Words and Pictures: Medieval Moments

Since my post about Medieval church wall-paintings in the “Rambling with Rothenstein” series last year, I have had half an eye on all things that touch on the visual culture of life in the Middle Ages.

For anyone who shares this curiosity, you may be interested in J.L.Carr’s short novel “A Month in the Country”.

Written in the late 1970s, it looks back to the summer of 1920. A young man, Tom Birkin, returned from the horrors of the Great War to train as a specialist in the restoration of wall-paintings. His first job takes him to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, deep in the English countryside, to an ancient church. “It was tremendously exciting”, he says, “to begin with I didn’t know what I was uncovering.” By the end of the second day he has uncovered a head and face of Christ, delighted by the colours that suggested the medieval artist was one of high calibre: “And, as the first tinges of garment appeared, that prince of blues, ultramarine ground from lapis lazuli, began to show – that really confirmed his class – he must have fiddled it from a monastic job – no village church could have run to such expense.”

The novel is extraordinarily subtle as his memories of the war gentle mingle with his meetings with villagers, a brush of romance and a broad contemplation of English life; it’s a subtlety that belies some deep themes if one were to seek them out. For me, though, it is this day-by-day revelation of the wall-painting that is so fascinating, and Birkin’s contemplation of the artist and his world:

“it’s not at all easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages. They weren’t us in fancy dress…”.

Yet, gradually, he does get to ‘know’ the artist, through the details of the image (a large Doom painting) and the touch of the paintbrush, as far as it might be possible across five centuries. By the end of the tale, he stands before “the great spread of colour” recognising that, for those past few weeks, he “had lived with a very great artist”.

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I was delighted to see fragments of a medieval wall-painting myself last week, at St James the Less Church, in Hadleigh, Essex.

My guide, local historian Sandra Harvey, told me that the Norman church had been built probably in the 1140s during the reign of King Stephen. But it wasn’t until the 1850s, during restoration work, that the whitewash was removed from the walls to reveal painted texts, border decorations and some extraordinary images.

Those that survive today include an angel and a painting of St Thomas of Canterbury inscribed “Blessed Thomas” and dated to the early 1170s. This is of course intriguing, as Thomas Becket had been assassinated in 1170, perhaps on the orders of King Henry II, and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. Only months later, the King “humbled himself in public penance at Becket’s tomb” which became a site for pilgrimage as Becket became something of a medieval cult figure. That the Hadleigh painting is so early suggests the church’s proximity to Canterbury and the King, perhaps via the Priory at Prittlewell.   

Other paintings at St James the Less could not be preserved, however Mr H.W.King (who oversaw the work) made some drawings, the most wonderful of which shows there had been a large depiction of St George and the Dragon from the 15th century.

The Knight, on horseback, impales the dragon, thus securing Christian good over evil, whilst the Princess watches on along with, in the background, the King and Queen who appear to be applauding from Hadleigh Castle (which had been re/built in the 14th century).

Oh to have seen this in colour!

I did find a version of St George and the Dragon here: https://reeddesign.co.uk/paintedchurch/broughton-st-george.htm from a church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire, just to give a sense of the Hadleigh picture.

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My other ‘medieval moment’ has been via Charles Spencer’s book “The White Ship” which tells the history of a medieval disaster when Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Aetheling, was one of the many to die when the White Ship – the Titanic of its day – was shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy.

The book is split into three sections. The first, Triumph, tells the story of Henry – the third son of the Conqueror – as he makes his way towards ruling both England and Normandy. It’s a complicated story, with inter-familial and strategic marriages, births both in and out of wedlock, bitter sibling rivalries, bloody battles, awful punishments and the complex relationship of kingship and papal authority. Eventually Henry secures both lands and brings a certain peace and order. His triumph, then, is to marry Matilda of Scotland, with whom he has a legitimate male heir, William Aetheling and a daughter Matilda.

I love Spencer’s imagined description of the charming and handsome seventeen-year-old William:

“Drawing on the aristocratic fashions of the time, we can guess how William Aetheling was turned out when he waited in Barfleur to make his sea passage home. If we picture him swathed in the finest sil shirt and tunic, with a fur-trimmed brocaded cloak thrown over his shoulders – to combine magnificence with warmth – we are probably not too far from the truth. If, in addition, he was following the fashion that had taken root during his grandfather’s rule of England and was still in vogue, his shoes would have been long with pointed toes.”

Part Two is titled Disaster: the White Ship, on which William was travelling from Normandy to England, met with a mighty collision against a rock. As water rushed in, William’s bodyguards got him onto a rowing boat. However, hearing his half-sister’s screams as the ship splintered further and both crew and passengers were hurled into the freezing sea, William made them turn the little boat back to try and rescue her. Those flailing in the water grabbed on to the returning boat, seeking safety, yet ultimately pulling everyone down into the water. Henry I’s dream of securing long-lasting peace, so that England and Normandy might be passed down to his legitimate son, had been shattered.

The third part of the book, Chaos, tells of the anarchy as lands on both sides of the Channel return once again to on-going rivalry, battles and bloodshed. The shipwreck had a huge impact on the course of history leading, on Henry I’s death, to the unsettled reign of King Stephen.

There is an extremely poignant manuscript image of Henry mourning the death of his son:

British Library, Royal MS 20 A.ii, fol. 6v. https://bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_20_a_ii_f006v

You may have seen or read that Charles Spencer has been taking scientific diving teams out to the site of the shipwreck to learn if anything of the ship might remain, which really would be extraordinary, and rather exciting.

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As a postscript, there’s a great article by Simon Heffer:

Medieval church paintings were the PowerPoint presentations of their day (telegraph.co.uk)

in which he concludes: “With luck, as churches continue to be repaired, more such ancient masterpieces will be found, their glaze protecting them from centuries of whitewash; and once more our ancestors will speak directly to us.”

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring "The Art & Artists of Russia (1850s-present) currently, and please see the A History of Art in England series; looking forward to discussing "British Art Groups (1930s)" when we can have live group meetings again! Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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