Do cultural shards have any impact?

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Almost the very first thing you see in the Victoria and Albert's new exhibition of English Gothic art is a sword.

Almost the very first thing you see in the Victoria and Albert's new exhibition of English Gothic art is a sword. It's a sword of state, which the heraldic arms suggest belonged to a Prince of Wales, although it isn't certain which one. As these things go it is in pretty good condition - although good is a relative term. The gilt has rubbed off the hilt, leaving the copper alloy visible, the pommel has lost one of its enamel badges and the blade is spotted with small stains of rust. The sword dates from about 1473 and it makes an interesting contrast with another blade, also dating from the 15th century. This one is just a few rooms away in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese art and is the work of a master sword-maker called Morimitsu. The Morimitsu blade is as pristine as an unused scalpel - the only marks on its immaculate steel being the gunome choji-hamon, an undulating tempering line which is regarded as a crucial part of a Japanese sword's beauty. One object is blunted by history, the other cuts clean through it and the way they clash provokes some thoughts about durability - and what it does to our perceptions of past cultures.

We are used to thinking of the durability of works of art largely in terms of their abstract qualities. The live question is one of emotional or aesthetic resilience and the matter of a work's physical robustness is broadly left to the specialists as a secondary issue. It is a conservator's job to worry about bits dropping off - it is our task to wonder whether the work's impact has dropped off too, under the friction of changing attitudes and styles. But the physical condition of a piece of art is never entirely separable from how we feel about it - and that is surely as true of Gothic art as it is of any. As Richard Marks, the curator of the V&A show notes in the catalogue, "a lethal combination of war, changing religious ideologies, financial imperatives, cupidity and fragility, fashion and taste has dealt severely with the products of the Middle Ages."

In other words what we see here - as impressive a collection as it is - are the shards of a culture. In some cases the remaining pieces are a mere fraction of the original: "Total surviving church plate from the years 1400-1547 would not suffice to have serviced even a large parish church...let alone a cathedral or a monastic environment", Marks writes. Although wood was the dominant media for sculpture very few works have survived the bonfires of the iconoclasts. And though there are objects here that are wonderfully untarnished - including four of Dick Whittington's silver spoons or Holbein's glowing portrait of A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling - they are the exceptions. "This is one of the finest surviving alabasters" reads the caption on a sculpture of St George and the dragon - and yet St George has lost his arm, the maiden has lost her head, the lance and sword have gone and the shield has been nibbled like a biscuit. What survives makes it look as if survival has been hard won. That naturally alters the impact of the work on us. Most of the pieces in this exhib-ition were commissioned in a swagger of confidence. They are intended - the religious works too - as assertions of prosperity. In a straightforwardly literal sense they were superb - (from the Latin superbus - arrogant or conceited) and though superbia was one of the cardinal sins in medieval theology, anxieties about that seem to have been easily quelled by including some kind of formal disclaimer ("I'm not showing off, honest").

In the words of the great medieval historian Johan Huizinga, "all things in life were of a proud or cruel publicity". And if you wanted to advertise your piety or power, art was pretty much the only medium available.

Now, though, the defining quality of these works would be a kind of pathos. When you see the sculpted Head of God the Father which was discovered during renovation works in Winchester Cathedral in 1885 you may well be startled by the quality of the sculpture, by a naturalism which you might not always expect from gothic sculpture. But your feelings about that can't easily be separated from the fact that the figure is badly wounded. One cheek has been knocked away and there is a deep round gouge in the figure's beard. For 350 years after the theological demolition men came to Winchester this was just an unusually expressive bit of rubble, mixed in with the hard core. What was originally intended as a spectacle of majesty is now unavoidably an image of majesty dethroned.

The late middle ages are also a lot less colourful than they would once have been. The paint has eroded from the polychrome statues or darkened to a drabber tone. The tapestries have faded from a blaze of colour to a dusty shadow of what they were. So the prevailing tone is one of elegy and loss. Curiously, the works that have survived with their spirit most intact are those which already carried a funereal warning. The cadaver tomb of John Baret, a lifesize sculpture of an emaciated corpse, is superb in a modern sense - and it still does now pretty much what it did then, which is to direct the mind towards death and towards the transitory nature of flesh. Once it would have struck a contradictory note against the boastful glory of the objects around it - but now it speaks for them all.