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Saving St Teilo’s: Bringing a Medieval Church to Life Again. Edited by Geralldt D. Nash. National Museum Wales Books, Cardiff, 2009, available in English or Welsh editions. Paperback, 144 pages, 100 colour illustrations, 7 b/w illus, price £14.99. Available from the National Museum of Wales website.
This fulsomely illustrated and well-written book tells two remarkable stories. The first is an absorbing account of the rescue of the derelict medieval church of St Teilo at Llandeilo Tal-y-bont (Glamorgan) and its meticulous reconstruction at the National Museum of Wales at St Fagans, Cardiff. The second ‘boldly goes’ where no other curatorial team has gone before and describes the recreation of the church’s medieval interior as it might have appeared to worshippers around 1530, possibly the first time in Europe that a stone-built church has been refurbished in this way. Part of this work included commissioning a conjectured glazing scheme. [Fig. 1]
The history of St Teilo’s can be summarised briefly. Documentary and archaeological evidence point to a church on the original site as early as the 7th century. The present building was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. Regular services were discontinued in the nineteenth century and abandoned entirely in 1970. By 1984 the church was in a semi-derelict state and it was decided to remove it to St Fagans, an open air museum of vernacular Welsh buildings furnished to represent a particular snapshot of time. [Fig. 2]
As the church was being dismantled prior to its removal, a stunning collection of late medieval wall paintings dated to between 1490 and 1530 were found under layers of post-Reformation limewash. Their discovery gave the museum team the impetus to save the paintings and to recreate them in the reconstructed church. The description of these paintings, and how artists set about reproducing versions for the walls of St Teilo’s, is one of the many fascinating chapters in this book. Other accounts in a similar fashion discuss the making of carved woodwork such as the rood screen and a statue of the patronal saint himself, based on a surviving example in Brittany (France), the firing of ceramic roof and floor tiles, and, of particular interest to Vidimus readers, the re-glazing of the church.
Although no fragments of glass were found at the original site, the discovery of glazing grooves in the window stonework prompted the team to look for examples of glazing schemes elsewhere which could serve as a model for a conjectural programme at St Teilo’s. However, while north Wales has some very fine late medieval stained glass windows, the evidence in south Wales is ‘extremely scarce and fragmentary’ (p. 60). Using a combination of in situ evidence at churches like St Bridget’s in Skenfrith (painted quarries) together with fragments excavated from several monastic sites in the area (grisaille quarries), the team decided to commission the Welsh School of Architectural Glass at Swansea Metropolitan University to produce hand-blown plain white quarry windows as a weather-proofing stop-gap. Under the direction of senior lecturer, Alun Adams, 7.235 sq m of glass was made, cut and installed by Swansea students. Quarries in the window above the high altar were also painted with ‘Instruments of the Passion’ by members of the same team. Long term plans include the possibility of creating medieval-style pot metal figurative glass for the east window of the church and inserting shields of arms of a known donor in some of the side chapels. [Fig. 3]
A particularly interesting feature of the church is the relationship between stained glass and wall paintings. During the dismantling of the building, traces of an angel holding a shield were found in one of the north aisle window splays. The tilt of the head suggested that he may have been looking into the window itself, ‘as if to suggest that more of the story was to be found in painted glass’ (p. 86). A reconstructed version has now been painted in the church. [Fig. 4]
The remains of another angel appear to have been found in one of the splays of the east window, together with traces of an inscription at the top of the splay and a rectangular panel containing an inscription arranged around the outline of a cross below the window sill. Although the latter might have formed a painted retable behind the altar, the ensemble as a whole would have been seen by the priest as he performed the Mass.
But apart from the descriptions of what was done and how, Geralldt Nash’s book also conveys a spirit rarely found in museum publications – pride and joy, craftsmanship and passion, a genuine sense of adventure and achievement. It makes the reader not just want to see St Teilo’s, but also to wish that they had rolled up their sleeves and lent a hand in its rescue.
St Edmund King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint, edited by Anthony Bale. York Medieval Press, Boydell and Brewer Ltd, Woodbridge 2009, hardback, 198 pages, no illustrations, price £50.
