Category Archives: Past Events

Reflections on the Thomas Becket Study Day, 7th June 2017, Canterbury Cathedral

There could scarcely be a more appropriate setting for a study day on the theme of Thomas Becket than Canterbury Cathedral, the location of the archbishop’s martyrdom nearly 850 years ago on the 29th December 1170. In the Cathedral Library and Archives, just metres from the site of Becket’s murder in the North West Transept, experts from universities, museums and Canterbury heritage organisations gathered to discuss the saint’s life and cult.

The day began with a series of ‘quick fire’ presentations, each focusing on one theme or object related to Thomas Becket. The range of material gave an immediate sense of the scale and popularity of Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages and beyond. Some objects discussed have likely existed in the vicinity of Canterbury since they were produced, including a fragmentary sandstone ampulla mould discovered in the garden of 16 Watling Street (Dr Paul Bennett, Canterbury Archaeological Trust), a thirteenth-century cartulary made for Christ Church containing charters for the shrine of Thomas Becket (Professor Louise Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University), the seal of Archbishop Simon Sudbury showing Becket’s martyrdom (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh, University of Kent), and the spectacular miracle windows in the Trinity Chapel of the Cathedral itself (Professor Michael A. Michael, Christie’s Education).

Thomas Becket ampulla (or vessel), now in the British Museum, similar to the kind that would have been produced by the Watling Street mould discussed by Dr Paul Bennet. See more 3D models of pilgrim souvenirs here

Image 2, Sens Chasuble

Chasuble in Sens Cathedral treasury thought to have been worn by Thomas Becket and venerated as a contact relic

Other delegates discussed geographically dispersed objects which originated or were believed to have originated in Canterbury. For instance, pilgrim souvenirs depicting Becket were bought by visitors to Canterbury and, it would seem, lost on the way home. These badges, with their intricate and compelling imagery, would have been worn on the bags, hats and garments of pilgrims as signs of their visit to Becket’s shrine and are now excavated from sites across Britain and Europe (Amy Jeffs and Dr Gabriel Byng, University of Cambridge and convenors of The Digital Pilgrim Project). Likewise, Dr Emily Guerry (University of Kent) discussed a series of vestments owned by Sens Cathedral that were reputedly worn by Becket and possibly used at Sens as contact relics.

 

A number of  significant objects pertaining to Becket originated from further afield, both geographically and chronologically. Dr Tom Nickson (Courtauld Institute of Art), for example, presented on a c. 1200 altar frontal depicting Becket’s martyrdom found in the church of San Miguel in Almazán, which bears early witness to the popularity of Becket’s cult in Spain.

Image 1, San Miguel altar

Altar frontal from the church of San Miguel in Almazán, showing Becket’s martyrdom

Becket’s later legacy was then examined. Lloyd De Beer (British Museum) assessed the sixteenth-century political and religious connotations of the saint’s martyrdom through the lens of Alberti’s The Martyr’s Picture (1581), displayed in the Venerable English College in Rome, and Naomi Speakman (British Museum) discussed Becket’s memory in post-Reformation England and his representation as an anti-martyr.

These evocative objects and themes provoked a lively concluding discussion that centred on the international nature of Becket’s cult and the extent to which the art associated with it imitated and/or innovated in order promote the saint and potency of his cult as a political tool.

Image 4, Cathedral Archives

Examining the Professions of Obedience in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives

This discussion was followed by an opportunity to see first-hand some of the extraordinary items associated with Becket. Cressida Williams, head of the Cathedral Archives and Library, had organised for an array of Becket-themed documents and objects from the Cathedral collections and various heritage organisations in Canterbury to be displayed together in the reading room of the Cathedral Archives. Among this impressive collection were two fragments of pink Tournai marble, discovered during excavations in the Cathedral grounds, which are thought to have come from the shrine of St Thomas himself. Also on display were a number of medieval seals from the Cathedral’s collections, including those of Archbishops Hubert Walter and Stephen Langton, which both depict Becket’s martyrdom. Dr Helen Gittos from the University of Kent discussed a particular treasure of the Cathedral Archive, the Professions of Obedience, a series of 170 documents now bound into a single volume that record the vows made by bishops during their consecration. These small vellum statements, which would have originally been sewn together in a continuous roll, contain the dates of bishops’ consecrations, and are thus immensely helpful in dating other contemporary documents based on a comparison of their palaeography. Becket’s entry is especially marked in the Professions by a statement in red noting his archiepiscopal status.

