Museum of London acquires rare medieval annunciation panels.

  • 8 December 2006

The Museum of London has acquired a pair of medieval annunciation panels with the help of an Art Fund grant.

The Art Fund has helped the Museum of London acquire an extremely rare and beautiful example of medieval religious painting - The Westminster Panels. The Panels were acquired for £190,000, with a £56,430 grant from The Art Fund. Additional funding was secured from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and private donors.

Commissioned by or for George Fascet, Abbot of Westminster from 1498-1500, the Panels depict the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin standing on plinths which bear the shield of arms of Westminster Abbey and the Abbot himself. Apart from the ‘Tate’ panels (in All Hallows church, Barking) and the Withypool Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) there are no examples of medieval painting on show to the public in London that can be related, as The Westminster Panels can, to an individual Londoner.

The Panels are an outstanding example of medieval religious painting with an English provenance. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and subsequent iconoclasm in England there was mass destruction of religious art – as a consequence the vast majority of medieval paintings now in public collections were acquired from Continental sources during the 19th and 20th centuries and have no connection with this country in the medieval period. They were discovered in 1875, listed in an inventory of the collection of the Earls of Mount Edgcumbe at Cotehele House in Cornwall in 1875. They were sold at auction to a private trust in 1975 and placed on long term loan to Leeds Castle in Kent.

The Panels are late 15th-century oil paintings, on oak, and it is likely that they originally formed the wings of a retable (screen behind an altar) or doors of a tabernacle (shrine). The panels may have been painted in London by an immigrant or transient German artist as the design and style betray German traditions of the time. The artist is unknown but the work has been identified as of the Lower Saxony School. A different hand was responsible for the shields of arms, probably a heraldic specialist. The painting is highly detailed – the artist uses vibrant colours with gold stamped gesso grounds. In their original setting, probably illuminated by candles, the figures would have looked magnificent standing out against the shimmering gold background.

The Panels will go on display in the new Medieval London Gallery at the Museum of London from 9 December.

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