In contrast to preconceived ideas about the Middle Ages as a dark period of struggle and superstition, fear and ignorance, the show explores a view of the Middle Ages as a time of great artistic talent and cultural development, of profound political, religious and economic changes. These objects from the British Museum testify to the rich material culture of both the ruling elites and other medieval communities, offering a glimpse of shared themes from across medieval Europe, such as the splendour of the royal courts, the central role that the Church played in everyday life, the formation of states and the expansion of urban centres.
Although historians employ the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” with a certain degree of flexibility, generally speaking these terms are used to designate the period in the history of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth.
Over the course of this period, major changes affected all levels of society. The Europe of the sixteenth century was very different from the world of the fifth. All over the continent, splendid cathedrals and castles were built, many of them still standing even today, and urban expansion transformed the landscape. As the power and status of rulers increased, so borders and cultures became more firmly established, laying the foundations for the modern European nationstates. The Church dominated everyday life and attitudes, while the expansion of trade routes, both within Europe and beyond, led to an increase in contacts between cultures. Skilled artisans created ornate works, rich in extraordinary detail, generating a world of light and colour. However, despite all this splendour and evident wealth, the majority of people lived in poverty. Visitors will see how dramatic events, such as the Black Death, The Crusades and the Wars of the Roses affected life in Europe and shaped the continent we know today.
The Pillars of Europe includes a total of 262 works, of which 243 are from the collections of the British Museum. The show is completed by 19 pieces from the National Museum of Archaeology, the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the Frederic Marès Museum. These additional objects serve as a counterpoint to the exhibition discourse, enriching it by including the perspective of realms in southern Europe.