The Hôtel de la Marine, designed in 1755 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel and formerly home to the Ministry of the Navy, is one of Paris’s handsomest monuments. A restoration completed in 2021 has renewed its majesty. Two buildings in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia—an area well known to me since I spent my early life in the suburbs of the Philadelphia Main Line—are modeled on the Hôtel: the Free Library and the former Family Court Building, both on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Today, the museum is essential for anyone interested in eighteenth-century French art and serves as host to the Al Thani Collection, which puts on two exhibitions each year thanks to its patron, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani. The Al Thani Collection’s current exhibition, “Medieval Treasures from the Victoria & Albert Museum: When the English spoke French,” presents seventy pieces on loan from the V&A’s collection of medieval art.
As the show’s title implies, the pieces date from the period between the run-up to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the mid-sixteenth century. The last piece comes from 1534, the year that the English made their (typically English) compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism, cutting links with the Roman Church and founding Anglicanism. The exhibition stresses that medieval England was a rich and sophisticated land, not at all insular in outlook, and closely tied to the Continent. Of course, not every Englishman spoke French. Certainly, England’s royalty and the majority of the aristocracy did, and for good reason as most of them were of Norman origin. But most commoners spoke English while administrators, lawyers, and clerics conducted their affairs in Latin. Though I could be wrong as the exhibition is aimed at the French public, I sensed an unspoken scold at Brexit: the show seems to argue that the British are wrong to consider themselves so different from their neighbors on the Continent. In any case, it is a moot point since today’s leaders in Britain and Europe are incapable of effectively delivering Brexit anyway.
Many of the ties between England and France from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries were dynastic and, in time, provoked the Hundred Years’ War. Fought between France and the Plantagenet kings, the war was an unpleasant episode in the relationship between the Continent and England, and the exhibition omits reference to the conflict altogether. The war was not triggered by concerns of nationalism (a concept that didn’t then exist) but by the certainty of English kings that they had a stronger claim to the French throne than did the French kings. The English Crown’s certainty was derived from the vast holdings and titles it had accumulated through marriages in Anjou and Aquitaine. English soldiers waged war throughout France, and the French peasantry suffered as a result. If the war didn’t create the eternal cat-and-dog relationship between these two nations, it at least made things worse.
Ecclesiastical relations between England and mainland Europe, for a long time, were happier. Some items in the exhibition date from before 1066, further reinforcing how deep England’s connections to the Continent go. The exhibition’s co-curator, James Robinson of the V&A, names as his favorite piece in the show an exquisite tenth-century reliquary cross in which the figure of Christ was carved in England on walrus ivory and then mounted onto a cross of enameled gold crafted in Germany. It was possibly made for one Matilda, a descendant of Alfred the Great and herself the abbess of Essen from 973 to 1011. English craftsmanship in those days was admired abroad, as it would be for many centuries—until the island kingdom decided cheap manufactured goods from the Third World were more desirable than works of quality made by fellow locals. A dazzling example circa 1107–13 is the Gloucester Candlestick, a work of copper alloy, gilding, niello, and glass. It was commissioned by Abbot Peter of the Church of Saint Peter in Gloucester. A Latin inscription later added to the rim of the drippan tells the viewer that the candlestick was eventually bequeathed by Thomas Pociensis to the Cathedral of Le Mans across the channel.
The French city of Limoges emerged as an important center of craftsmanship in the middle of the twelfth century. An early example included in the exhibition is the reliquary casket of Saint Thomas Becket (1180–90), a beautiful piece of copper-gilt, enamel, and wood portraying the martyrdom of Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170, a murder which shocked all of Europe. Becket was canonized three years later and the casket was made sometime during the following decade. Centuries have passed, and yet the casket remains in brilliant condition, as pristine as an unopened box of chocolate (if that is not too disrespectful a comparison to make). The enamel-work shows Becket in the moment he is stabbed to death as well as the moment he is lifted to heaven.
Every land that has worshiped Christ has portrayed him according to its local complexion. We are so used to seeing a dark-haired Italian Christ that a ginger-haired English Christ as portrayed in Crucified Christ (1275–1300), sculpted in elephant ivory, can be a surprise. It is unknown whether the sculpture was made in England or in Paris to suit an English market. A similar, ginger-haired sculpture of the head of Saint John the Baptist (1470–90) from a century later is also indisputably English and was indeed made in England, made from painted and gilded alabaster. Much of the English work from this period was commissioned for monasteries and demolished during either Henry VIII’s anti-monastical campaign or Cromwell’s Protectorate, the latter of which destroyed as much as it protected. The Syon Cope (1300–20) is a survivor. It is a ceremonial cloak worn by a priest and embroidered with figures in silk, gold, and silver thread against a red and green background. Bridgettine nuns from Syon Abbey in Middlesex, near London, took the cope with them when they were exiled to Europe under Elizabeth I. When their order was allowed to return to England in 1810, the nuns brought the cope back. More exotic in its textile is the Clare Chasuble (1272–94), made of Persian silk and cotton. Trade networks between England and the Middle East were strong. The exhibition reports that the chasuble was probably commissioned in or just after 1272 when Margaret de Clare married Edmund, Second Earl of Cornwall. Another artifact from the Middle East, the Luck of Edenhall (1350), made in Egypt or Syria, exemplifies Mamluk glassmaking with its swirling colors and gilded and enameled glass. The beaker may have been carried to England by a Venetian trader.
Even toward the end of the era with which the show is concerned, England was becoming more enmeshed with Europe. The English royalty and nobility often forged connections through marriage abroad in France, Flanders, Sicily, and Spain. Among these marriages was the betrothal of Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, the last of the dazzling dukes of Burgundy. The couple shared a residence in Malines, where it is likely that the craftsman Zegher van Steynemolen created for Margaret one ewer (1468–91), a jug made of green porphyry of Roman origin on silver-gilt mounts.
The exhibition’s brevity protects against “museum feet” while still providing a full vision of the rich exchange between England and her neighbors and the beautiful work created during the period. It may lead to romantic daydreaming. A sequel exhibition featuring objects from the Renaissance will follow this winter.