Sunday, 30 November 2008

Advent Blue

This is a glorious little piece of late medieval English embroidery in the V and A. It formed part of an altar frontal, of unknown provenance, given by Henry Smyth and his wife and their son Thomas Smythe and his wife. It dates from the final quarter of the fifteenth century. It is decorated, as you see, with kneeling donor images of the two couples and with the standard 'waterflowers' of the period. All this embroidery is offset by a wonderful, rich blue velvet ground. The combination of this blue ground and the goldwork make for a rather striking and opulent piece of textile design.

I include this image on the blog today at the beginning of Advent, because I rather lament the aesthetic loss of dark blue from liturgical use. Dark blue was a common colour for medieval textiles and aware of this, its use as a suitable colour for Advent was encouraged by those who promoted the 'English Use', notably people like Percy Dearmer and Vernon Staley. The use of dark blue during Advent was fairly widespread in the Church of England until recent years. Sadly blue has been replaced in many places with garish shades of purple that I think clash terribly with many English medieval church buildings. This change has been aided by the calendar of Common Worship, which has designated purple as the colour of the season. Below are a number of examples of the use of dark blue for Advent and I think you will agree that they are very striking.

Sarum blue in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire

A stamped blue velvet frontal at Cuddesdon church in Oxfordshire.

St James, Louth, Lincolnshire

Blue velvet frontal in Bodley's 'Gothic' silk, at Louth in Lincolnshire.

St James, Louth, Lincolnshire

Friday, 21 November 2008

Fledborough Glass

Back to Fledborough again. The church contains a significant amount of medieval stained glass. With the exception of only a couple of pieces, the glass is all fourteenth century and therefore contemporary with the church building itself. The couple of pieces that are not of this period are internationally important. Here they are:

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

The second piece of glass is not well preserved, but I think it is also a face like the first. So why are these rather rough and ready pieces of pink glass s0 important? They don't look much do they? They are so important because they are so early, they probably date from the twelfth century. Only three places in England have figurative stained glass dating from the twelfth century. Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster and the tiny little church of Dalbury in Derbyshire. The Dalbury glass (see below) is particularly lovely. A figure of an angel with a stiffness of pose that has much in common with Romanseque sculpture. The facial features at Dalbury are painted in a thick black line, as is the glass at Fledborough. So What do you think? I think the better preserved face at Fledborough compares very strikingly with this glass at Dalbury, particularly when it comes to the eyes and nose and the weight of the line. What an exciting find!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Shadows of former things

My apologies for neglecting the blog, it has been rather a hectic ten days. My day off last week, which is the day I usually write for the blog was taken up with a visit to Nottinghamshire with Gordon Plumb. We went to a couple of very fine churches. One of these was in the hamlet of Fledborough, which sits in the Trent flood plain. We went there ostensibly to see the remarkable collection of medieval stained glass that the church contains. More of that in later posts.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

Among the other interesting features that caught my eye in this building, are a number of elements that hint at the medieval liturgical arrangements of this church.

In the chancel are two interesting panels of sculpture built into the north chancel wall. The first of these is rather badly preserved, but it is fairly clear that it portrays Our Lord rising from the tomb, flanked by figures of angels swinging censers. In between the angels are wo floriated finials, so it would seem that this panel formed the top of composition including a couple of arched canopies.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

The second, better preserved panel, shows three knights, each set under and crocketed ogee arch. There are apparently fast asleep, one rests his head on his hands, another props himself up on his sword.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

These two panels probably formed part of the Easter Sepulchre, a piece of furniture which was used during the paschal Triduum in the English medieval liturgies. During high mass on Maundy Thursday two hosts were consecrated and one of these, along with a crucifix, were placed in the sepulchre, to simulate the burial of Christ. A watch was set on the sepulchre until Easter morning, when the host and crucifix were removed.

