CHASTITY IN MARSTON BIGOT
To coincide with the loan of eighty-six panels of Renaissance stained glass from English collections to the Rheinische Glasmalerei. Meisterwerke der Renaissance exhibition at the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne, Germany, Vidimus went in search of a stained glass painting that did not make the journey – the so-called ‘Chastity’ scene in the east window of St Leonard’s Church, Marston Bigot (Somerset). In doing so, we solved one puzzle and discovered a lot more. We wanted to know where the panel had originally come from; whether there were other panels from the same site surviving in Germany or Britain; how the panel came to be installed in Marston Bigot; and whether knowing more about its provenance might throw new light on the origins of some of the other important stained glass panels in this church.
Writing about the Marston Bigot panel in his 1946 survey of stained glass in Somerset, Christopher Woodforde, then one of the UK’s most prolific stained glass scholars, rightly identified it as being of sixteenth-century German origin and depicting a scene from the early life of St Bernard, the driving force of the Cistercian order. However, he was far less confident about the panel’s exact origins, likening it only to a similar scene depicting part of the same story formerly at the Cistercian monastery at Altenberg, 25km north-east of Cologne, and now partly in St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, England (see Vidimus 6).
Separate research by Dr James France, one of the leading experts on St Bernard’s life, and Dr Dagmar Täube, the curator of the Cologne exhibition, has finally provided Woodforde’s missing link. The Marston Bigot panel has been identified as one of a series of windows made around 1525 for the cloisters of a daughter house of Altenberg, the convent at St Apern (see below). Like those at Altenberg, these windows depicted scenes from St Bernard’s life, with many replicating the same incidents as those shown at Altenberg.
Before looking at how the panel came to Marston Bigot and describing the other glass in the church, it is worth exploring some of the other uncertainties that surround the ‘Chastity’ panel (Fig. 1).
The Marston Bigot panel measures 60.5 x 60.5 cm and is divided by an elaborate column into two sections. The larger, left-hand part of the panel shows the saint and his companions eating dinner (not breakfast as stated by Woodforde) on their arrival at an inn. St Bernard is nimbed. He wears a red hat and a red gown trimmed with fur, and has long golden hair. Opposite him a man holds a cup, while a third man toys with a knife. A white cloth covers the table. A large joint of meat in a dish and loaves of bread have been served. The room setting is completed with a linenfold dresser with ornate cresting, on which plates and a jug are displayed. Significantly, a woman stares at the saint from a doorway. According to a contemporary account of Bernard’s life, she found the future saint extremely handsome (‘decorum aspectu’, Fig. 2).
On the right-hand side of the panel St Bernard is shown lying in a raised bed with a red coverlet. Again, he is nimbed. An inscribed scroll signifies that he is crying ‘lat(ro)nes, lat(ro)nes’ (‘robbers, robbers’). The same woman as that who watched Bernard from the doorway is shown fleeing from his bedroom. She has long hair falling down her back and wears a white nightdress decorated with gold embroidery (Fig. 3).
Behind this scene an unknown man sleeps in a bed. It is not clear if this is a fellow guest at the hostel, or the husband of the woman; Woodforde thought the latter.
The panel is based on the last of three stories describing how the future saint protected his chastity before becoming a monk. The primary source for the stories is the first part of the Vita Prima of St Bernard, an account of the saint’s early life compiled by his friend William of St Thierry before 1148.
St Bernard was one of the most influential figures of his age. Born in 1090 at Fontaine in Burgundy, he entered the monastery at Citeaux in 1113 before leaving to found the monastery of Clairvaux two years later. During his lifetime, sixty-eight daughter houses of Clairvaux were established. Apart from that achievement, he was also a towering figure in the wider medieval church. His intervention in the papal schism of 1130–38 resulted in the recognition of Innocent II as the legitimate pope. In 1146, he preached the need for a second crusade at Vezelay. He was also the author of several highly influential books. He died in 1153.
