Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Dorchester Roman Catholic Church

The tiny Roman Catholic church of St Birinus in Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, has undergone a radical transformation over the course of the last three of four years. You might be secretly gasping in horror at the thought of the rood screen being pulled out and a destructive minimalist re-ordering, but you need not worry. Under it's parish priest Fr John Osman, a passionate enthusiast for Sir Ninian Comper, this Victorian church has had a Comperesque makeover. The church was originally built in the 1850s by architect William Wardell and the building was clearly constructed on a budget. What Fr Osman has done, arguably, is to apply the sort of decoration Wardell (a follower of Pugin) might have applied had the budget been greater.

Dorchester, St Birinus Catholic Church, Oxfordshire

The first part of the work saw the installation of an 'English altar', Wardell's stone reredos was retained, but the sides of the altar were newly enclosed with riddel posts and topped by four of Comper's gilded 'Nuremburg' angels.

Dorchester, St Birinus

New frontals have been acquired for the high altar and a set of Lenten Array to replace the traditional Roman violet during Lent.

When I was last in the church, work had started on transforming the rood screen, preparing it and the rood to receive rich polychromy and gilding. Looking recently at Lawrence OP's photostream on Flickr, I notice that the work on the screen has been completed and the newly decorated rood has returned to its place under the chancel arch. Houselling cloths have also been introduced at the screen, so that the faithful now receive through the openings of the screen. It all looks very glorious.

St Birinus from the entrance

St Birinus' Rood

Windows on the Holy Mystery

The votive images in the church have also had a bit of a spruce up and have been newly painted and gilded. The catalogue bought image of Our Lady has also been replaced with a glorious limewood copy of the fifteenth century alabaster image that is in the church at Ampleforth Abbey.

Our Lady at Dorchester

So what do people think? Is this just pastiche - a Comper theme park that breaks every single conservation principle? Is it what the church needs to serve the world today? I personally think that the result is magnificent and worth breaking conservation principle, it has a visual integrity and I look forward to seeing the work progress further. I think our spiritually moribund and over-wordy contemporary world needs more inspiring spaces like this, places that are other and can speak eloquently of the beauty and mystery of God. I know others will disagree.

You may be interested in Lawrence Lew's post over at the New Liturgical Movement.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Leave of Absence

Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

Please excuse the absence of posts over the next few days. I'm taking some time away to get some other work done. Normal service will resume next week.

The photo is of the F E Howard high altar at Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire, seen through the reja designed by Stephen Dykes Bower.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Gordon Plumb's photography

I want to draw your attention to the Flickr photostream of the Revd Gordon Plumb. http://www.flickr.com/photos/22274117@N08/
Gordon is associated, as I am, with the Corpus Vitreareum Medii Aevi (CVMA), the International project to catalogue the remaing medieval glass of Europe. www.cvma.ac.uk. He is one of the key photographers in Britain for this project and his work has appeared in all the recent volumes the project has published. Stained glass is extremely difficult to photograph, but Gordon is a master of his craft, his work, both in digital and film media, is undertaken with extreme skill. His work is underpinned with a great feel for the medium and a vast iconographical and technical knowledge of stained glass. All in all his photostream is well worth spending some time with. Below are some highlights to give you a flavour of his work.

Madley, Nativity of the BVM, I, 2b, Detail of head

Lincoln Cathedral, North Choir aisle, East window, panel 3a

Winchester College, Chapel, Thurburn's Chantry, west window,  Christ child at Virgin's breast

Doddiscombsleigh, Devon, nII, 2a, Matrimony

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Feast of St Matthew

Norbury, Derbyshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

St Mary and St Barlock's church, Norbury. St Matthew with his axe and his quill pot, part of an apostles creed paid for by Nicholas Fitzherbert and dating from the 1470s.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire

Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire

The tiny church of St Michael, Duntisbourne Rouse is on a dramatic site on the hillside overlooking the valley of the river Dunt in the Cotswolds. The nave is essentially Saxon (11th century) and to this were added a chancel in the twelfth century, with a crypt below, and the small Perpendicular tower in the fifteenth century.

The interior of the chancel received a makeover in the thirteenth century and retains a lot of its wallpaintings from that time.

Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire

The crypt is an atmospheric space and it too had wallpaintings, one can be seen to the left of the window.

Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire

Here is a detail of that wallpainting, the figure of a male saints. Sadly it's too far gone to be identified. When new this must have been a vibrant and colourful space.

Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire

Friday, 19 September 2008

A medieval painted chest

Medieval chests are fairly common in English churches, but painted chests are a rarity. The painted chest at Brightwell Baldwin probably dates from the second half of the fourteenth century. Although it is rather battered this glorious figure of St George still survives.

Eric Hardy got a rather good detail of St George:
Brightwell Baldwin, Oxfordshire, St Bartholomew's Church 55

He also has a rather good exterior view of the church:
Brightwell Baldwin, Oxfordshire, St Bartholomew's Church 37

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Floor levels - the case of Dorchester Abbey

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

The question of original floor levels in medieval church buildings came up in discussion on another post. Generally speaking the great ranks of steps you see in many of our medieval churches were introduced during the Gothic Revival. In the Middle Ages only a modest rise in floor level was usual from east to west, the high altar being perhaps two, at the most three steps above the level of the nave. Side altars were often only placed on a single step above the level of the aisles they were set in.

There are of course exceptions, one is the altar placed at the east end of the south nave aisle at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire. This chapel was the parish church of Dorchester in the Middle Ages and was known as the 'people's chapel'. The original liturgical arrangements of this chapel survive, including an early fourteenth century painted reredos, piscina and sedilia. The altar was raised above the level of the aisle on four steps. In this case the steps served a practical purpose, as they covered a vaulted charnel house containing the bodies of those disturbed during the construction of the aisle.

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire
Details of the wallpaintings that formed the chapel reredos.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Glass painting technique

Waterperry, Oxfordshire, window nV
Waterperry, Oxfordshire - Margaret FitzEllis and daughter.

Waterperry is on the eastern border of Oxfordshire, where it adjoins Buckinghamshire. The beautiful church has a lot of interest in it, some good monuments and a lot of medieval stained glass. Among the glass is the exquisite panel of a kneeling donor Margaret FitzEllis and her daughter, it dates from c. 1470. The detail in this image is sublime. Margaret wears a type of fashionable headdress called a 'butterfly' headdress. This sort of headress enclosed the sides of the head with fabric or buckrum and was overlaid with a veil of fine linen gauze. Notice that to give an effect of the gauze veil laying over the buckram the glazier has painted part of the decoration of the buckram on the inner and part on the outer surface of the glass. You will also see that the front of the headdress has a black band decorated with delicate foliage, to achieve the decoration the glazier has moved a fine point through a matt black wash. It's worth zooming into the photo on Flickr to get a closer look at this.

Oh and Mr FitzEllis does get a look in to. The donor image of Robert FitzEllis is in the next light:
Waterperry, Oxfordshire, window nV

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

A small remnant of former glories.

Where medieval wallpaintings do survive they are often far from complete. All that survives of this fifteenth century Annunciation at Combe in Oxfordshire is a mere fragment of a once vibrant and lively figure of the Archangel Gabriel. Much of the painting has been lost due to neglect, decay and indifference in the centuires since the Reformation.

Holy Cross Day Part II - The Exaltation of the Cross

Morley, Derbyshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

I have been reminded that in medieval calendars the Invention of the Holy Cross, the discovery of the True Cross by St Helena, was commemorated in May the 4th. It is only in the modern calendars of the church that it has been united with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th of September. The feast of the Exaltation commemorates the liberation of the True Cross from the hands of the Persians in the seventh century. In 614 the Persians stole the True Cross from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and it was only recovered in 628 by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. When he recovered it he took it initially to Byzantium returning it to Jerusalem triumphantly in 629.

This all reminds me that in the church of St Matthew in Morley in Derbyshire, is a fascinating window commemorating both the Invention and the Exaltation of the True Cross. I illustrate here two panels from the half of the window that refers to the Exaltation of the Cross. The one above shows the cross being adored by the people of Jerusalem after its return to the city. In the panel directly below we see the Emperor Heraclius attempting to enter Jerusalem with the cross but finding his way blocked. The Golden Legend fills in the details of this part of the story:

'Now Heraclius carried the sacred cross back to Jerusalem ... mounted on his royal palftey and arrayed in Imperial regalia, intending to enter the city by the gate through which Christ had passed on his way to Crucifixion. But suddenly the stones of the gateway fell down and locked together, forming an unbroken wall' (W. G. Ryan, The Golden Legend, vol. 2, p. 169).