Quite a number of sculptured Easter Sepulchre's survive in Nottinghamshire and in Lincolnshire. They are fairly standard in form. The well-preserved sepulchre at Heckington in Lincolnshire is a good example. The bottom of the sepulchre was a sort of tomb chest, representing the tomb of Christ. The figures of the sleeping soldiers, representing the watch placed on the tomb oif Jesus, were placed against this chest. Above that was a superstructure, incorporating a niche in which the host and crucifix were placed. Above that was an elaborate canopy and within this was incorporated an image of the risen Christ.
A slightly different version of the sepulchre remains at Sibthorpe in Nottinghamshire, but the iconography is the same, figures of soldiers along the base and the risen Christ in the canopy.

So what we have at Fledborough is the front panel of the tomb chest and the top panel of the canopy. The rest of the sepulchre has gone.
In the north aisle at Fledborough, which dates from the second quarter of the fourteenth century, are the remains of the liturgical arrangements of a side altar.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire
The side altar was evidently placed against the east wall of the aisle. The centre light of the window behind is blocked to admit a tabernacle that formerly contained a devotional image. The image was supported on a bracket and sheltered by a rather lovely canopy. The blocked centre light appears to have been part of the original design of the window. The shadow of the image that formerly stood here, appears against the back of this tabernacle, and it was clearly a standing figure. On either side of the window are two more brackets for devotional images. The sill of the window is fairly low, so the window, its glass and the devotional images around and above it would have formed a very effective reredos.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire
This chapel appears to have been a mortuary chapel, in the north wall is a burial niche with cross slab. Further down the aisle are a couple of medieval effigies, including this very striking early fourteenth century effigy of a woman. She holds her heart in her praying hands.

Fledborough, Nottinghamshire

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Butterfield's interpretation of medieval textiles

William Butterfield (1814-1900) was one of England's most accomplished and prolific Gothic Revivalists. Between 1881 and 1883 he built St Mary Magdalene's, Enfield in Middlesex. Every aspect of the building and its decoration is by Butterfield, including all the textiles. For the high altar he designed a number of glorious altar frontals (including the red and festal frontals illustrated) with embroidery which is reliant on medieval work. The demi-angels, lilies, fleur-de-lys and 'water flowers' as they were known, all have precedent in medieval English embroidery.

Butterfield was himself very interested in medieval embroidery. In 1880, around the time that he designed the Enfield frontals, Butterfield was involved in the publication of a seminal work on late medieval English embroideries. At his suggestion Mary Barber had started to produce a series of glorious illustrations of late Opus Anglicanum. These illustrations were to form a volume entitled Some Drawings of Ancient Embroidery, which was published after Barber's death under Butterfield's direction. It is the seminal work on the subject.

One of the plates from Mary Barber's volume.

Do follow the link to the Enfield website, where you will see some more photos of the Butterfield frontals.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Alterations on the cheap

Welwick, Holderness, Yorkshire

Sometimes the decisions medieval masons made, just make me chuckle. This fifteenth century alteration to a fourteenth century window in the chancel at Welwick in Holderness, Yorkshire, is just such an example. I suppose as a thrifty way of getting extra light on the high altar without spending a vast amount of money it was a success, but as a piece of architecture it is an abject failure.

Welwick is a super church, not as famous as its neighbour at Patrington, but well worth a visit if you like texture rather than grand architecture. The brick south porch incorporates a grand fifteenth century canopied image niche, which still shelters the headless figure of the Virgin and Child.

Welwick, Holderness, Yorkshire

Friday, 7 November 2008

Medieval English embroidery good enough for the Holy Roman Emperor

Does anybody fancy buying a piece of medieval English embroidery, I certainly would if I didn't have a wife and children to support? Well an Italian dealer, Piselli Balzano, have a panel of late medieval embroidery for sale on their website. They claim the piece was made for the marriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. The double-headed eagles on it are of course the badge of the Holy Roman Empire, so its plausible, although this is a motif that exists on other medieval English textiles. I quite like the idea that English embroidery was good enough for the Hapsburg family. The dealers website doesn't say any more about the provenance, or even whether it was part of a vestment or a domestic hanging. The thing that caught my eye was that apart from the eagles, other design elements on the panel bear a striking similarity to the Careby cope fragment featured earlier in the week, particularly the seraphs on wheels and the central image of the Assumption.

