Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Wellingham is a remote little hamlet in the middle of Norfolk to the south of Fakenham. It's church, heavily rebuilt in 1896 is rather undistinguished, but it contains a great treasure. The dado of a rood screen from the 1530s.
Rather interestingly the screen is inscribed and precisely dated. The inscription on the upper part of the dado tells is that it was painted in 1532, right on the eve of the Reformation and that the painting was paid for by a group of parishioners working collectively, including Robert Dorant, his two wives Isabel and Beatrice and John Neell, among others. The images on the screen are a rag tag of different figures, including St George and St Michael, perhaps reflecting corporate decision making in the choice of iconography?
When you examine the south portion of the screen (see photo above) it is clear from the large rectangular unpainted section of the dado, that a side altar was once placed here in the nave up against the screen. The area above the blank space incorporates two small scale painted panels, that formed, in effect, a painted altarpiece. The second of these panels is sadly obliterated, but the first, though damaged by deliberate iconoclasm, is still in good condition. It is this image, unusual on a rood screen, but common in early sixteenth century art and popular devotion, that I would like to focus on in this article.
The image is a standard image from the late medieval iconographic stable: the Man of Sorrows, or the Image of Pity. Christ is rising from the tomb, he is displaying the wounds of his Crucifixion for all to see. He is surrounded by the instruments of his passion, brutal instruments of torture. Behind him is his cross, above his head the words 'Ecce homo' behold the man - the words that Pontius Pilate uttered as he showed Jesus to the people. This is an image we are to consistently behold, to linger upon, to deeply process.
The image painted here in Wellingham was an image that became hugely popular during the fourteenth century and it occurs not only as a separate and isolated image as it is here, but also as part of the equally popular image of the miraculous Mass of St Gregory. It was reproduced three dimensionally, in fine art, in panel paintings and with the burgeoning print trade at the end of the fifteenth century, as a woodcut with a plenary indulgence attached to it. The popularity of this image and the image of Our Lady of Pity, the Pieta, Mary holding the dead body of Christ, reflects the developing intensity of late medieval Eucharistic theology. In the image from Wellingham, the Eucharistic symbolism of the image is clear. Christ is displaying the wound in his side to us - from which issues a rivulet of his blood.
At the altar below this image, the priest would mix water and wine in the chalice symbolically representing the water and blood that flowed from Christ's side. As he elevated the chalice, the doctrine of Transubstantiation developed in the medieval west, held that the water and wine became the very blood of Christ. The Image of Pity, the Man of Sorrows in this liturgical context, helps to underline the prevailing Eucharistic theology - it is incorporated into this altarpiece to create an intense visual experience for priest and people at mass. This image was so potent, it so summed up the intensity of late medieval Eucharistic theology (a theology that the Reformation tried to distance the English church from), that a reformer has gouged away the face of Christ. Christ was was no doubt gazing outwards to meet the eyes of the kneeling worshipper at mass - beholding us, as we are to behold his image.
There is another dimension to this image at Wellingham that is important to draw to your attention. Above the head of Christ on either side are two small diminutive heads. To the left is King Herod, bearded and crowned.
To the right is the high priest Caiphas, plump and double-chinned in the scarlet cap of a cardinal.
This screen was put up in 1532, is this therefore Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey portrayed as Herod and Caiphas? By 1532 Wolsey Henry's high priest had already fallen from grace and had died having failed to achieve the king's divorce. In these images do we perhaps have here a political critique of the changing face of England?
Saturday, 26 November 2011
The first example dates from c.1450 and is the earliest of the two patens I will show you. The paten was originally parcel-gilt, but very little of the gilding now remains. I suspect that some of it was lost in the nineteenth century, when the paten was restored. In the centre of the paten is a depressed sextfoil and this is decorated with a full-frontal bust of Christ set against a cross-hatched ground. This image, the Vernicle, is the commonest form of decoration on surviving English patens. Others in the group are decorated similarly with the Manus Dei, the Hand of God appearing in blessing from a cloud and the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. Like a lot of early English plate the paten is not marked.
