Gothic is a loaded word these days, conjuring everything from occult-obsessed teens to Halloween high jinks. But long before the various revivals that have kept the medieval world of gloomy turrets in vogue, Gothic was a word that encompassed centuries of important innovation in art and architecture.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is hoping to trade on audiences' insatiable romance with the dark side of the arts in an ambitious new show: "Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547."
Curators gathered some 300 objects, ranging from elaborate tapestries, altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, church vestments, and architectural details borrowed from actual churches. The goal: to give a sense of the values that dominated the Gothic era. "It is a period that is very remote for most people," says curator Paul Williamson. "We wanted to highlight a number of central aspects people might not be aware of."
The exhibit is divided in categories, such as royalty, war and chivalry, city and town, the household, the church, and death. "We tried to give a sense of how central Christian belief was to this society - that you lived a good life, had a good death - and death was very much more present than today. It was constantly on people's minds that they should be prepared for death."
The organizers faced a few stiff challenges in dealing with such a broad cultural influence. First, how do you mount a show about Gothic art when some of your prime catalog items, say Westminster Abbey, are bigger than a few football fields? However, that challenge paled in the face of history. Much of the art from this time was destroyed by the "Taliban" of an earlier time, the efficient zealots of the mid-16th-century Reformation, who were intent on erasing religious idolatry from English life. Altar screens were smashed, wall paintings whitewashed, stained glass replaced with plain, and countless sculptures destroyed.
Curators say this show was also created in part to deal with misperceptions stemming from this period in English history. "In England, we have a bit of an inferiority complex about 15th-century art," says Williamson. "That's partly because the best was destroyed, and we suffered greatly in the Reformation." But it is not just a show for Britons. "This is all of our heritage," says Williamson, "we can't understand ourselves if we can't understand our past."
A group of Canadian women, lingering by the jewelry, agree. "Back then, family lives were stable and people's faith provided security and serenity," says Marilynne Borowitz. "The villages and households had something in common and it brought a real sense of peace. We need that today."
Ms. Borowitz says this show can help people understand what Gothic really means. "We call things 'Gothic' that are dark and scary," she says. "But I found the show very spiritual. Their faith informed everything they did."
The collection brings together many rare and fragile items. "The very fact that this has been assembled at all makes it significant," says Richard Edgecumbe, a resident curator of metalwork. "You couldn't travel much of this show, it's so fragile."
The curator believes the collection fills a crucial gap. "There have been shows that have covered bits and pieces of these centuries," says Williamson, "but nothing this complete has ever been done."
He points to items such as the spectacular full-size bronze gilt effigy of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, which has never left its home. "Part of the point of doing the show was to cast a light on some of these splendid works that still survive," says Williamson, with an eye to showing the importance of looking after them, even today.
Beyond that, the show touches on another important aspect of the Gothic period as a technical turning point, laying the foundation for modern architecture with the adoption of the flying buttress. "The original Gothic cathedrals were groundbreaking in terms of engineering," says architectural historian, Jackie Craven. "For the first time in the Western world, people were able to reach great heights with buildings," she says, adding, "they show an important progression in our ability to create man-made environments. If you didn't have Gothic, you wouldn't have skyscrapers."
Consciously trading on the fright side of Gothic, the entry room is painted black, while scary heraldic monsters known as the Dacre beasts form a sort of gantlet for entering visitors. A jewel-studded crown sits in a glass case as a sort of invitation to this world ruled by religion and royalty. But no matter how beautifully executed or decorated the book or jeweled object may be, each room has something that conveys a palpable sense of just how hard life could be. The cadaver tomb effigy of John Baret, a wealthy cloth merchant, has an unsettlingly lifelike quality depicting his putrefying dead body - installed before Baret was actually dead.
Curators tackled the architecture by using photographs and mock archways of fiberboard erected to suggest the real thing.
A surprising diversity of visitors wanders through the rooms. A group of giggling teens dawdle in front of a brilliantly illuminated manuscript. They seem surprised at the skill and complexity of the decorations. One of them says that their school told them to come. But then a dark-haired girl shakes her head.
"I would have come out of curiosity anyway," says 18-year-old Hannah Bold. "These books are pretty cool. I'm a fan of Gothic history," she says, pulling on a strand of dark hair coiled up in a modern Goth styling. Then, she adds with a surprised smile, "but these things are really beautiful. It wasn't what I was expecting."
Not everyone is thrilled with the somber tone of much of the collection. "This is so depressing," says a fashion designer named William. "Who wants to go back to all that 'death and no food to eat?' "
An older man listens in and smiles. "I don't think the kids learn about the Wars of the Roses or the Hundred Years War in school anymore," says Gerald Gillette, a self-proclaimed London history buff. "They could afford to pay more attention to their history." He says he made a special trip from the countryside to see this exhibit. "It's really a spectacular collection of history."
While this show will not travel, the organizers have put extra effort into an impressive catalogue, with more than 30 scholarly essays to accompany the lavish photography. It's available on Amazon.com, and the first printing has already sold out. Since the show relies on photography to illustrate Gothic architecture anyway, the book is nearly as satisfying a way to experience that aspect of the show.