Art and Patronage in Late Medieval England

To accompany the major exhibition opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Janet Backhouse explores the varied roles of patronage in the art of the later Middle Ages.

A major exhibition of late medieval art opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London this October. Entitled ‘Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547’, it presents a comprehensive range of treasures, from acknowledged masterpieces of painting, sculpture and goldsmiths’ work to the relatively humble but nonetheless fascinating accessories of everyday life. Concentrating on the fifteenth century and the reigns of the first two Tudor kings, it embraces the introduction of printing, the discovery of the New World and the initial stages of the Reformation, now widely regarded as stepping stones to the modern world. The iconoclasm of Protestant reformers in the century after the death of Henry VIII was, of course, to be responsible for the widespread destruction of much medieval art in England, a major proportion of which was bound up with the church, so what we have today is largely dependent upon the arbitrary lottery of survival.

Large-scale pictorial works, both murals and panel paintings, proved particularly vulnerable. Our main source for the study of painted imagery of this period is now the illuminated manuscript. An illuminated book may, however, contain a multiplicity of miniatures effectively protected over the centuries by the structure of the book that contains them. A vast wealth of imagery is still to be explored, even within the world’s major national libraries, though modern methods of reproduction and transmission are beginning to make this material more widely available. Illuminated manuscripts can often be put into their historical and social contexts with a surprising degree of detail, less through the identities of their artists, which are largely unrecorded, but through those of the patrons who paid out the not inconsiderable sums that must have been involved in their production. A patron might see a prestigious illuminated book as a channel to redemption in the next world or a confirmation of status in the present.

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