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Questioning the Collection: Enamelled Plaque

March 5, 2017

Silver, enamel, copper frame. Sienna, Italy. 1320-40. Ugolino di Vieri. Medieval and Renaissance, Room 50c, case 1. Museum no. 221-1874.

Sitting amongst the grandiose metalwork collection of the Victoria and Albert museum, the enamelled plaque is a small, yet beautiful artefact. Its use is unknown, but could perhaps be intended as an attachment to a glove. It conveys the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, one of the most significant stories in the western world and Christianity. The glass case that the plaque has been placed within is at the centre of a dark room, lit only from above by spotlights, creating reflections of the objects within onto the glass panels; almost like ghosts, intensifying the metal with a high-shine finish. Depicting a richness and high value of the inhabitants of the case. The plaque is a smaller object amongst a pax and monstrance, yet tells an important fragment of history in the Christian Church, furthermore an interesting perspective of wealth and faith in the Western world.

To some extent the display case is a reflection of the V&A’s strong connection and power in the Western world, housing many exquisite artefacts of the Christian Church, including alters and statues that have been ripped from their original location. This relationship to the world distinguishes the V&A and Britain as an empire, collecting or rather acquiring its artefacts in the name of great art, design, craft and curation.

The object itself is part of a ritual of faith and worship in the Church. The expensive properties of silver and enamel indicate that it belonged to a wealthy church, in particular, the colour blue indicates the luxury and the worth of the plaque. The Western world was universally Catholic until the 16th century, and an ornament such as this plaque would have played a significant role in the daily rituals within the faith. Yet, most notable is the imagery itself; the angel Gabriel kneels before Mary to foretell the birth of Jesus Christ, a momentous moment in the history of the Church. In relation to the V&A and the exhibition space, the plaque demonstrates the British Empire’s value on craftsmanship and religion, perpetuating the V&A as an institution of great power as it is able to acquire such an artefact, but also as a great curator of fine and significant objects.

What drew me to it was the size in relation to the surrounding objects, that dominate with expensive metals and depictions of Biblical stories, the plaque is small and could easily go unnoticed in such a case. Overall, this small plaque demonstrates both a rich history of wealth and faith within the Catholic Church, and a powerful empire valuing the curation of artefacts rather than the artefacts significance itself.

Matilda Engelmark

References:

Victoria and Albert Museum archive, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O114431/plaque-di-vieri-ugolino/

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