Why particular saints were chosen to be depicted in stained glass windows and what those images meant to medieval audiences are among some of the most enduring questions debated by Vidimus readers. As Professor Richard Marks has noted, ‘images did not function in a vacuum, but were framed by current ideologies and local power structures ..by their environment and by the particular historical moment they occupied’.
To varying degrees this book sheds valuable light on these interactions as it explores the cult of one of the most commonly represented saints of the late middle ages via chapters discussing the theology, iconography, literature, music and politics associated with the appeal and promotion of St Edmund, ‘king and martyr’.
A helpful introductory chapter by Anthony Bale sets the scene. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a document written in AD 890 on the orders of Alfred the Great) Edmund was an East Anglican king slain in battle around AD 869 resisting an invading Danish (‘Viking’) army.
Within a short time he was being revered locally as a saint. Sometime probably in the early tenth century his remains were removed from Hoxne in Suffolk to the Benedictine Abbey at Beodericisworth (Bury). In AD 945 the same abbey was granted a significant amount of land by Edmund I of England (r.939 – 46) known as the ‘banleuca’ of St Edmund which was exempt from the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishops of Norwich in whose diocese Bury was located. Together with its vice-regal powers in an area of west Suffolk known as ‘The Liberty of St Edmund’, this gave the abbey the authority and wealth to behave like a virtual independent statelet with far-reaching political, financial and judicial functions as well as traditional religious responsibilities.
Towards the end of the tenth century the first official Vita or life of the saint was written by Abbo of Fleury. Unlike the earlier brief and matter-of-fact account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this version described the king’s death in terms which bore a strong resemblance to the Passion of Christ. According to the author, when the Danes demanded that Edmund acknowledge their overlordship he neither fought nor fled, but asked that they convert to Christianity. Enraged by his answer the Danes then ‘tried’ him before their leader Hinguar, scourged him, tied him to a tree and shot him with arrows until ‘he bristled like a hedgehog’ before finally beheading him. A range of miracles were then said to have occurred including the story of his discarded head being guarded by a wolf until his followers heard it calling ‘Here! Here! Here!’ and reuniting it with his body. [Fig. 1]
One suggestion, discussed by Carl Phelpstead in his chapter on the subsequent Anglo-Saxon translation of this work, is that Abbo’s account owed more to hagiographical conventions than to historical evidence with the author assuming that because saintly miracles occurred at Edmund’s tomb he must have died like a saint and thus deserved an appropriate martyr’s death. A further layer to the story is contributed by Rebecca Pinner who wonders whether Edmund’s dynastic name of Wuffing and traditions of East Anglian kings communing with wolves, might have inspired the miraculous wolf element of this legendary story.
The translation of Edmund’s Vita was followed by successive abbots lauding his reputation as an exemplary Christian and model king. During the abbacy of Abbot Baldwin (abbot 1065 – 1097) the abbey itself was rebuilt as a giant pilgrimage church similar in plan to Winchester Cathedral – about 500 feet long – and Edmund’s remains translated to a new shrine in 1097, helping to cement a distinctive East Anglican identity for the cult and its church. Before it was overtaken by St Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds was probably the most important popular pilgrimage site in England.
In addition to his regional status, Edmund was also highly regarded as a royal saint and was often enrolled by the crown for different purposes.
To seek his aide as an intercessor, monarchs visited the Bury shrine and in 1300 Edward I sent his standard to be touched by the saint’s relics.
More commonly he was invoked for quasi-political reasons. Like another Anglo-Saxon royal saint – St Edward the Confessor (1003–1066) – he was held up, particularly in the later middle ages, as representative of an emphatically English monarchy.
Notwithstanding any seeming contradictions between his apparent pacifist principles and the bellicosity of nationalist monarchs such as Henry V, Edmund’s opposition to ‘foreign overlordship’ was also invoked by English kings as they trumpeted their claim to the French throne.
