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Rare medieval stained glass in new V&A gallery

The return from Egypt, from the Childhood of Christ, Gerhard Rhemish, 1500-1549. Museum no. C.246-1928.

The return from Egypt, from the Childhood of Christ, Gerhard Rhemish, 1500-1549. Museum no. C.246-1928.

The new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum has recently opened. Among the exhibits is a stunning collection of stained glass from Mariawald Abbey in Germany.

Set in a rural wooded area of the Rhineland just south-west of Cologne the Abbey has its origins in the mid 15th century, when a local thatcher is said to have acquired a statue of the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of her son Jesus - an image known as a 'Lamentation' or 'Pietà'. He placed it in a tree and then in a small chapel. Soon, reports of the statue's miracle-working powers began to draw large numbers of pilgrims. The chapel on the site was not large enough to accommodate them, so in 1480 the nearby Cistercian monastery at Bottenbroich financed a new abbey. Known as Mariawald (literally 'Mary forest'), the new abbey church was completed by 1539.

Cloisters, covered walkways attached to a monastery or church and enclosing an open courtyard, are usually open at the sides, but at Mariawald Abbey the cloister had glass windows. These were composed of clear and coloured glass with painted and stained details portraying events from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The entry to the cloister was through a door in the south-west corner. The stained glass began here, with panels depicting the Annunciation (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will bear a son). The visitor then walked clockwise around the cloister viewing the stories relating to the Life of Christ.

The windows were arranged so that these scenes fell into three sequences. The west walk was devoted to the Childhood of Christ, the north walk to the Miracles and Teachings, and the east walk to the Passion of Christ (the Crucifixion and the events leading up to it).

The V&A has many stained glass panels from the cloister at Mariawald Abbey. Some of these will be on display in Room 50 of the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries.

For more information see: www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/medieval/new_med_ren_galleries/objects/index.html