(Above) Donatello and the Making of Art, 1400-1500 (artist's impression). © MUMA
The Medieval and Renaissance gallery, the 11-suite, £31.8 million story of European art and symbolic conclusion of a decade-long £120 million overhaul at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has opened at the London institution to a rapturous reception from critics.
A day-lit emporium built on glass beams, the themed galleries position dramatic sculptures next to an artificial courtyard complete with trees and water.
Exhibits chosen from the past 1,000 years include pieces by Donatello, a Florentine chapel, St Thomas Becket’s Casket, statuettes and the Dutch Troy Tapestry, displayed for the first time in 20 years following thousands of hours of conservation work.
Giovanni Bologna (Giambologna), Samson Slaying A Philistine (circa 1560-62). © V and A Images
The Rise of the Gothic section is dedicated to 13th century stained glass from France, but five small notebooks used by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th and early 16th century are probably the most high-profile exhibits, galvanised by an interactive screen allowing visitors to study the pages in minute detail.
"Don't imagine that you can even begin to come to terms with the display in one visit," wrote Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times.
"The V and A encourages us to see beyond the purely aesthetic value of objects. It tries to give them another voice. It tries to let them sing — sometimes quite literally," she added, observing a choir book in the Faiths and Empires gallery which visitors can listen to through a headset as they peruse the four floors.
Renaissance City 1350-1600, "inside the church" (artist's impression). © MUMA
The Telegraph's Richard Dorment surmised the capacity the Museum has to frustrate in a glowingly relieved report, having "raced through galleries that need a lifetime to see properly" as he potentially "left out whole schools of art, entire mediums, and some of the most famous treasures in a world famous collection."
He praised architects MUMA and the resident curators for creating "a triumph", echoed by the Guardian's Jonathan Jones, who broke out various superlatives before settling on "wonderful" for his finale.
The Symmachi panel Late Antique (Rome) (circa 400). © V and A images
The team behind the new set-up may feel some vindication at the response. Most notably boosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund – to the tune of £10 million – the project began in 2001, and extensive mock-up sessions have been informing negotiations on the intricacies of the galleries since July 2007.
A shortlist of key dates to cover was drawn up in June 2008, and Gallery Educator Stuart Frost spoke of a "timeline conundrum" between the dual options of a graphic timeline or the rundown of key facts between 300 and 1600AD he ultimately decided to use.
Reliquary casket of St Thomas Becket French (Limoges) (circa 1180-90). Support from National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and other benefactors, © V&A images
"I often find it hard to believe that I have been working on the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project since June 2002," he said.
"There were four of us at the first project meeting. Now the project impacts on just about everybody working at the V&A in some way. It is hard to believe that after so many years the project is almost finished."
Tapestry depicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt (detail). © V and A Medieval and Renaissance, Flickr
Frost has been part of intense debate about the 1,800 objects featured. "Mounting and fixing has been coming ever closer to the fore," he said.
"Every object to be displayed in the new galleries has been the subject of discussion to establish how it can be displayed to best effect.
"If an object is displayed too far back from the front of a case, or if the angle it is displayed at isn't quite right, visitors will be unable to fully enjoy the object.
"Many exhibition cases bear the marks left by visitor's noses or foreheads in their desperate attempts to get a good view of a beautiful object.
"Some objects are too fragile to be displayed at the ideal angle for a visitor, so finding the ideal solution can be a challenge."
The gallery in progress. © Stuart Frost, vam.ac.uk
Frost feels the Renaissance City room, chronicling the period between 1350 and 1600, will become a particular highlight.
"It is remarkable to see how the gallery spaces have been transformed," he observed.
"The vast size of the space and many of the objects within it will create a dramatic space that will be beautifully lit.
"It will also be a wonderful space for a wide range of events and for simply sitting, relaxing and contemplating."
Opens December 2 2009. Admission free.
Visit Stuart Frost’s blog for all the inside information on the galleries and the stories behind the exhibits, and head to the Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries homepage for more explanations, videos and history on the displays.