 

The later half of the afternoon saw the group move to the Cathedral stained glass studio, where Leonie Seliger, Head of the Stained Glass Conservation Department, led us in a discussion of the representation of Becket in the Cathedral glass. Notably, only three original thirteenth-century panels depicting Becket’s head survive, which Leonie encouraged us to find among her printed reproductions – a task that proved surprisingly difficult. We also had the opportunity to see some of medieval stained glass currently under restoration in the studio, and to hear from Leonie about the techniques that would have gone in to making these panels. A particular highlight was seeing how the colour of nine hundred year old stained glass was still bright and vivid when held up to the light.

Image 7, Sudbury's tomb

Kneeling at the resonant prayer niches in Archbishop Sudbury’s tomb, Canterbury Cathedral

A subsequent tour of the Cathedral offered a chance to see the miracle windows we had discussed in the glass studio in situ, along with the site of Becket’s shrine and several archiepiscopal and royal tombs. The tombs of Archbishops Sudbury and Mepham in the south aisle of the Choir afforded a particularly interactive experience; kneeling down at one of the vaulted prayer niches carved into the tombs’ exterior, penitents (or indeed academics) can experience an amplification not only of the music performed in the nearby Choir, but also their own whispered prayers and thoughts.

 

Professor Paul Binski (University of Cambridge) brought the study day to a close with a public lecture entitled ‘Thomas Becket and the Medieval Cult of Personality’. Drawing on many of the objects seen and discussed throughout the day, Professor Binski reflected on the idea of Becket’s ‘persona’ (as opposed to the modern notion of ‘personality’) and its importance in the formation and development of his cult. Much like a mask that can be put on or taken off, the medieval concept of an individual’s persona was related to their outer countenance, and formed by certain archetypal characteristics – both good and bad – often rooted in character types in biblical stories or saint’s lives. Becket’s persona and outer image, Professor Binski argued, was imitated in the art and architecture produced in response to his martyrdom, an aspect that was vital to the rapid dissemination and spread of the cult. Due in part to the accessibility of this image through objects made both for the elite and for the ordinary person, Becket’s persona transcended social as well as geographical boundaries, transforming his cult into a widespread, international phenomenon. Professor Binski’s concluding remarks on the appeal of the Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages had a particular resonance amidst of the full lecture theatre where the lasting legacy of Thomas Becket’s life and death was still very much felt.

Sophie Kelly

PhD Candidate, University of Kent

 

British Museum Handling Session: Master W and Key and late-gothic architectural prints 

an00059980_001_lThanks to the assistance of Lloyd De Beer and Naomi Speakman, both in progress with individual collaborative PhDs at the British Museum, the Courtauld has organised several handling sessions for postgraduate students over the past few years – you can read a report from an earlier session here.
The March session was kindly hosted by the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings department, and focused on Master W and Key (active c. 1465–1490), an anonymous Netherlandish engraver named after the shape of his monogram. Most of the eighty-two extant works by this artist are ornament prints, but he is also known for his engravings of ships, the first known representations of this kind.
Both aspects of the Master’s production were discussed during the handling session, when we had the opportunity to analyze several prints by the artist, including:
While the ships may be connected with the ducal fleet of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, scholars have generally interpreted the architectural prints as patterns to be used by craftsmen in the workshop. Nevertheless, discussion during the session raised many questions on the cost, circulation and market of such early prints. Although a modern perspective may see the printed image as a cheap, mass-produced medium, these early architectural  examples are very complex, and often required the painstaking engraving of more than one plate, printed on multiple sheets. Would such time-consuming creations really have offered a more convenient alternative to the exchange of drawings among workshops? What other reasons may have contributed to the spread of such designs?
Although this remained an open question, consideration of prints such as Alart du Hameel’s Design for a Gothic baldachin  revealed that early architectural prints could be intentionally used to advertise their maker’s expertise in design and geometry: this print features a prominent signature, a mason’s mark, and an abbreviated ground-plan which seems to imply superior technical expertise. The same consummate skill is show in Wenzel von Olmütz’s Elevation of a Gothic Pinnacle with a Hexagonal Ground Plan, although in contrast to du Hameel, Olmütz did not sign his creation, and positioned plan and elevation one above the other, as typical of other Gothic drawings and of the Gothic design process in general.
Other treats of the handling session included Emperor Heraclius entering Jerusalem with the upright True Cross, designed by Alart du Hameel but signed ‘Bosche,’ presumably in an attempt to partake of the painter’s fame; Master ES’ figured alphabet; Albrecht Dürer’s large coloured drawing of a Gothic table fountain.
Objects for the session were selected by Dr Ursula Weekes, Dr Tom Nickson and Costanza Beltrami. We also put together a short list of suggested reading on the theme of late-Gothic architectural prints and alphabets:
Kik, Oliver, ‘From Lodge to Studio: Transmissions of Architectural Knowledge in the Southern Low Countries, 1480–1530.’ In The Notion of the Painter-Architect in Italy and the Southern Low Countries, edited by Piet Lombaerde (Turnhout, 2014)
Waters, Michael, ‘A Renaissance without Order: Ornament, Single-sheet Engravings and the Mutability of Architectural Prints,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 488-523
Kavaler, Matt, ‘Gossart as Architect,’ and the entries on The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels (p. 126) and The Malvagna Diptych (p. 136) in Maryan W. Ainsworth (ed.), Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jean Gossart’s Renaissance: The Complete Works (New Haven and London, 2010)
Boekeler, Erika, ‘Building Meaning: The First Architectural Alphabet’. In Push Me, Pull You: Art and Devotional Interaction in Late Medieval & Early Modern Europe, eds S. Blick & L. Gelfand; E.J. (Brill, 2011), pp. 149-195.