According to William’s account of the story told in the Marston Bigot glass, when Bernard’s friends asked him in the morning about the night-time commotion at the inn, St Bernard replied that an attempt had been made to steal his most irreplaceable treasure – his chastity. This same scene was also depicted at the Cistercian abbey of Altenberg, where the entire sequence of three stories was reproduced in the cloister windows. The first of these tales – how St Bernard stood in freezing water to quench his carnal desire for a beautiful maiden – was destroyed during the Second World War. The second – how St Bernard ignored a young woman who climbed into his bed and caused her to leave by not responding to her – is now owned by the Schnütgen Museum and can be seen in the current exhibition in Cologne. The third scene from the Altenberg series – directly comparable to the Marston Bigot panel – belongs to the Ludwig Collection in Aachen and is reproduced here by kind permission of Dr France (Fig. 4).
A further feature of the Marston Bigot panel merits discussion. As can be seen from Fig. 1, the painting includes an inscription in Latin, much of it abbreviated (Fig. 5).
Rather than describing the scene depicted within the panel itself, this inscription relates to the second of the three ‘chastity’ incidents mentioned above – the temptation of St Bernard by a young woman who climbed into his bed. It reads, in translation: ‘When once the saint [discovered] a girl, naked at the instigation of the devil, had climbed into the bed, he yielded to her that part of the bed which he had previously occupied, and, exiled to the other side of it, he fell asleep. After she had made him bleed by worrying him with her nails, and he had continued motionless, she blushed with shame, arose, and fled away.’
According to Woodforde, this is an ‘expanded’ version of the original story as told by William of St Thierry. For him, the ‘sexed up’ account in the panel was more in tune with fifteenth-century taste. This may be so, but what makes these additions doubly remarkable is that they were written for a nunnery! It is not clear whether this inscription was meant to be read in conjunction with a now lost adjoining depiction of this incident, or as a substitute for the scene.
Far less is known about the St Apern cloister glazing scheme than its exemplar at Altenberg, of 1505–20. It seems to been made later, around 1524–26, and to have consisted of a Christological narrative – parts of which are normally displayed in the north transept of Cologne Cathedral – and a reduced version of the St Bernard cycle.
The first mention of St Apern occurs in 1169. In 1474, the nuns settled in a hermitage outside Cologne’s Ehrentor (‘Honour Gate’), after their former convent at St Mechtern, Ehrenfeld, had been dismantled. The new church of St Apern was completed in 1487 and was directly subordinate to Altenberg. It was the abbey’s sixth daughter house. Following the secularization of the Rhineland by Napoleonic France, the building was demolished and houses built on the site. No traces now remain.
At least fourteen panels have survived from this church. Their current locations are documented in Dr Täube’s catalogue.
How Did the Panel Get to Marston Bigot?
There are two parts to this question: who was responsible for the installation of the panel at the church; how and from whom did they acquire it. Sadly neither can be answered entirely satisfactorily.
The most likely date for the installation of the panel corresponds to the rebuilding of the church after the appointment of the 8th Earl of Cork’s youngest son, the Revd Richard Cavendish Boyle, as Rector of St Leonard’s in 1836. The Cork family had lived in the village since the seventeenth century and had been responsible for the building of the church in the fashionable gothick style in 1789, after its medieval predecessor had been condemned as ‘ruinous’ five years earlier. Even now, their former ancestral home – Marston House – dominates the village. In 1844–45, the Corks retained the Bath-based architect, Edward Davies, to remodel the church in a more fashionable Norman style. These extensive modifications included the addition of a new Norman chancel with a large east window (Fig. 6).
Typically for the period, the glass seems to have been arranged aesthetically rather than liturgically, with the St Bernard panel in the centre of the display. At least one rector subsequently complained that it was a most unsuitable subject to look at while he was celebrating Holy Communion.
Though the Cork family may have been responsible for the installation of the glass, how and from whom they obtained the glass remains a mystery. The panel does not appear to be listed in the sale catalogues of two well known dealers of the period, John Christopher Hampp and Seth William Stephenson, from whom much of the glass from two of the four monasteries that feature heavily in the Cologne exhibition – Steinfeld and Mariawald – was acquired by English collectors. According to Dr Täube’s research, the Marston Bigot panel, and others from St Apern, left the monastery around 1803, before eventually finding their way to a London antique dealer in 1824. Their whereabouts in the intervening years remain unknown.