Wednesday, 9 November 2011
St Nicholas, Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast, has a floor that it well worthy of study as a considerable amount of it is late medieval. The church was completed in 1503 with the internal division, rood and parclose screen added ten years later.
Rather than being tiled with the sort of patterned encaustics that were common in the thirteenth and fourteenth century; the sixteenth century tiles at Salthouse appear to have being laid in a simple chequerboard pattern, with a counterchange of black and yellow and in some cases green glazed tiles. The floor is worn with many years use, but there are sufficient patches where the glaze still adheres particularly against the walls of the nave and in the north and south chancel chapels, to suggest that the whole eastern part of the church was tiled in this manner. Where the original tiles have become broken or have been disturbed for burial they have in some cases been replaced with brick. That is certainly the case with the centre of the chancel.
In the chancel between the stalls and forming part of the original floor there, is the chalice brass of rector Robert Fevyr who died in 1519. The brass is let into slab of purbeck marble and there is a similar slab in the south chancel chapel. With all the red encaustic around them, these purbeck slabs rather stick out, but when originally laid amid the black and yellow tiling would have blended in rather well.
Salthouse also retains the dadoes of the rood and parclose screens, all vibrantly coloured. The figurative work of the screen are backed with a ground of counterchanged red and green, a counterchange that is also continued onto the stencilled backs of the parclose screens.
The visual effect of all this paint work, with the counterchanged tiling, and the textiles and hangings and sculpture that must have adorned the sanctuary and high altar, would have been really rather vibrant, something in appearance to the manuscript illustration below. They were certainly not afraid of colour.
Monday, 7 November 2011
The grand Perpendicular church at Ludham to the north-west of Norwich, has it's fair share of remarkable treasures, a lovely fifteenth century hammerbeam roof covering the nave a fine early Tudor rood screen with painted panels of saints on the dado, including Henry VI. He is not that unusual an inclusion as the deposed king had quite cult in the reign of his nephew Henry VII. The arch above the screen has something more remarkable, a tympanum painted rather crudely with a rood group.
The central figure of Christ crucified, who is on a cross decorated with th symbols of the Evangelists, is flanked by various figures. The usual figures of Our Lady and the beloved disciple are there, but also included St John the Baptist and the centurion Longinus, who is in piercing the side of Christ with his spear. On either side of the tableau are figures of feathered archangels, both rather chunky and clumsy looking. The whole thing is supported by rood beam decorated with barber's pole striping.
Our Lady and Longinus
Archangel and Our Lady
Our Lord, above he symbol of St John the Evangelist.
The winged lion of St Mark.
The tympanum is a rather crude affair, in great contrast to the fine and rather masterly painting of the screen below. The panel is so clumsy as it was properly hastily painted as a temporary affair. The dress of the figures and the initials J and B identifying the Baptist, are in a mid sixteenth century font and on that basis it has been suggested that the painting belongs to the reign of Mary Tudor and therefore forms part of the hasty refurbishment of the church for Catholic worship following the destruction of the reign of Edward VI, when the original rood would have been destroyed. How did it survive the reign of Elizabeth I?
Well if you go the back of the tympanum that becomes clear, the back is now covered with a canvas representation of the royal arms of Queen Bess, which once covered the rood. Where the people of Ludham hedging their bets, expecting a change of religion once again and the uncovering of their new rood.? At a later date the whole typanum and the royal arms were taken down and stored in the rood stairs, to be disoverered by an antiquarian society on their annual excursion in the ninteenth century.
Monday, 28 March 2011
to the 70s Lenten array I posted earlier. Henry Thorold described the chancel at Waithe in Lincolnshire with its tad excessive Minton tiling as all 'shining and polychromatic like a Turkish Bath'. In 1861 George Haigh of Grainsby commisioned Louth architect James Fowler to rebuild the derelict medieval church at Waithe as a family mausoleum. Fowler built a complete new church in the Early English style around the remaining Saxo-Norman tower of the late 11th century. As well as the elaborate encuastic tile work in the chancel, Fowler incorporated into the decoration lozenge shaped memorials to members of the Haigh family who are buried in a vault beneath.