Taking architectural history to the bridge: International Bridges Group inaugural meeting report

The study of architecture largely focuses on the study of buildings: constructions with their most essential function as shelter for the human body. But architectural history can forget that constructions with other functions are also ripe for interpretation of their structure and ideologies. This is what the ambitiously-named International Bridges Group intends to promote for crossings of all kinds, but beginning with a focus upon the medieval. Hence we at MedievalArtResearch.com were invited to their inaugural meeting at Westminster Hall on the banks of the Thames, followed by a day of in-depth (hopefully not literally) investigation of medieval bridges in the Nene and Great Ouse valleys. It as an opportunity to experience the fledgling sub-discipline of gephyrology: a neologism which currently only returns fifty results on Google.

Delegates assembled under the flying buttress of Westminster Hall

As the current writer specialises on ecclesiastical architecture, one thing that emerged in the day in Westminster Hall was how similar working on the English bridge is to studying English parish church. Opening lectures from John Blair and John Chandler established thinking about English bridges is closely linked to unravelling the origins and operation of the English parochial system. Many current bridges can be traced back to the increasing importance of kingdoms in the late eighth century, and the establishment of centres of power. Just like churches, sometimes the opportunity to build a bridge was seized upon by institutions, monastic, parochial or secular to make a powerful architectural statement. Equally, institutions could be less responsible: maintenance neglected and pontage tolls embezzled.

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David Harrison addresses delegates

Also like English churches, English bridges are uniquely weird and wonderful in equal measure. John P. Allan showed us, via the Exe bridge at Exeter, how independent masons may have been happy to meet in the middle with rounded and pointed arches; while Peter Cross Rudkin showed the English fondness for soffit ribs under the arches, akin to the complicated mouldings of English churches. The rib may have originally had a functional purpose centring the arch before it was built up: especially important for a rounded arch that cannot support itself. But since the ribs are often spaced wider than the length of the stones on top, it would appear that they have assumed the status of a skeuomorph: a decorative form derived from a practical necessity. Having a bridge that had distinctively bridge-like forms was clearly as essential as its structural practicality.

Jana Gajdošová and the tower of the Charles Bridge, Prague

Jana Gajdošová and the tower of the Charles Bridge, Prague

Just as a church spire provided an opportunity to dominate the sky, a bridge provided a powerful opportunity to assert ideology through these unique architectural semiotics. Susan Irvine used Anglo-Saxon literature to consider the bridge as a liminal space: a meeting point between two places. The potential of using this category of space was explored by Jana Gajdošová and Gerrit Jasper Schenk, both presenting papers on bridges rebuilt after disaster. The Gothic Charles Bridge in Prague, with its enormous bridge-tower and scheme of regal architectural sculpture, Jana showed to be a powerful expression of the megalomaniacal ambition of the Holy Roman Emperor. Gerrit compared the rebuilt Ponte Vecchio to the Florentine Bapistery: a pagan monument to Mars reclaimed for John the Baptist, expressed through inscriptions that speak of the enlightened commune of the city.

