Reflections on a visit to an exhibition

I couldn’t find an image featuring a red garment, so in my book, the mantle is in shades of green.

No I haven’t been to an exhibition. I have barely been out of the house for seven weeks! So I’m trawling through my old blog posts and notes to find something to rehash ahem, to look at from a new perspective.

Back in January 2017, I was about to start writing book 2 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries. The book was called The Mantle of God, and featured an ancient clerical vestment, a mantle, that is to say, a kind of cloak for priests. This topic had been triggered by a TV documentary I saw about Medieval English Embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum (English Work), that was on sometime over Christmas I seem to think. Anyway, a bit of research on the old interweb showed me that the V & A museum in London were holding a special exhibition, so thither went I post haste. Actually it was by Midland Trains but anyway…

I had to see it for myself. The enthusiasm of the narrator/presenter of the documentary (which I’ve forgotten the title of, and also the name of the presenter – I wish I’d made a note) made it seem so relevant, so real. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, and in fact the exhibition was almost over so I nearly missed it but I am so glad I finally made it.

Due to it being the off-season, the number of visitors wasn’t quite as large as usual, and the organisers were happy to allow everyone to wander around and browse to their hearts’ content, and also due to the exhibition being busy but not cheek-by-jowl crowded, I was able to perch on a bench and gaze fondly at the Butler Bowden Cope, which was the main item I had come to see ‘in the flesh’, amongst many other copes, mantles, chasubles, altar cloths and more. Being a writer, of course I had come armed with notebook and pen (and bought several more in the gift shop). I was able to sit and make notes without feeling a need to hurry along and make way for others. The items were fabulous, far beyond what I had expected, and beautifully displayed. Here is a little of what I felt and noted:

‘The red velvet background was, as I expected, greatly faded away to a soft, deep pinky red although here and there it remains fresh and vibrant, and the threads of the velvet fabric were worn and even almost bare in places. As is typical, tiers of Biblical scenes and characters are interspersed by smaller tiers of angels, and twining branches form vertical barriers between sections.

‘The figures are more or less uncoloured now, but their hair still shines softly gold or silver, and here and there a vivid patch of blue cloth has retained its glorious colour. Lions peer between branches of oak, their heads realised by spirals of tiny pearls, for the main part still intact after, what, almost 700 years? 700 hundred years – I can hardly believe it.

‘Actually, I feel rather in awe. Of the creators, their skill, and even of the measure of inspiration they enjoyed, and the careful, devoted execution of the work: it all touches me, and I feel grateful, even tearful as I look at these beautiful garments and draperies. Who knows how long it will be possible to move these often fragile items and take them to other audiences? And then, when they are gone… all we will be left with will be photographs and facsimiles. Somehow it isn’t enough just to go and look, I feel a need to record my experience, to capture it for the future.’

As you can tell, I was lost in the moment. As were–I noticed–almost all the other visitors.

The cafe, too, is well worth an hour of contemplation! The stunning blue delft tiles on the walls, the lovely ceiling and windows… Entrance to the main part of the museum is, as ever, free, but the specialist exhibitions such as the Opus Anglicanum, have to be booked and paid for. But this is surely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I certainly didn’t mind paying the price of £12. I also spent an age sitting in front of the permanent exhibition in the hall of Flemish tapestries. Absolutely beautiful – and HUGE.

When Mantle of God came out, a couple of people said that the story was far-fetched – that no one would be prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect a clerical vestment, or to hand a piece of it down through the generations, protecting it the way I suggested in my book. But I based my idea on real evidence: the presenter discussed a similar item –  a mantle, that had at some point been cut into four pieces and later–much later–the pieces had been restitched to create one whole garment again.

So I felt there was every possibility that a few loyal families could between them take and hide one piece of a mantle. If the worst happened surely at least one piece of the holy relic would survive? They were taking their lives in their hands for their faith.

Remember, in those days, Britain was Catholic, Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant again. It was so incredibly dangerous to be caught on the wrong side of the faith-fence by your enemies. Literally having a tiny fragment of a priest’s garment on your premises could mean death. Churches that had been beautifully decorated Catholic places of worship were white-washed–the paintings and murals often not discovered until hundreds of years later. If found, the ornaments and attributes of mass were destroyed, or plundered for the treasure chests of royalty. There’s a reason they had priests-holes in those big old houses.

If you are curious and want to read a wee bit of The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2, you can click here to go to that page.

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