpingham Chasuble, named after Sir Thomas Erpingham who gave the starting signal for the Battle of
Agincourt, is made from Italian silk and its routine embroidery probably represents a typical 14th and 15th-century vestment.
The new permanent display has surprises such as the liturgical combs used before (and possibly during) mass when combing of hair was symbolic of tidying the mind.
It should be remembered that the Treasury can be seen free. The £2 admission to the V and A is still voluntary as was any donation at the old cathedral treasuries.