The final session brought us to how the established concept of a bridge worked in larger societal concepts: Jacopo Turchetto took us to medieval Anatolia, demonstrating how magnificent Ottoman bridges represented much older meeting places of travelling caravans. Roberta Magnusson and David Harrison both gave rich lectures about the bridge in the frameworks of English urban infrastructure and society that proved vital for enlightened conversation on the group’s trip out the Nene and Great Ouse Valleys the next day.

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Great Barford, Bedfordshire

Great Barford (Bedfordshire), c.1428

After an early Sunday-morning start, the first bridge the delegates encountered was Great Barford in Bedfordshire, dated by a major bequest of 1428. Much of the problem of looking at bridges is that, unlike a building, it faces not just the usual climatic elements, but also heavy traffic, perpetually flowing water, and wandering boats. Therefore it is inevitable that they fail and are rebuilt. Great Barford was also slightly spoiled by the 1874 widening – a common solution to the problem of increasing road traffic in the Modern age – here achieved by building out the bridge on the west side with a brick refacing.

Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire

Irthlingborough (Northamptonshire), 13th or 14th century

Many medieval bridges are isolated from the main traffic flow: Irthlingborough now has a rather precarious-looking 1930s concrete Art-Deco bypass running alongside it. But in the Middle Ages it was a main road: therefore it was an inevitable structure unlike the grand statement at Great Barford, and probably with much earlier origins. Ditchford, on the other hand, had no such modern rerouting and was very much in use, with signal lights controlling the two-way traffic not used to a group of architectural historians examining its structure (see featured image). This bridge, made largely of attractively-tinged ironstone, was funded by the two parishes of which it lay on the boundary line: charmingly expressed on the central cutwater by the symbols of churches’ dedicatees, St Peter and St Catherine.

Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire

Huntingdon to Godmanchester bridge, corbel table, c.1300-20

Two major urban bridges finished the trip. The very handsome bridge over the Great Ouse outside Huntingdon, called ‘lately built’ in 1322, reveals at close inspection its English eccentricities: different mouldings, designs and widths for every arch. It has the most attractive feature of a trefoil-arched corbel table, very much confirming the early-fourteenth-century date, which may have marked the place of a bridge chapel. Very few of these survived the Reformation: Wakefield, Rotherham, Bradford-upon-Avon and St Ives being the exception. However, we found the chapel over the Great Ouse locked, but had plenty to admire in the St Ives bridge itself: built in the 1420s at the behest of some generous Benedictines.

St Ives, Huntingdonshire

St Ives bridge and chapel, 1420s

While very rich and informative, this meeting established only mere stepping stones to the establishment of gephyrology as an active discipline. If you are a budding gephyrologist, especially of the medieval period (or at least, initially, hanging around with a bunch of medievalists) and would be interested in attending future meetings of this research group, then email Jana Gajdošová with your name, institutional affiliation and a brief description of your studies.

For the full resumé of pictures of the day (including cheeky opportunistic solo church visits) see the Flickr set.

Conference review: Microarchitecture and Miniaturized Representation of Buildings (INHA, Paris 8-10 Dec 2014)

Search for “microarchitecture conference” on Google, and you will mostly be returned results concerning gatherings of computer programmers. This would doubtless make the concept of a conference on medieval microarchitecture entertaining to many. Even ignoring this parallel nomenclature, the sort of microarchitecture art historians are interested in is not an easy concept to explain, and perhaps one of the primary goals of the conference held at the Institut Nationale d’Historie d’Art in Paris was to actually work out what we had all come together for. I doubt wasn’t the only one who wondered whether my own material actually qualified.

Professor Timmermann with his pocket cathedral

Professor Timmermann with his pocket cathedral

Achim Timmermann (University of Michigan), a man who could indeed be dubbed “Mr. Microarchitecture”, gave an exciting overview of the concept in Early, High and Late Middle Ages, so epic in its scope of fantastic structures that the screen ought to have expanded into Imax proportions. His account demonstrated how microarchitecture transformed from the idea of a “pocket cathedral” into such an isolated ontological sphere that it crossed into convolute monstrosity with its self-mimesis by the late fifteenth century. An alternative and quite staggeringly rich oration, based on his new book Gothic Wonder, was given by Paul Binski among the medieval statuary in the ancient Roman baths of the Museé de Cluny. For Paul, the medieval intellectual aesthetic condensed great and small, magnificent and minificent, into an idea characterised by a single playfulness of embellishing surface with ornament. A more formal account, jointly delivered by Javier ibàñez Fernandez (Universidad de Zaragozza) and Arturo Zaragozá Catalán (Universidad de Valencia), introduced a 7-part taxonomy of microarchitecture in Spain: from functional maquettes to decorative miniaturisation of large-scale forms.