More pointedly he could be used to support the throne directly. He was shown as one of the supporting saints on the beautifully painted late 14th-century portable altar made for Richard II, now known as the Wilton Diptych. [Fig. 2]
Fifty years later his image was employed in mid 15th-century propaganda schemes which sought to link the often under-fire Henry VI with a pantheon of illustrious royal ancestors thereby justifying the Lancastrian hold on the throne at a time when it was under challenge from Yorkist opponents. A now lost 15th-century glazing scheme known from antiquarian sources at St Peter & St Paul church, Salle (Norfolk), which showed Edmund in this role is cited as an example of such a display.
Nor was the Abbey backward in trying to extend the prestige of the saint to whom they owed so much. A virtual production line of manuscripts from its famous scriptorium augmented, reconfigured and transformed Edmund’s ongoing appeal. His image appeared in churches within their influence and his miracles were recited in a long narrative poem, The Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, composed for Henry VI in 1433/34 by the Bury monk John Lydgate (c.1370–1451), England’s foremost poet in the first half of the 15th century. Some of the miracles recounted involved stories of the saint interceding on behalf of people who begged for his help in saving their (often drowned) children suggesting, ‘a concerted attempt to reformat the grand, royal, spectacular cult of St Edmund’ into a domestic context which could appeal to popular religious audiences.
In all around sixty churches were dedicated to God in the name of St Edmund, including one in Wales. Abingdon Abbey in Berkshire claimed to own relics belonging to the saint, among them the ‘camisia ..sanguinolents’, the bloodied shirt he wore during his Passion. The saint was also remembered in the legendaries and litanies in abbeys in northern Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland.
The chapter by Rebecca Pinner is of particular interest to Vidimus readers as it discusses medieval images of the saint in Norfolk churches, the heartland of his regional appeal. Her survey of known images shows that there were at least 21 images of the saint in stained glass of which nine still survive. These include a the recently conserved 13th-century depiction of the saint suffering saggitation (torture by arrows) at St Mary’s church, Saxlingham Nethergate, possibly the oldest glass in Norfolk (see Fig. 1). Later representations typically show him in a standard ‘glorified’ form, robed and crowned and holding an arrow as the emblem of his martyrdom. [Fig. 3]
The remainss of a once larger glazing scheme at St Edmund’s church, Taverham, throw additional light on how his cult was promoted to worshippers. Lisa Colton’s essay on medieval music at Bury St Edmunds highlights four angels (originally six) in the tracery lights of the nave window, nV, of this church, each singing a different verse from the antiphon, Ave rex gratis anglorum, ‘arguably the most central to Bury St Edmunds’ local, regional and national identity’. As an example of its importance she quotes a letter from Henry III to the abbot of Bury:
‘Know that on Monday after the feast of St Hilary, when our beloved consort Eleanor, our queen, was labouring in the pains of childbirth, we had the antiphon of St Edmund chanted for her, and when the aforesaid prayer was not yet finished our valet (told us that she had) ..borne us a son. So that you may have the greater joy for this news ..we are having our son named Edmund’. (p. 92) [Fig. 4]
Although not about stained glass as such, this book is a welcome addition to a number of recent publications focusing on the lives of individual saints, including Christopher Norton’s study of St William of York issued in 2006 by the same publishers. It makes a valuable contribution to understanding how particular ideas and images about saints were promoted and to whom. While primarily written for a academic audience, this book will also appeal to those interested in the history of a once popular saint whose legacy, like his shrine at Bury, has proved ‘cumbrous’ to destroy.
Dr Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute writes:
Although an unorthodox representation, this scene is almost certainly a depiction of the tragic story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom as told in the Old Testament, Book of Samuel 2: 13.
Amnon was the first son of the Israelite King David and the crown prince in his kingdom. After the death of his first wife the king remarried and had two more children, a son, Absalom, and a daughter, Tamar.
Eventually Amnon became infatuated with Tamar and lured her to his room feigning illness and asking her to feed him cakes. When they were alone, he raped her.
Two years later Absalom invited the unsuspecting Amnon to a feast where he ordered his servants to kill the prince in revenge for what he had none to Tamar.
The scene in the top left of the panel shows Amnon with Tamar. The main scene shows Amnon’s murder while Absalom watches.
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