As I sit at the writing desk of the V&A’s first director, Sir Henry Cole, I look out over the autumn colours of the Brompton Oratory gardens. It was said that our founding monarch Queen Victoria could not bear the Oratory, and huffily raised her blinds every time she passed by in the royal carriage. But I love our neighbours: the delicious aromas coming from the kitchens; the choir practising on a Friday afternoon; the huge magnolia tree and late summer dahlias; and the boundless Christian patience of the Oratorians as we repeatedly disturb their monastic peace.
The proximity of Fr Julian Large and his brothers also reminds me of something else: the extraordinary Catholic heritage of which I have the privilege to be the custodian at the V&A – and the culture of patronage in the decorative and fine arts which was so fundamental to the medieval Church.
Where else to begin than with our Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, and in particular the Langham Madonna, sometimes identified as Our Lady of Walsingham? As readers of the Herald know only too well, Fr Michael Rear and Dr Francis Young have made a passionate case for regarding this simple 13th-century wooden statue as “the most famous statue in the whole of medieval England”. Its similarity to the image of Our Lady of Walsingham on the priory seal suggests it might have survived Reformation iconoclasm and be the cult image that was the object of so much devotion. As a result, we have been welcoming more Anglo-Catholic and Catholic visitors to our early medieval sculpture galleries recently, although we are yet to be convinced that this lovely Virgin and Child is particular to Walsingham rather than just a very good example of a familiar sculptural form.
But there is much less doubt about the provenance and importance of our Becket Casket. This reliquary casket is the earliest surviving example in Limoges enamel showing the story of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. It is a small object of really sumptuous beauty, depicting the dead body of the archbishop lying on a shroud with a bishop and priests performing funeral rites, and to their left, a separate scene depicting two angels holding the shroud escorting the soul of St Thomas into heaven. Formerly in the hands of the Wye and Pulleyn families of St Neots, the casket then endured some unhappy years in the possession of the British Rail Pension Fund before finding its rightful resting place at the V&A.
Not quite a saint, but still an important figure in the life of the Church, was the old rogue Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose humanism Hilary Mantel has so successfully resuscitated through her Wolf Hall trilogy. The cardinal’s dying lament was that he should not have tried to serve two masters – something perhaps captured in the story of his tomb. He commissioned the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano to adorn his final resting-place with bronze, candle-bearing angels; after Wolsey’s death King Henry snaffled the angels and then employed da Rovezzano for his own tomb. This was then dismantled during the Civil War, with the angels only returning to public view at an auction in the 1990s – and, curiously enough, the remaining bronzes were discovered adorning the gateposts of Wellingborough Golf Club. Today the Angels are reunited at the V&A, heralding the exuberant Christianity of the (early) Tudor monarchy.
But when it comes to guardianship of the Catholic Christian heritage within the V&A, nothing matches the artistry of Raphael and his Cartoons chronicling the Acts of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul. For while the Vatican boasts the exquisite silk, wool and gilded silver-thread tapestries commissioned from the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst to hang in the Sistine Chapel, in South Ken we look after the original designs.
In memory of her beloved Prince Albert who revered Raphael as much as a designer as an artist, Queen Victoria lent the Cartoons – which King Charles I had originally acquired – to the V&A. This November, after a huge restoration and relighting project, we are all set to honour the genius of the High Renaissance by reopening the Raphael Court with its secular-cum-sacred feel. Alongside it, thanks to digital technology, there will be a radical new interpretation of the drawing and construction of the Cartoons. If I have ever been allowed to garner a sense of the divine within the museum, it was the moment we removed the Cartoons’ heavy glass frames to stare, up close, at the flowing draughtsmanship of Raphael.
Do come and see for yourself – and, unlike Queen Victoria, you have no need to avert your gaze as you pass by the home of our Brompton brothers.
Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. He is a former Labour MP and shadow education secretary
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.