Sebastian Fitzner and some extraordinary medieval tile ovens

Sebastian Fitzner and some extraordinary medieval tile ovens

In this framework of ideas of categorisation, many new genres of object were introduced to the conference room. The present writer, of course, had packed a selection of sedilia, which by now I am certain always prove novel to continental audiences. But we also had stone tile ovens like traceried office blocks from Sebastian Fitzner (LudwigMaximilians-Universität München), Orthodox chivots for Eucharist reservation that mimic the forms of their parent building from Anita Paolicchi (Università di Pisa) and Renaissance elevation drawings that were originally intended to be folded and constructed into paper models from Giovanni Santucci (Università di Pisa).
These models are sort of things we would love to have more evidence for in the Middle Ages to explain the transmission of ideas, but alas, even presentation drawings and plans are difficult to come by. The miniaturisation of large forms into the decorative or representational was covered in papers by Sabine Berger (Sorbonne) on votive churches in the hands of donor statues and Peter Kurmann (ETH, Zurich) on relationship of tabernacle canopies to the geometry and form of great chevets.

Matthew Sillence with cardinals' seals

Matthew Sillence with cardinals’ seals

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Final panel with Alexander Collins, Julian Gardner (chair), Sophie Cloart-Pawlak and Sarah Guérin

There was also consideration of the desirability of microarchitecture and its meaning beyond the artists’ play with novel forms. Matt Ethan Kalaver’s (University of Toronto) account of the earliest transmission of classical forms into the Netherlands by the high nobility on their tombs was reflected in the earlier centuries considered by Julian Gardner (University of Warwick) and Matthew Sillence (University of East Anglia). Their papers both focused on how influential medieval prelates and cardinals were for spreading new forms on their seals, which, quite thankfully, was a big part of my paper where also bishops seem the first to stick pointy gables over sedilia in chantry chapels they have endowed.
Perhaps one drawback about the novelty of much of the material is that it is only in retrospect to draw many of these parallels across sessions. One panel however that held together very well that at the end of the final day, between Sophie Cloart-Pawlak (IRHiS, Lille), Alexander Collins (University of Edinburgh) and Sarah Guérin (University of Montréal) who all explored the function and symbolism of microarchitecture on the spectator.
This was my first international conference, and it was a highly convivial experience with high-quality papers throughout. There was a healthy mix of postgraduates, early career researchers, established scholars and some legendary old hands. It is planned that the proceedings will be published, and therefore it should provide a much-needed general framework for the minificent microcosm of the fiddliest bits of the decorative arts.

The international conference Micro-architecture et figures du bâti au Moyen-Âge: l’échelle à l’épreuve de la matière was at the Institut Nationale d’Historie d’Art from the 8-10 Dec 2015. Here is our original post of the call for papers, the full programme and the INHA’s official page.

We also had a bit of fun tweeting the conference because we’re so Web 3.0.

Conference review: Commemoration of the Dead: new approaches, new perspectives, new material (15 November 2014)

There was a packed conference room in the newly-refurbished Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, as eager members of the Church Monuments and Monumental Brass Societies gathered to hear about new approaches to incised brass memorials. As a sequel of sorts to a conference reconsidering approaches to funerary monuments on the half-centenary of Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture held at the Courtauld Institute in July, the stakes were high for a day on one of the potentially less-colourful genres of late medieval art production. However, the conference proved that brasses could also produce many novel and intellectually profitable methodologies, rather than inward-looking and basically descriptive case studies.

Heythrop, Oxfordshire

Stained glass commemorating John Ashfield (d. 1521), Heythrop parish church, Oxfordshire – via Flickr Martin Beek

Richard Marks (‘Brass and Glass’: the medieval tomb-window) began the day with some pearls he had discovered in his relentless trawling of late medieval parochial wills, and that “brass and glass” was more than just a rhyme: many church windows acted as surrogate funerary monuments. Without the wills, there would be no way of knowing that the fragments of stained glass were patronised by the memorialised person under our feet. The use of documents to consider individual agency was also explored by Jessica Knowles on All Saints North Street in York (’Controlling the Past’: the Medieval Brasses of All Saints North Street, York), and at the end of the day by Christian Steer on the brasses in the lost London convent of the Friars Minor (’A Melting Pot of Death’: Burials and Brasses in the London Grey Friars). This veritable carpet of memory raised the intriguing questions of why the Franciscans were so popular among well-to-do Londoners, and how the friars themselves – supposedly unable to own property – bought their own brasses.

