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`English Gothic' - of home-grown kings and national consciousness

THIS APPEARED IN THE 1/4/88 WORLD EDITION THEY might have called it ``the English Gothic Show.'' More appealingly, perhaps, they opted for ``Age of Chivalry'' and subtitled it ``Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400.''

It is, at any rate, a most elaborate affair here at the Royal Academy of Arts, with spectacular stained glass finely displayed, ecclesiastical furnishings, textiles, stone and wood carvings, jewelry, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, brass-rubbings, and photographs and paintings to fill out the picture of the art of the age.

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It was an age dominated in England by its kings - the Plantagenets. And they were, significantly, Englishmen. There was a growth of national consciousness (and rivalry with France). The English language made great strides towards vitality and revival as the influence of the Normans receded into the past: The last half of the 14th century produced Chaucer, the court poet who not only wrote in English but also poked fun at English-speaking prioresses who preteniously used too much French. The English Parliament gradually appeared and then made quick strides in the late 13th and 14th centuries, and Oxford and Cambridge gained considerable prominence as centers of learning.

But, in terms of the visual arts, the inventiveness and wealth of this period was concentrated in the church. In church architecture, the lightness and elegance of the ``Gothic'' style - as opposed to the more massive solidities of the earlier Romanesque - developed. This was the age of the pointed arch, of rib vaults and fan vaults, of soaring stained glass windows. Gothic in England continues after 1400, but as seen here it had three phases - ``Early English'' (ca. 1190-1250), ``Decorated'' (ca. 1250-1360) and ``Perpendicular'' (ca. 1330-1550).

The great cathedrals built (or transformed) in these styles can be hinted at in photographs. And a painter like Turner - as seen in a watercolor in the show - can convey something of the glories of space and structure of Ely Cathedral's octagonal crossing (the place where the transepts cross the nave). But architecture has to be experienced in all its size and three-dimensions. This, unavoidably, is a limitation on the show, as it was in the previous ``English Romanesque'' show in London in 1984.

But that said, and considering the destruction wrought on the opulence and image-making of the churches and monasteries during the Reformation and again during Cromwell's Protectorate, there is so much of interest in this exhibition that a season-ticket is surely necessary (not to mention some form of supermarket cart for the encyclopedic catalog).

Certain treasures stand out: The crown for a princess - a sweet piece of goldsmithery. The carved and painted effigy of Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, lying there with his legs elegantly crossed, his hand reaching for his sword. The Hereford World Map - with Jerusalem at its center. And there's stained glass at almost every turn.

On display are scores of pilgrims' lead badges or souvenirs. These talismans of the cultish devotion to particular saints and their shrines witness to the popularity of such journeying. Few of these examples of medieval bric-a-brac are attractive. Today they would be made of gaudy plastic.

For devotees of seals and coins, this show is also notably generous. There are fine illuminated manuscripts. There are all kinds of artifacts, large and small: tiles and swords and jugs, a bell, a mortar, chess pieces, heraldic shields, spurs and daggers.

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Utterly appealing are the misericords. These are the hinged seats that, when tipped up, gave some support to clergymen and choristers when they had to stand for hours in the churches. Tipping them up also reveals delightful carvings on the undersides of the seats, invariably in oak. More or less hidden from view - like the corbels and bosses that formed part of the roof structure of the churches (there are some good examples of these too) - these misericord carvings encouraged a fascinating freedom of expression. Examples here depict such things as a joust (the toppled knight not at all happy), a cat and mouse, a fighting couple, a riddle, and a ``wodehouse'' (a wild, hairy man) on a lion. Chaucer called such things ``babewinnes'' (literally ``baboon scenes''); they are evidence of the gothic love of grotesqueries and satire. They seem to put us in touch with the lives of ordinary people who are not otherwise depicted - except as peasants in Books of Hours or on stained glass windows.

The question of image-making to the medieval English church - which flourished despite ecclesiastical doubts about the dangers of idolatry - is discussed in the exhibition catalog in an essay called ``Attitudes to the Visual Arts.'' Though there were people who wanted to enhance their reputation by the rich decoration of their church, the use of visual delight ``to the glory of God'' was doubtless sincerely felt. The following passage by Robert Grossteste, Bishop of Lincoln, suggests the medieval attitude to what we now call ``the visual.''

``Light,'' he wrote, ``is beautiful in itself because its nature is simple ... it is most uniform and, because of its equality, stands in most harmonious proportion to itself: and the harmony of proportions is beautiful.'' This sounds almost classical. But that, as the Renaissance artists and theorists took pains to point out, was the one thing ``Gothic'' art was not. But if that was meant to imply that it was all ugly and crude, this show impressively shows how wrong they were. Through March 6.

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