Maximillian I

Mary of Burgundy

BTW have a look on the rest of the dealers website they have some rather lovely medieval and renaissance silks and voided velvets.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Medieval Crosses

Between 2002 and 2005 I worked as a tutor for the WEA and I used to run a whole series of courses on art and architecture across North Yorkshire. One of the courses I ran in 2004 was on the Gothic Revival and during the course I took my students to the Yorkshire Wolds to visit the glorious series of village churches built by the Anglo-Catholic Tattton-Sykes family of Sledmere. One of these churches was Thixendale, a building built by G E Street in the 1860s. There was one incongruous element of this church and that was the altar cross pictured above, whichw as sitting in the centre of the high altar directly in front of the cross G E Street had provided for the building. The churchwardens and vicar had no idea what it was, but I instantly recognised it as the head of a pre-Reformation processional cross and alerted them to this fact. A couple of years later when I was at theological college, I was surprised to see the cross on the front page of the Church Times. The church had decided to sell the cross at Christie's to raise funds for a new heating system. I had visions of it leaving the country, but I am glad to say that it was purchased by the East Riding Museum.

The Thixendale cross is a fairly significant find. It is English and dates from around 1500. It is made of latten, a type of bronze, the same material that monumental brasses are made of. There are about thirty or so of this type of latten cross surviving and quite a number are in the V & A. One was found on the battlefield at Bosworth, another was found in a chest with some recusant vestments at Abbey Dore in Herefordshire. Many are cast from the same mould and it is probable that they were more-or-less mass produced. The Thixendale cross is one of the better preserved examples. It would appear to have been gilded and enamelled and some areas of the cross still have enamel and gilding on it.

Being made of latten these crosses were probably reasonably affordable for even the poorest medieval parish in England. Generally the crosses were configured so that they slipped into a socket with two attendant figures of Our Lady and St John. It is probable that they doubled up both as processional crosses and altar crosses. The head could be removed from the cross staff and placed on a stand so it could sit on the altar, like the example from the V & A above.

Another of the V and A crosses.

I can't seem to get away from these crosses. I have recently found another in a Linolnshire church. Sadly it isn't in quite as good condition as the Thixendale cross. It has been mounted on a staff and has been polished to death. In 2005 Colum Hourihane published a monograph on these crosses called The Processional Cross in Late Medieval England 'The Dallye Cross' . I found my two crosses rather two late for inclusion in this work.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

More medieval vestment recycling, this time in Lincolnshire

Careby, St Stephen, Lincolnshire, Detail of Medieval Cope, showing Assumption of the Virgin

Another medieval vestment for you. Careby in Lincolnshire has the remarkable remains of a late fifteenth century cope. It is decorated with embroidered seraphs and this particularly lovely Assumption in the centre. The background is a glorious red silk velvet, a lot of velvets were used in medieval vestments, why do we not use them these days? Anyway the vestment must have been luxuriously rich when first made. Part of the cope survived as it was converted into the 'decent carpet' to cover the communion table, which was required by the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.

With many thanks to Gordon Plumb's photostream for this lovely photo, not easy to achieve as the panel is behind glass.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Medieval vestment recycling in Exeter

I came across the following images the other day. They are of a funerary pall from St Mary Arches in Exeter, now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in the city. The pall is post-Reformation and is recycled from elements of pre-Reformation vestments, including a strips of rich back and gold figured velvet from a cope and embroidered orphreys both from a cope and from a chasuble. With the Devon connection and the black and gold velvet, I can't help thinking of Eamon Duffy's Voices of Morebath and the fate of poor Sir Christopher Trychay's black vestments. He spent so many years saving for, only for them to be surrendered more-or-less as soon as they arrived.

Detail of the chasuble orphrey and some of the black and gold figured velvet.

Detail of one of the cope orphreys, fairly standard figures of the Apostles under canopies.