Brügge, Sint-Jakobsplein, Sint-Jakobskerk, Kupfergrabplatte der Katheline d'Ault (St. James's Church, tomb cover of Catherine d'Ault)

Brass of Catherine d’Ault d.1451, St James, Bruges – via Flickr HEN-magonza

The idea of the importance of patrons’ agency in the design of memorials was raised in the paper by Matthew Ward discussing Chellaston alabaster workshops (Late Medieval Style: the Role of Agency and the Workshop). Michael Carter then showed how an alleged London Type-B brass in Fountains Abbey was almost certainly later than the usual timespan of that workshop; instead the evidence of the iconographical motif of raising a mitre to show off a cleric’s doctoral credentials gave us the identity of the commemorated abbot (The Mysterious Mitre on the Monument). Looking outside of the constraints of the medium continued: Harriette Peel (Women, Children and Guardian Angeles in Late Medieval Flemish Funerary Art) also used novel iconographical analysis to show that a Flemish brass commemorating a young girl may be making appeal to female hagiography through its inclusion of a guardian angel. Sanne Frequin brought colour to proceedings with some technical findings of the polychromy of Tournai Marble monuments: supposedly a “pure” medium like brass (Tournai Stone: an investigation of materiality).

Nijmegen, Sint Stevenskerk

Tomb of Catherine Bourboun (d.1465), St Stephen, Nijmegen – via Flickr Stewie1980

It is often forgotten that England, with its religious rather than social revolution, has a much richer corpus of funerary monuments than much of Europe. Ann Adams used the English corpus of tomb chest-top brasses to creatively illuminate the apparently peculiar choice of the genre over sculpted effigies by some Flemish nobles (‘Revealed and Concealed’: Monumental Brasses on Tomb Chests – the examples of John I, Duke of Cleves and Catherine of Bourbon). Robert Marcoux (The Social Meaning and Artistic Potential of a Medium: Brass and the Medieval Tombs of the Gaignières Collection) reminded us of the importance of the Gaignières collection in the absence of the physical objects, and demonstrated its statistical potential in mapping aesthetic tastes over time. The varied papers, coupled with a lively, knowledgeable and generous audience, made for a day that proved that the humble brass lurking under the carpet in many a parish church can prove a lucrative genre for the modern art historian’s inquiry.

This review was originally published in Medieval Memorial Research newsletter, a free biannual summary on current developments concerning research in memoria of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (till circa 1600), and is part of Medieval Memoria Online.

Exhibition: Communities in Communication: Languages and Cultures in the Low Countries 1450-1530 (John Rylands Library)

P1930063The John Rylands Library is an extraordinary neo-Gothic building to which no tourist visit to Manchester is complete without. The architectural experience is supplemented by many fine exhibitions making use of its special collections, although due to their small, studious nature, they can often be overlooked. Communities in Communication is one such exhibition taking place in its cloistral vaulted corridors. Drawing on the Rylands’ large collection of books from the late medieval Netherlands, this small show forms part of a larger AHRC-funded project to understand the interplay of literary cultures in the late medieval Low Countries.

P1930065Guided by the excellent little exhibition booklet, the cases are grouped by themes that elucidate how the objects represent a window into the intellectual and linguistic cultures of their age. Trilingual phrase books show that individuals from urban burghers to the nobility were keen to improve their vocabularies. The new technology of printing had begun make written culture more accessible to a world burgeoning with literacy and an appetite for the word, and the majority of books here are printed rather than manuscripts written by hand. The books are beautifully displayed in shallow cases that allow you to appreciate the clarity of the printed text by actually reading the words, appreciating them as works of art and craft in themselves rather than simply vehicles for illumination. Perhaps the most significant object on show here is William Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English.

