Thursday, July 10, 2014

Docent for a Day

Lots of della Robbia on display.
About a mile from our London bookshop is the Victoria and Albert Museum. That proximity makes it my new don't-have-much-time and rainy-day destination for my free day (currently Saturday--a terrible day to go to the nearby science museum, which has lines stretching down the block). On Saturday I dodged the raindrops and entered through a side door, ignoring (for now) the plea for a free-will offering of £3, £4 or even £5 for entry. My plan was to hunt down Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," which is housed there.

I never made it to the Raphael room. On my way to look for it, I came across vast rooms of Medieval and Renaissance architectural features, from wall fountains to an entire sanctuary from a Poor Clare convent (with crown moldings of della Robbia tiles!). There were funerary monuments (including the sarcophagus of St. Justina); altar screens (one enormous one formed an entryway to the next exhibition space, and had been built in the late 1500's as an assertive response to the destruction of the earlier screen by iconoclastic reformers); Madonnas, Annunciations... and in the second space, stained glass windows and elaborate altar pieces from the late Middle Ages.

St Justina's sarcophagus
I was just starting to visit that next section, standing before the stained glass windows on the outer edge. Another visitor glanced up, and then asked me, "Do you know what these windows are depicting?" I had to admit that if it was biblical, I wouldn't have any real trouble identifying the stories, but that sometimes these medieval works refer to legends that I am just not familiar with. It just so happened that the window we were before was pretty easy: the Nativity story.

I pointed out halo that indicated that this was not just any baby; the shepherds; the panel of the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Just above that was Moses, coming upon the worship of the golden calf, so I remarked on the Egypt connection between the two stories, and that while Moses had led the people out of Egypt, the child Jesus was being led back there--because he was the real Moses. A few expressions of recognition told me that my museum friend probably had at least some Jewish background, but he was completely mystified by any New Testament reference.

"Do you mind telling me more, say, about this window?" So we went to the next window. I had to think about it--there was some kind of theophany going on (the blaze of glory with God inside) but no other halos...  and sheep... and a prominent shepherd. Then I realized that the blaze of glory was really flames. In a bush. "Oh, it's Moses again!" Then there was the temptation in the desert, John the Baptist, and another panel of the Baptism of the Lord. I told the story of John's initial reluctance to baptize Jesus, and Jesus' response ("What an act of humility!" the man responded appreciatively.)

More than once I had to assure my fellow visitor that I really didn't mind decoding the art; that it was fun to be sharing this with him. He believed me, because next he said, "If you wouldn't mind, there is a piece on the other side that really puzzled me. It seems to involve some extreme torture." It was an elaborate altar piece, centered on the Annunciation (above) and the Crucifixion, with side units to the left portraying the scourging at the pillar ("A Roman scourging," I told him. "So those men with the diabolical expressions are soldiers?") and the carrying of the Cross, and on the right, the burial of the Lord and the Resurrection. Behind the main scenes, which were completely sculpted figures, smaller, also complete scenes told more of the story--for instance, the Burial had the Harrowing of Hell in the back! ("What is that gaping mouth?" "That's the jaws of death." "You mean they used mythology like that?" "Yep.") Behind the Resurrection, one side featured the encounter of Mary Magdalene and "the gardener" ("This is all happening in a garden," I reminded the man, whose name I learned was Stan; "Where did the first sin take place?" "In a garden," he said, nodding.) The arches over the main scene featured smaller bas-reliefs of yet more of the story (in the Resurrection scene, you can make out the Dinner at Emmaus on the upper left side, in the column). (To give you a sense of the size, the figure of Christ is about 11 inches tall.)

In my eagerness to point out the many incredible details, at one point I touched one of the figures. Immediately a museum guard showed up to remind me that the pieces must not be touched!!! (Stan thought that was great.) Soon after that, Stan was to meet his wife for lunch; he asked to take my picture in front of the remarkable Passion Narrative altarpiece, and we said goodbye.

Not bad for my first day as a docent!

But next time, I really do want to find that Raphael!


Maureen said...

Oh Sister! This reminds me of visiting the Puerto Rican cultural center in Chicago with a Chinese researcher. We came upon a display of different depictions of the Three Kings. She was puzzled. I said that the Puerto Ricans are particularly fond of the Three Kings. She was puzzle. I said, "The Three Kings visited the Baby Jesus and brought him gifts."
"The kings of Puerto Rico?"
Fortunately, you had an easier time of it with Stan.
I love the connections you made with Egypt and the Garden.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Can't take anything for granted!

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Can't take anything for granted!