When the Revd William Gorusch Rowland bought eighteen panels from Altenberg Abbey in 1845 for St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, two panels from St Apern were also among his purchases. One illustrated another scene from Bernard’s youth, in the same cycle as the Marston Bigot scheme, and the second showed St Peter with eight donors. Both panels are currently being exhibited in Cologne.
The Other Glass at Marston Bigot
If one puzzle at Marston Bigot has been solved, five others remain. These concern the origins of the remainder of the continental glass inserted into the east window (Fig. 7), apparently at the same time as the St Apern scene. All five panels were described by Woodforde in 1946 and once again their precise origins remain unknown. The east window contains, in the right-hand light (centre panel) the Annunciation; in the central light (top to bottom) the two spies, and the demi-figure of a prophet, the St Bernard ‘Chastity’ panel, and Jacob before Esau; and in the right-hand light (central panel) the Fountain of Life.
In discussing the Annuncation (Fig. 8), Woodforde drew attention to another panel, now in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol, which he suggested was part of the same series. He thought it was early sixteenth-century Flemish work and pointed out that the Bristol glass had been bought by the Corporation of the City from Lypiatt Park, near Stroud, in 1820, with glass from other sources. Woodforde thought that the Fountain of Life was Rhenish (Fig. 9), and wondered if the panel of the two spies (Fig. 10) had originally belonged to the cloister of Mariawald Abbey (a possibility recently ruled out by Dr Täube).
Woodforde implied that the demi-figure of a prophet (Fig. 11) could also have been made for Mariawald. In particular, he drew attention to the fact that the illustration of the story of the two spies, in a blockbook edition of the Biblia Pauperum printed around 1460, contained a similar half-figure of King David holding a scroll, inscribed with exactly the same wording as that held by the figure in the glass. Woodforde further speculated that the Jacob panel (Fig. 12) had come from Mariawald Abbey, drawing attention to similarities of style.
Although Dr Täube has ruled out Mariawald as the origin of the glass illustrated in figs 9, 12 and 13, one of the many important achievements of the Cologne exhibition has been a reconstruction of how the glass was ordered in the Mariawald Abbey cloister with demi-figures of prophets in the tracery lights, with a typological scene from the Old and New Testament in the upper and middle tiers of the main window, followed by a ‘portrait’ of the donors with their saint in the lowest tier. This suggests that some of the Marston Bigot glass may have belonged to a similar Christological series, possibly in or around Cologne, but where?
I am grateful for the help of the Revd J Hodder, Rector of Marston Bigot; Mr Michael McGarvie; Dr Dagmar Täube, Deputy Director of the Schnütgen Museum, Cologne; Dr Annette Willberg, Secretary of the Rheinische Glasmalerei. Meisterwerke der Renaissance exhibition; Peter Williams; and Dr James France for their help with writing this article.
James France, The Cistercians in Medieval Art, Stroud, 1998
James France, Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Kalamazoo, 2007
Jane Hayward, ‘Glazed cloisters and their development in the houses of the Cistercian order’, Gesta, xii, 1973, pp. 93–109
Michael McGarvie, Marston Bigot: Church and Parish, Frome, 1989
Michael McGarvie, Marston House: a History and Guide, Frome, 2005
Arno Parenth, Bernhard von Clairvaux. Leben und Wirken dargestellt in den Bilderzyklen von Alötenberg bis Zwettl, Cologne, 1984
G. McN. Rushforth, ‘Painted Glass in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, Bristol’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 49, 1927, pp. 301–31 (see plate III). This article can be read on line here.
Dagmar Täube, Rheinische Glasmalerei. Meisterwerke der Renaissance, two vols, Cologne, 2007
Peter Williams, The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, 2000
Christopher Woodforde, Stained Glass in Somerset 1250 – 1830, London, 1946, pp. 260–64