This year’s crop of art books for Christmas is the usual mixed bunch, and if they have anything in common, it is their general lack of festive associations. The one exception is M. A. Michael’s Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral (Scala, £25), a beautifully illustrated picture book with an exemplary and truly instructive text, which includes the Magi not having a notably cold coming of it among its panoply of more and less familiar religious scenes. Naturally, the lion’s share of the images is of mediaeval glass, and they are accompanied by handy diagrams detailing exactly which pieces are replaced or repainted, but more recent additions, such as Sir Ninian Comper’s commemoration of King George VI and of the Queen’s coronation, also have their place.
The ecclesiastical theme is pursued in a very different idiom in Sandra Berresford’s extraordinary Italian Memorial Sculpture 1820-1940 (Frances Lincoln, £40), a celebration of some of the most bizarre and hideous works of art ever produced. I have whizzed past the grandiose entrance to the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan in the past, and I suspect that when I go there next week, I will ask the taxi driver to keep his foot firmly on the accelerator, but it has to be admitted that these strange tableaux — deathbed scenes aplenty, and acres of marmoreal naked flesh — are compellingly awful. How kind of the author and her heroic photographers to save the rest of us all that morbid wandering.
The art market is hoping that the Russian oligarchs are going to prove to be the stars of the next generation of mega-collectors, and I would certainly much rather spend my roubles on the Badminton Cabinet than another playmaker for Chelsea, so the publication of Oleg Neverov’s Great Private Collections of Imperial Russia (Thames & Hudson, £45) is extremely timely.