Rock of ages

Art - Sue Hubbard finds long-hidden medieval sculptures resting on new plinths at Tate Britain

In the past few weeks, the church has pronounced the virtual death of Christianity as a force in this country. With multifaith religious instruction the norm in most schools, who, any longer, knows the Bible's stories, let alone anything of the hierarchy of saints or the religious iconography so familiar to those who inhabited the medieval world? So what is a modern audience likely to make of a new exhibition of medieval sculpture at Tate Britain, curated by the medievalist Phillip Lindley and installed by the artist Richard Deacon? What readings and what relevance can such an exhibition have?

Many visitors to Tate Britain must have wondered what came before the ranks of po-faced 16th-century portraits and genre paintings that form the beginning of the gallery's collection. In fact, the art that followed the Reformation resulted directly from the fierce battles that were fought over the role of religious imagery - particularly figure sculpture - between the Catholic Church and the new Protestantism. The clash of ideologies almost totally obliterated the religious images of the Middle Ages, and continued to have an effect on sculpture from the 16th until the 19th centuries.

Central to the debate was the exhortation from Exodus: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Yet the highly skilled craftsmen of the 15th and 16th centuries produced increasingly naturalistic images for churches and cathedrals, often heavily painted and studded with gems. But it was their very skill, which often seemed to blur the line between the image and what it represented, that many believed encouraged the slide into superstition. Some, like the Virgin at Walsingham, were endowed with particular potency, as was St Wilgefortis of St Paul's (a beautiful virgin given a beard to keep her chaste), and were prayed to by women to rid themselves of undesirable husbands. With the radical reform movements arriving from northern Europe and a return to the fundamentals of scriptural text made possible by the new processes of printing, the battle lines were drawn between word and image. The result was that, in English and Welsh churches between the early 1530s and roughly 1650, around 98 per cent of statuary was destroyed in a glut of Protestant iconoclasm.

The works for the Tate exhibition have been borrowed predominantly from churches and cathedrals across England and Wales. At the centre is the Tree of Jesse, the largest surviving wooden sculpture from the 15th century. Carved in oak, it has never been seen outside its home church, St Mary's Priory in Abergavenny.

However, this is not simply an arcane display of rare items, but rather an exhibition that seeks, through the interventions of Richard Deacon, to create new historical perspectives and, inevitably, new ways of reading these artefacts. Inspired by the experience of seeing the huge hand of Ramses II being moved for the reinstallation of the British Museum's Egyptian galleries in the 1970s, when the sculpture seemed to become dynamically alive, Deacon was concerned that the work shown here was enhanced by, at the same time as adding to, the architectural space of the long Duveen Gallery, so that the viewer has a sense of an object's weight and its vulnerability. "New plinths for old sculptures", is how he describes the style-breaking bases he has created, juxtaposing contemporary materials with medieval alabaster and limestone. In the centre of the gallery, 13th-century effigies of knights in full armour (somewhat reminiscent of Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly), with one open eye peeping through the slit in their helmets as they await the Resurrection, lie on mattresses of shiny aluminium tread plates on low plinths of grey MDF, while a finely preserved St George and Dragon (c1510), from Eton College, sits aloft a tall, black, painted steel column like some sort of medieval Nelson.

Even though one of the central aims of the exhibition is to bring historic sculpture to new audiences, this daring installation allows viewers to project their own interpretations on to the work, which, for most of us, consists of relics and fragments emptied of their original symbolic meanings. And yet, as Deacon says, "these objects are survivors" and "this rich imagery" provides the background against which British art was formed. Although these pieces would have looked very different, with their polychrome surfaces, to the pilgrims who visited them at Wells or Winchester cathedrals, there is something about their stripped, spare beauty, emphasised by this new display, that appeals to a modern sensibility. While we may not be able to relate to them by drawing immediately on the context of the biblical stories that they were originally created to illustrate, they seem now like silent witnesses to the process of history. Reformations, revolutions and regicide, world wars and the nuclear age, these sculptures have seen them all.

"Image and Idol: medieval sculpture" is at Tate Britain (020 7887 8008) until 3 March 2002

Sue Hubbard is a freelance critic and award-winning poet. Her first novel, Depth of Field, is published by Dewi Lewis

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture