Stop. Look. Listen.
Yes, even the highway code will help you if you find yourself wandering through the rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. Trust me and read on.
Huge museums like the V&A can be a little daunting – so many rooms, so much to see. So this is a little post that focuses on just one room. Easy to find and perfect for a short visit, perhaps on a lunch break or if you find you’re in need of a starting point for a longer visit.
Where is it? Head through the main doors on Cromwell Road and go towards the central information desk. Turn right, past the sculptures, all the way to the end where you should find yourself in room 50b, part of the Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery. If you’re lost, here’s the map. The room looks like this:
What’s so great about this room? Well, two main things to note on our flying visit.
1. The Chapel
The chapel at the end of the room is the only Florentine Renaissance chapel outside Italy. It is literally a piece of Florence in the heart of London – cool right?
It was designed by a man called Giuliano da Sangallo (quite a mouthful, I know!) who was inspired by no other than Brunelleschi himself (architect of the famous cathedral dome that distinguishes Florence’s skyline).
The grey stone, known as pietra serena, has been used to create semi-circles and full circles throughout the architectural space that makes the little chapel light, spacious and airy. Quite different from the dark, gothic architecture that came before. See the full effect in the image below of Santo Spirito in Florence.
There is also a screen next to the V&A chapel that reconstructs what the original church would have looked like. Awesome – these clever history nerds.
2. The room itself
Granted, walking around a museum with endless glass cabinets of objects and paintings can be tedious for even those most keen about art. In room 50b, however, the V&A has changed things up a little, and arranged the objects as if you are walking into a church yourself.
The two altarpieces on the left and right, one sculptural
and the other painted, evoke small side chapels. There is a priest’s lectern to the right on a raised tiled floor where a bible would sit open. There is a pulpit by the entrance, an important architectural feature at a time when preaching to the masses played a crucial part in a clergyman’s career. Imagine the candelabra on the right piled high with candles dripping wax and the benches as pews.
The Poor Clares (the order of nuns worshipping in the original church of the V&A chapel) observed mass in a choir loft above the main entrance door, separated from the public in the nave. Low and behold – there is a bridge you can climb up to and look down at the ‘church’ yourself.
It’s a great spot for a museum selfie too…
Finally, can you see the two little side doors each side of the chapel? You can actually go in, around and out the other side whilst viewing the glittering, golden garments and objects that are hidden inside. Who doesn’t love a bit of sparkle?
All of these objects are part of the museum’s collection in their own right but when arranged together they help you to step back in time and view everything in some context.
Ok, so this is the bonus point to visiting this room.
Go and sit on the front bench and to your right you’ll find a pair of head phones. There is a small selection of tracks that offer further info on the chapel, the architect and Renaissance Florence. You can even listen to music that would have been sung by the Poor Clares.
Nothing is over 3 mins long and I recommend you go and have a little listen. It helps to bring the place alive and adds a focus point to your visit – Stop. Look. Listen.
I get it, sometimes you’re just not up for an Italian Renaissance church kinda pit-stop. But perhaps if you just step inside and focus on this room, you may well surprise yourself and find you enjoy a bit of time travel. There is loads of info on the objects on the V&A interactive map if you see something in particular that you’re interested in.
Plus, it’s free – what can you loose?…