Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Aumbry door

Many of our churches still retain the evidence of aumbries, the secure lockers that served as the repository for valuables before the invention of the safe.  They are a common feature let into the side walls beside both high and side altars and many were uncovered from behind plasterwork in the restorations of the nineteenth century.  Many of them still have evidence of the door that once covered them, but very few of the original doors remain.  However, at Begbroke, just north of Oxford, the chancel aumbry still retains its original door, here beautifully captured by Eric Hardy

Begbroke, Oxfordshire, St Michael’s Church

The door, which is very probably early sixteenth century, is decorated with carving.  An elaborate and foliated fleur-de-lys is surrounded lucious foliage, pomegranates and berries.  Above the door, to fit into the space created by the shouldered arch, is a fillet of pierced vine.  It is a wonderful example of florid, if slightly stilted, late Gothic carving.  Of course the door had to be secured and there is a lock plate on it, but it's a later addition that interrupts the carving.  However, that is of no matter, for all told this aumbry door is a remarkable and attractive thing.

Begbroke, Oxfordshire, St Michael’s Church

Monday, 3 January 2011

Memorial altarpiece

The parish church of Youlgreave in the Derbyshire peak district, has a rather remarkable and interesting medieval alabaster panel. This rectangular panel is currently set into the wall above the altar at the east end of the north nave aisle, though it has moved around quite a bit and spent some time in the chancel and was before that in the south wall of the south nave aisle. The panel is a monument to Robert Gilbert and his wife Joan and the marginal inscription around it, records the burial of Robert ‘sub lapide’ below the stone (at an unspecified date) and the death of Joan on the 2nd of November 1492. Robert is described in the inscription as ‘generosi’ i.e. gentleman, one step down the social hierarchy from esquire. According to J. Charles Cox, the arms on the monument, are those of Rossington impaling Statham, Joan Gilbert being a member of the Statham family. The Rossington arms are in fact those of Robert Gilbert, who was using this armorial bearing, Cox argues, by virtue ofhis descent from the Rossington heiress.

Youlgreave, Derbyshire

The inscription and shields of arms frame a wonderful panel of figures carved in low relief. In the centre of the figurative composition is a very tender image of the Virgin and Child, sadly a little mutilated. To the right of Our Lady kneels Robert Gilbert and his seven sons, all identically dressed, in civilian clothing, prominent purses and the caps with liripipes. On the other side kneels Joan and their ten daughters, she with a large set of paternoster beads. All the figures are in the attitude of prayer, with Robert and Joan shown in the act of paying devotion to Our Lady. If you look carefully there are the remains of tiny little scrolls in front of them, which would have represented their intercessions rising towards Our Lady.

It is difficult to imagine given the dimensions and the relief carving that this panel functioned as a conventional floor slab covering a burial and it seems likely that the panel served a dual purpose as an altarpiece as well as a memorial. The inscription also records that Robert was involved in some liturgical reordering of the inside of the church. It refers to Robert ‘clausuram hujus capelle’, enclosing this chapel. This is evidence that the panel was situated and Robert was buried in an enclosed chapel, separated off from the rest of the landscape of the church by parclose screens.  The figure of Our Lady may be a clue to the dedication of this space.

J. Charles Cox, Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire, vol. 2, p. 329.