Tollhouse Alan's photo of St Mary at Arches, Exeter.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Assumption at Sandford on Thames

Sandford on Thames, Oxfordshire

In relation to the image of the Assumption in porch at Tiverton, BillyD asked the following question: 'Any idea why the BVM is shown with uncovered, flowing hair in the English medieval depictions of the Assumption that I've seen? Admittedly, I haven't seen that many, but it seems odd not to show her veiled'. I'm sorry Billy I can't answer the question, I don't know why she is shown uncovered, but what I have noticed is that Our Lady is usually shown without the veil in English medieval iconography. All this has reminded me of this fascinating panel of the Assumption of Our Lady at Sandford on Thames in Oxfordshire. Very foolishly, while I lived in Oxfordshire for three years, I didn't ever make it down the road to see the panel, so I know it only from the excellent photography of my friend Martin Beek.

Sandford on Thames, Oxfordshire

The iconography of the panel is fairly standard, Our Lady stands in an aureole or Mandorla, with angels hovering around it lifting the Virgin into heaven. Our Lady is crowned and has long flowing hair. The interesting aspect of this panel is at the base, two angels hold what appears to be a reliquary or monstrance. The reliquary is hollowed out as though it was intended to enclose a further object. Perhaps it contained a reliquary box of some sort, who knows? How did this panel survive the Reformation? Martin suggests that the carving was hidden at the Reformation and was discovered in 1723 face down near the south porch where it was being used as a step. Fr Hunwicke in his blog Liturgical Notes suggests that the panel may have come from the Carmelite house in Oxford, but I don't see it beyond the bounds of possibility that work of this quality originated in the piety of a parish church.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Medieval spectacles

While I'm on the theme of All Saints North Street, here is a fragment of glass from another window in the church. It is a detail of the mid fifteenth century window portraying the Nine Orders of Angels. In this window each of the orders of angels is shown with a group of equivalent mortals. The higher angels are shown with popes and emperors, while the three lowest orders are shown with a group of ordinary York folk. Among them is this wonderful chap holding a pair of spectacles up to his eyes.

All Saints, North Street, York

A fascinating detail. I can't claim to be any sort of expert on late medieval optometry, but I did track down the following link, which describes the archaeological discovery of a similar set of specs at Trig Lane in London. The London specs are fifteenth century like the glass panel at North Street. They are bone rimmed, and just like the pair portrayed in the North Street panel the lenses were hinged so they could be moved together. Perhaps this was to give greater magnification. Anyway I should stop before I reveal my thorough ignorance of all things scientific. I have to say the Trig Lane specs are really rather elegant, I particularly like the pierced decoration.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Saints in All Saints, North Street, York

All Saints, North Street, York

To celebrate the feast of All Saints, here is the east window of All Saints, North Street in the city of York. This church is a place that is very dear to my heart, I worshipped here between 1998 and 2005 and it was here that my vocation was fostered. The church has one of the most remarkable ensembles of medieval stained glass in England. Eleven windows contain medieval glass of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. The east window (above) directly behind the high altar, has glazing dating from the 1420s. The glass was given by Nicholas Blackburn junior, a city merchant to commemorate himself and his parents Nicholas Blackburn senior and Margaret. Nicholas Senior was an extremely well-to-do merchant who had served for a time as Lord Mayor of York. The donor images of the two Nicholases and their respective wives (both Margaret) are placed at the bottom of the window on either side of an image of the Holy Trinity.

It is the imagery in the larger panels above that attracts the most attention. In either side we have figures of St John the Baptist in his camel hair coat pointing to the Lamb of God and St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. There are some glorious details in these figures. Christopher wades through a river decorated with fish that are back-painted to give a three-dimensional effect.

I - Ann and Virgin 6

In the centre is a panel showing St Ann, teaching Our Lady to read from a psalter. Our Lady follows the text of psalm 143 with a stylus.

So why this combination of iconography? Well it appears that three figures of John the Baptist, St Ann and St Christopher, were included because they reflected Nicholas Blackburn Senior's particular pious and civic interests. In his will he founded a chantry in the chapel of St Ann on Ousebridge just a stones throw from All Saints and he gave to it his best vestment and best chalice. Blackburn was a member of the guild of St Christopher, one of the principal city guilds, who were responsible for the construction of the city guild hall in the 1440s. As cloth traders the Blackburn's would have been members of the Guild of St John the Baptist, which in time became the Merchant Taylors guild.

All Saints, North Street, York