Morley, Derbyshire

Incidentally this window, dating from the 1480s, has a rather interesting history. It originally formed part of the cloister glazing of the neighbouring Premonstratensian Abbey at Dale. It was removed to Morley in the 1540s with four other windows from the cloister. In fact the north chancel aisle at Morley, its stonework, glass and timber were all salvaged from one of the cloister walks.

Morley, Derbyshire
Cloister transplant at Morley, Derbyshire.

Morley, Derbyshire
Inside the cloister transplant, the north chancel aisle at Morley. The Holy Cross window is the easterly window in the north wall.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Invention of the Holy Cross

Norbury, Derbyshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

This figure of St Helen holding the True Cross is an appropriate image for today as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross, or to give it its western title Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis, the 'Raising Aloft of the Holy Cross' . This feast commemorates the discovery of the True Cross in 326 by Saint Helen, who was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Helen and Constantine ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem should be built at the site of the discovery of the cross and when the church was dedicated in 335 a portion of the cross placed inside it.

The stained glass panel is at Norbury in Derbyshire and dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Now in the east window of the chancel it formed part of a series of windows once in the north nave aisle of the church commissioned by the Fitzherbert family.

A glazed piscina - Dorchester-on-Thames

Dorchester, Oxon, Sedilia, 1a, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire was formerly an Augustinian Abbey. In the monastic chancel, which dates from the second quarter of the fourteenth century is a glorious sedilia and piscina. They are unusual in that they have their own glazing, the sedilia pierced with three and the piscina with a single tiny window. The sedilia windows are filled with glazing depicting seated bishops, but the sedilia has this interesting panel. It is a scene from a High Mass, a solemn celebration of the Eucharist. A seated priest, holding a missal, is assisted by a deacon and subdeacon who offer him the eucharistic oblations, a host on a paten and wine and water cruets.

Dorchester, Oxfordshire

The sedilia is no longer used by the Anglican establishment at Dorchester, but it was used by the Roman Catholics at a recent requiem mass. Photo by Lawrence OP.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The Legend of the Clay Birds

Shorthampton, Oxfordshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

This lovely fifteenth century wallpainting at Shorthampton in Oxfordshire, probably represents an episode that is recorded in the second cnetury apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In this story Jesus is playing with a group of children who are making clay figures of animals including birds. Jesus makes some figures himself and he commands the figures to move and the birds to fly and they do so. Here is the story in full:

'And when the Lord Jesus was seven years of age, he was on a certain day with other boys his companions about the same age. Who when they were at play, made clay into several shapes, namely, asses, oxen, birds, and other figures, each boasting of his work, and endeavoring to exceed the rest. Then the Lord Jesus said to the boys, I will command these figures which I have made to walk. And immediately they moved, and when he commanded them to return, they returned. He had also made the figures of birds and sparrows, which, when he commanded to fly, did fly, and when he commanded to stand still, did stand still; and if he gave them meat and drink, they did eat and drink. When at length the boys went away, and related these things to their parents, their fathers said to them, Take heed, children, for the future, of his company, for he is a sorcerer; shun and avoid him, and from henceforth never play with him.'
(Infancy Gospel of Thomas 15. 1-7) Source: http://www.octc.kctcs.edu/crunyon/CE/Koran-Rushdie/Koran/infancy_gospel.htm

The wallpainting is the standard medieval way of representing this story. Our Lady holds Jesus and one of his brothers who are both playing with a clay bird. Notice that Jesus is differentiated from his brother in three ways, by his nimbed, by being set higher and by Our Lady focusing her gaze on him.

