Out of the dark ages

Art - Richard Davenport-Hines on an exhibition that sheds light on a neglected period of British his

What does the word "gothic" mean to most of us today? At best it will evoke images of cathedrals such as Chartres, the magnificent expression in stone of the collective mentality of medieval Christianity and of a now lost vision of transcendental order. Or else the word conjures up skinny New Romantic musicians dressed in black, vampires, haunted men and gruesome dungeons, and generates a mood of festering indulgence in physical decay and dank sexual obsessions. All these associations seem hackneyed, even de-grading, after a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition "Gothic: art for England 1400-1547".

It opens in the aftermath of Henry Bolingbroke's seizure of the English throne from Richard II and closes in the year of Henry VIII's death. This is the blood-drenched, strife-torn period of the Battle of Agincourt and the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare's great history plays, Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III, make us think of it as an era of English military triumphs over foreign rivals and of ruinous civil wars.

One of the glories of this exhibition is its insistence that 15th-century England was not a dark age for the visual arts, but a time when kings, noblemen, bishops and merchants were munificent patrons of the arts. Nor was it a time of unrelent- ing militaristic insularity: the wealthy patrons had a cosmopolitan outlook and commissioned craftsmen not only from England but also from France and the Low Countries.

Late gothic architecture, known as the Perpendicular Style, produced wonderful parish churches, especially in East Anglia, in addition to the magnificent King's College Chapel in Cambridge, but this exhibition is not really concerned with buildings. Instead, its curator, Richard Marks, has assembled a diverse mixture of sculpture, painting, tapestry, illuminated books, church vestments and artefacts, stained glass, tableware, coins, seals, armour, weaponry, and so on.

The display of power, possessions, status and family ties was crucial to this art. The great doors at the entrance to the exhibition are flanked by the four formidable Dacre Beasts - a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram (each with a splendid phallus) and a silver dolphin. These heraldic symbols, all carved from the same oak, dominated the great hall of the Dacres' castle in Cumbria and still seem an intimidating declaration of the family's power.

The next exhibit is a crown made for Edward IV's sister Margaret of York. One of only two medieval English crowns still in existence, it was probably worn by Margaret when she married Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1468. Made of silver-gilt and decorated with pearls, precious stones and enamelled white roses, it is surprisingly unflamboyant yet extremely beautiful.

The textiles on show are particularly sumptuous. Henry VII's velvet heral- dic cope, made in Florence and worn by his son Henry VIII for his rendezvous with the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, is conspicuous even among all the other objects of luxury and display. And the silk velvet cope worn by Cardinal Morton (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1485), embroidered with angels and eagles, shows church vestments at their most richly decorated.

The examples of metalwork are equally exciting, and it is worth visiting this exhibition just to see Bishop Fox's silver-gilt crosier, with small figures of the 12 apostles and his swan motif, or the gorgeous early 15th-century silver wine flagons and salt cellars from All Souls College, Oxford. The gilt-bronze effigy of Richard, Earl of Warwick, dating from the 1440s and borrowed from the Beauchamp chapel in Warwick, is the sole surviving English example of its kind for anyone other than a member of the royal family, and it looks disturbingly surreal in the secular surroundings of the V&A.

There is evidence everywhere of the skilled craftsmanship available to Eng-lish patrons at this time. In addition to the Books of Hours, with their exqui- site colour and detail, and the musical scores, there are other first-class examples of book-making. The vellum book that originated in Henry V's commission for a history of the destruction of Troy is as detailed as a tapestry with its illustrated margins depicting castles and landscapes.

The saddest room in the exhibition is devoted to church artefacts. The Reformation was a disaster for the visual arts. The richly coloured interiors of late gothic churches were dismantled or destroyed: bejewelled shrines, gold or silver altarpieces, rood screens and woodcarvings were all annihilated. Thus the objects on display here are rare survivals. They include a glittering brass eagle-shaped lectern of 1500, which was rescued from a lake in Nottinghamshire, and a late medieval oil painting of the Last Judgement on boards, known as the Penn Doom. This was rediscovered in Buckinghamshire 1938, when the oak boards were thrown into a churchyard during restoration work and rain swept away centuries-old whitewash.

The most pathetic survival is a carved oak figure of Christ on the cross, the only pre-Reformation crucifix surviving in Britain (although fragments exist of three others). It came from a church in Cumbria, and its feet are burned, either because Protestant vandals threw it into a general conflagration or because later generations used it as a poker for the vestry fire. These exhibits show the Christianity of pre-Reformation England as a distinctive combination of the local and the universal, the material and the ideal.

This exhibition brings alive a misunderstood, neglected period of English his-tory. The lighting is notably successful, with areas of sombre shadow contrasting with colour and brightness, like a great stage production of Macbeth. This staginess is appropriate: 15th-century English art was dramatic and ostentatious, a matter of codes and symbols designed to impress or awe. It was also calm, graceful and resolute.

"Gothic: art for England 1400-1547" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2211) until 18 January 2004

Richard Davenport-Hines is the author of Gothic: 400 years of excess, horror, evil and ruin (Fourth Estate)