The exhibition presents relics of art dating back to feudal times from different Western European countries. In the Hermitage there are some excellent, and in many cases unique examples of Romanesque and Gothic styles, made by craftsmen whose names are now unknown.
The ecclesiastic, religious character of the culture of medieval society is reflected in both the style and the function of the items displayed in the exhibition.
The coins (case 1) help us to re-create the motley political map of feudal Europe. The most interesting are the coins of the barbaric kingdoms which arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire, the denarii from the times of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and his successors the Carlovingians, coins of the French duchies of Normandy, Aquitaine and Touraine, German bracteates bearing the images of feudal ecclesiastics, coins of the conquerors of Sicily-the Normans, and the currency units of Western European possessions in the East-the principality of Antioch, the province of Tripoli-tania and the kingdom of Jerusalem which were formed as a result of the holy crusades.
In a number of cabinets are displayed items of church-plate, the work of twelfth and thirteenth century goldsmiths and silversmiths. The reliquary in the form of the figure of a deacon is a unique work of Romanesque style, made in France in the twelfth century. This statuette, intended for preserving holy relics, was produced by beating thin, gilded silver plate on to a wooden core, and it is embellished with filigree and semi-precious stones. The fine workmanship of the facial features of the figure is particularly striking.
A typical example of French Gothic art is the large, thirteenth century processional cross bearing the figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, and adorned with a delicately made design consisting of oak and vine leaves.
There are a great many examples in the exhibition of champleve enamel on copper, for which the French city of Limoges was famous in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Most of these are reliquaries in the form of caskets with roof-shaped lids, or figures of the Madonna, panels for facing altars, ornamental book mounts, basins for washing the hands, and candlesticks. Remarkable for the freshness of the colours and the virtuosity of its workmanship is the twelfth century casket with the representation of scenes from the life of Sainte Valerie, the patroness of the city of Limoges (case 6).
In the Middle Ages the art of ivory carving came to be widely practised. The twelfth century walrus ‘ ivory chessmen (case 3) are among the few extant articles pertaining to secular life. Among the fourteenth century household objects there are some jewellery caskets, knives with ivory handles, and shallow boxes for keeping mirrors (cabinet 16, cases 2 and 9). In the small French sculptures (cabinet 16), the majority of which depict the Virgin whose cult was widespread in the Middle Ages, it is possible to trace the transition from the Romanesque style to the Gothic. In the thirteenth century figure of the seated Virgin there are still many features of Romanesque style: it is heavy, stiff and somewhat primitively executed. Next to it the fourteenth century Gothic statuette appears light and full of life; the Virgin is standing, the torso leaning back slightly, and a conventional smile animates her face. At one time the sculpture was brightly painted and gilded in parts. Two cabinets contain an interesting collection of fancy-shaped bronze water vessels, so-called aquamaniles, dating from the twelfth to fourteenth century; see the figure of a horseman blowing a bugle, a knight fighting with a winged dragon, a lion with a fluffy mane and bared teeth, a triton and others.
Medieval ceramics are represented by some Hispano-Moresque lustre ware from Malaga and Valencia. Outstanding among these examples is the famous “Fortuny Vase”, named after the Spanish painter Fortuny who found it in 1871 in the village of Salar near Granada. This fourteenth century vase, made for the palace of Alham-bra in the potteries of Malaga, is the earliest of the decorative objects from Alhambra that have been preserved. The fine artistic quality and the exceptionally good state of preservation ensure a special place for the “Fortuny Vase” among the ceramics in the museum.
On display in the exhibition are also some medieval fabrics, embroideries, weapons, furniture and stained glass.