John Ward (Oxfordshire Churches) has a super picture of the inside of the atmospheric church at Shorthampton, which shows the unusual placement of this panel on the splay of a squint to the right of the chancel arch. Do visit this church if you are in the area it is extremely rewarding. The panel I have discussed is one of a series of medieval wallpaintings that remain.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Workshop technique - glass from East Harling, Norfolk

East Harling, Norfolk, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

The east window of the East Harling church contains a considerable amount of late fifteenth century stained glass of the Norwich school. The window is composite, and among the panels are a series of the Joys and Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, including this lively panel of the Ascension of Christ. The glass probably dates from the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The cartoon used for the group of Our Lady and apostles in bottom half of the panel was reversed and reused for the panel showing the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost in another part of the window. A sensible bit of artistic economy on the part of the glazier.

East Harling, Norfolk

Rood screen paintings at Quainton, Buckinghamshire

Quainton, Buckinghamshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

All that remains of the rood screen at Quainton in Buckinghamshire are four little panels from the the lower solid part of of the screen, called the dado. Each panel is painted with a figure of a prophet. As you can see they are in the act of prophesying, are holding a copy of the scriptures as they gesticulate. They are not the best bit of medieval painting that you will find. The artist uses rather a limited colour pallette and in terms of technique they don't have the refinement of the screen paintings you see in East Anglian churches. Despite this I think they have rather a charm about them. Notice the backgrounds behind the figures, they are roughly painted then stencilled with stylised flowers.

Quainton, Buckinghamshire

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Window tracery development - the chancel at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire

The chancel of Wyck Rissington church in Gloucestershire was consecrated in 1269. The east end has this rather unusual window arrangement, which predates the development of windows with tracery. You will notice that two sets of paired lancets are set below lozenges, which are placed a little above them. Twenty years later and these lozenges would have been quatrefoils be united under a common hoodmould and the development of multi-light windows with tracery would begin.

The use of torches at the Elevation of the Host

The use of hand-held torches at the elevation of the host at mass, is something that is depicted fairly constantly in northern European art in the Middle Ages. Even when there are no altar lights, which in many depictions of altars there aren't, these hand held lights are always depicted. Of course none of these torches actually survive, so frustratingly we have no real idea of how they were made. They seem to take the form of a number of candles twisted together, with their wicks united at the top, which is then attached to a long pole. Any other suggestions?

Doddiscombsleigh, Devon, nII, 3a, Eucharist
The Elevation of the Host at mass, part of the Seven Sacraments window in Doddiscombsleigh, Devon. Photo by Gordon Plumb.

The Elevation of the Host in Dat Boexken Vander Missen - the torch is not held but is stood up to the right of the deacon.

Friskney, Lincolnshire
Friskney, Lincolnshire. A torch bearer is built into the stonework of the east window.

The mass of St Gregory by Adrien Ysenbrandt Netherlandish, about 1530s - 1540s

The mass of St Giles by the Master of St Giles, now in the national gallery.

York, St Martin, nII, 4a, St Martin as acolyte assists St Hilary at Mass
St Martin serves St Hilary's mass. Glass in St Martin le Grand Coney Street York. Photo by Gordon Plumb.

Death of St Thomas of Canterbury - another wallpainting

South Newington, Oxfordshire
We are back again in the north aisle at South Newington in Oxfordshire, a bit further west of the glorious image of the Virgin and Child we saw in an earlier post. This time we have a panel depicting the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. As St Thomas of Canterbury, he was perhaps the most revered saint of medieval England. We are at the moment of martyrdom, where one of the knights has plunged his sword in the archbishop's head. At the far side of the altar with its gorgeous multi-coloured frontal, stands Edward Grim, one of Becket's chaplains. Grim, who was injured by one of the knghts who killed Becket, wrote an account of the scene. I include the rather bloody bit that refers to the last moments of the saint:

"He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; the lower arm of the writer was cut by the same blow. Indeed [the writer] stood firmly with the holy archbishop, holding him in his arms - while all the clerics and monks fled - until the one he had raised in opposition to the blow was severed. Behold the simplicity of the dove, behold the wisdom of the serpent in this martyr who presented his body to the killers so that he might keep his head, in other words his soul and the church, safe; nor would he devise a trick or a snare against the slayers of the flesh so that he might preserve himself because it was better that he be free from this nature! O worthy shepherd who so boldly set himself against the attacks of wolves so that the sheep might not be torn to pieces! and because he abandoned the world, the world - wanting to overpower him - unknowingly elevated him. Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr. The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, "We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again." Web source http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/grim-becket.html

South Newington, Oxfordshire