Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity (ed. Linda Monkton and Richard K. Morris), British Archaeological Association Transactions, XXXIII, 362 pages, b/w illustrations throughout, 47 colour plates, h/b and s/b editions, Maney Publishing 2011, softback price, £36
Although it is hard to believe, based on today’s appearances, Coventry was England’s fourth wealthiest city in the later Middle Ages, acting both as an economic powerhouse for the Midlands and dwarfing its near neighbour, the small market town of Birmingham. Its skyline was dominated by spectacular church spires, and the centre of the city was home to a huge Benedictine cathedral priory, several important parish churches, and a fine guildhall. Sadly, very few of these treasures remain today. The cathedral was demolished in the aftermath of the Reformation; the largest parish church was gutted by incendiary bombs during the Second World War, and many of the historic streets that had survived into the twentieth century were swept away by ‘modernising’ planners and politicians, whose brutal legacy continues to blight the place.
This book reminds us of those losses and sheds important light on what remains [Fig. 1]. It is a memorable volume in an already outstanding series of annual publications by the British Archaeological Association focusing in the main on the medieval art and architecture of particular English cities or areas. Nineteen well-illustrated contributions by some of the leading experts in their fields make this volume an invaluable research resource. Special thanks are extended quite rightly to George Demidowicz (former Head of Conservation and Archaeology at Coventry City Council) and archaeologist, Iain Soden, whose passions and expertise have done so much in recent years to rehabilitate the city’s glittering medieval past.
The book begins with overviews by Iain Soden and Chris Patrick of recent archaeological campaigns in the city. Papers by Richard Plant and Richard K. Morris concentrate on the architecture of the lost medieval cathedral and adjacent priory, highlighting the discovery of a vividly painted refectory pulpit with a miniature fan vaulted ceiling. George Demidowicz charts the fate of the priory site from the Dissolution to the present day. Linda Monkton takes a close look at the architectural development of the parish church of St Michael (subsequently raised to cathedral status in 1918 before being largely destroyed in 1940). A second article by George Demidowicz traces the history of the city’s guildhall, an impressive fourteenth-century building best known to stained-glass historians because of its superb north window dating from the 1420s depicting various kings of England [Fig. 2].
A paper on medieval seals produced in the city by British Museum specialist, John Cherry, is the first of several contributions that examine the work of medieval artists in the city. Of note for Vidimus readers is the fact that two of these contributions are by leading members of the British CVMA. The first paper is by Professor Richard Marks, the author of the standard work on stained glass in England during the Middle Ages. Using the much-admired fourteenth-century glass at the parish church of St Nicholas at Stanford on Avon (Northamptonshire) as his starting point, Professor Marks explores whether it can be attributed to a Coventry-based workshop. This includes a fascinating exploration of how the work of specific individual workshops might be identified and what factors may have affected the establishment and location of such workshops. The identification of workshops has traditionally been associated with an examination of figure style (particularly the delineation of heads and drapery folds), together with the choice of background patterns, motifs and canopy variants, the type of epigraphy, and (importantly) the range and kind of coloured glass that was used. Among the factors affecting why workshops were established, the author lists demand as critical; he also mentions easy accessibility via road systems for the import of raw materials and the delivery of products, and the need for centres of commerce and proximity to related crafts, such as stonemasons and blacksmiths. After these outlines, Professor Marks returns to the original question: was fourteenth-century Coventry such a place? Glaziers are recorded as working in the city at this time, but the surviving evidence from this period is exceptionally scanty. Other possible centres of glass-painting, such as Leicester and Lichfield, are considered, but once again a dearth of evidence proves insurmountable. To add to the uncertainties, the assumption that windows were always made by local workshops risks ignoring such factors as networks of patronage, the work rate and energy of medieval glaziers, regional markets and supplies, and much more.
The second article is by Heather Gilderdale Scott, who discusses the output of John Thornton, the Coventry-based artist best known for painting the Great East Window of York Minster between 1405 and 1408. Unlike most authors, who have tended to concentrate on Thornton’s artistic merits, Scott probes much deeper into his achievements, suggesting that he should also be seen as skilled manager of other glass-painters and an efficient organiser of major glazing projects [Fig. 3].
Of course, glass-painters were not the only artists active in medieval Coventry as contributions by Miriam Gill and Mellie Naydenova-Slade both underline. The first named discusses two superb wall-paintings: a magnificent depiction of the Last Judgement or Doom at the parish church of the Holy Trinity, and a fragment of an Apocalypse cycle found during excavations at the priory site between 2000 and 2002. Although small, the latter is important for its quality, dating and subject matter. The author argues that it dates from c.1360–70 and thus pre-empts the famous series of Apocalypse paintings in the chapter house at Westminster Abbey. She also suggests that the paintings may have had a mnemonic function, helping the priory monks to remember verses from the book of Revelation as they were required to do so by the Rule of St Benedict. The fragment is now on permanent display in the Priory Visitor Centre, a few minutes’ walk from the present-day cCathedral.
Mellie Naydenova-Slade’s paper focuses on an important fifteenth-century wall-painting depicting the Crucifixion in the former refectory of St Anne’s Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery just outside the city walls. Apart from its artistic quality, this painting is particularly significant because it is the only surviving large monumental painting from an English Carthusian monastery to have survived; two figurative paintings at Witham Friary in Somerset, the lay brothers’ church at Witham Charterhouse, were lost between 1819 and 1834. Some years ago, Iain Soden suggested that the banner carried by one of the soldiers in the Coventry painting showed the arms of a local benefactor asserting his status as patron of the monastery; a view cited in my own book on medieval wall-paintings. Slade challenges this interpretation and suggests that the emblems might be less specific, perhaps just a common ornamental motif [Fig. 4].
This article is prefaced by an extremely useful introduction by Julian Luxford to the Charterhouse itself, its architectural development, and its institutional/artistic life.
Concluding chapters discuss buildings of importance around Coventry. They include a survey by Warwick Rodwell of the former Cistercian abbey at Combe, now a country house. John Goodall contributes two papers. The first is a study of the Earl of Warwick’s chantry chapel at Guy’s Cliffe and its remarkable larger-than-life statue of Guy of Warwick, a fictional hero in late twelfth-century literature who saves England from pagan invaders by defeating the Danish giant, Colbrond. The second paper explores what is known about the architecture of the College of St Mary in the Newarke, Leicester, a church and hospital founded in 1354. The concluding articles discuss Kenilworth Abbey Barn and Kenilworth Castle. The first of these, by Jennifer S. Alexander and Harry Sunley, suggests that the barn was originally connected to the prior’s guest hall at Kenilworth Priory (later Abbey), an Augustinian house dissolved in 1538. Richard K. Morris completes the volume with new findings about the early architectural history of Kenilworth Castle, a site now owned by English Heritage.
Several incidental points are worth making about this book. Its genesis was a BAA conference held in Coventry in 2007, and one of the side effects has been a renewed drive to preserve and display the medieval glass from the present-day cathedral that survived the Second World War. See Vidimus 33 for a history of the glass, and Vidimus 56 and 58 for recent updates. The conference also seems to have strengthened efforts by campaigners battling to save the charterhouse site from being sold to private developers by its current owners, Tile Hill College. As this review was being written, discussions about the future of the site between a local charitable trust and the college were close to a solution.