P1930097I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition on the occasion of a study day led by the exhibition curator, Adrian Armstrong. Our group was assigned a wonderful copy of Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend. First we studied the book as a physical object: assessing how the paper had been folded into bifolios and bound into quires. A copy that appears mint at first belies a fascinating object history: on close inspection showed how pages had been bookmarked by a neat reader. After a short break we looked at the book in a different way: how we might consider transcribing the text for a modern critical edition. Does one insert modern punctuation and expand contractions, or go the whole way and modernise the often archaic spelling? These are no doubt issues Caxton himself faced when sitting down with English, Latin and French versions of the Legenda Aurea back in Westminster in the 1480s.

The prologue from Caxton''s Golden Legend: the largest woodcut he ever produced

The prologue from Caxton”s Golden Legend: the largest woodcut he ever produced

These dual themes of material codicology and the linguistics of the text helped illuminate the texts on display outside, be it historical writing, poetry or phrasebooks. All these texts are material artefacts that can make manifest the essentially ephemeral speech of daily life in the late medieval Northern Europe: be it in diplomacy, trade, or leisure. This is certainly an exhibition to see if you are interested in the future aims of the project to unravel the interplay of literary cultures in this dynamic environment: both the autumn of the Middle Ages and the springtime of the Northern Renaissance.

Communities in the Communication: Languages and Cultures in the Late Medieval Low Countries is on at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester until 21 December 2014. Admission is free.

Charterhouse & Great St Bart’s: City sanctuaries

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Carthusian cloister at the Charterhouse, partly 1371 by Henry Yevele

In November the Courtauld group informally known as the “Tomb Raiders” visited the Charterhouse (http://www.thecharterhouse.org/) and St Bartholomew the Great (http://greatstbarts.com/), two Smithfield priory foundations with ancient and architecturally-complicated histories.

Established in Smithfield in 1371 as a Carthusian priory, the Charterhouse today is an almshouse for around 40 single men over the age of sixty, and our visit was kindly guided by one of the newest brothers (an American from Chicago) who genially warned us that as he was still on probation, we had to behave.
We assembled on the grass where the priory church once stood, giving us time to inspect the still-visible remnants of the altar, a modern memorial to the members of the community martyred following the Dissolution, and a squint in the exterior wall absorbed into the Jacobean chapel, where we began the tour.  Carved wooden greyhounds, the motto ‘Deo Dante Dedi’ (‘because God has given, I give’) and an elaborate polychromed monument (featuring chubby infant Vanitas blowing golden pipe bubbles, and a relief of the Brothers in chapel) commemorate Thomas Sutton who founded the almshouse and school (thriving today in Surrey) in 1611.

Jacobean Great Hall at Charterhouse

Jacobean Great Hall at Charterhouse

The priory’s cloister, with simple arches of austere stripped brick, preserves a narrow 14th c. cell door and serving hatches through which the monks’ meals were handed.  The Brothers today dine in the Great Hall, an airy space with a gallery running around two sides  beneath the hammerbeams.  An ornate 17th c. chimneypiece decorated with (more greyhounds and) carved cannons and powder kegs alludes to Sutton’s post as Master of Ordance in the north, and a 16th c. wooden screen at one end is a remnant from the Duke of Norfolk’s short-lived use of the property as his London residence.

Ascending a wooden staircase (which replaced the 17th c. original destroyed in the Blitz) we admired the plastered ceiling and Flemish tapestries depicting Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and tried to work out where in the Great Chamber Queen Elizabeth I and James I and VI would have sat.  Next we crowded three at a time into the tiny muniments room where archivist Stephen Porter showed us, among other treasures, a crumbling but beautifully-carved late 15th c. stone figure of St Catherine with much original polychromy and gilding still intact, removed from the innards of their central courtyard wall.

Having survived everything between Henry VIII and the Blitz, Charterhouse is one of London’s best-preserved buildings – and secrets.  We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it was wonderful to be in the centre of London and yet enjoy such silent stillness.

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View from the triforium gallery of St. Bartholomew the Great towards the tomb of Prior Rahere

Just around the corner and down Cloth Fair, we visited Great St Bart’s, always a treat but particularly so as James had obtained special permission to go upstairs into the clerestory.  After signing the obligatory health & safety disclaimers, we squeezed up a tight and twisty stair into the open clerestory.  It was exciting, after sitting through many church services staring up at Prior Bolton’s oriel window wondering what was behind it, to finally inhabit the space.  We had a wonderful aerial view of the darkening church and the chance to scrutinize fragments of stone ornament littering the floor.

A thorough and illuminating explanation by James Alexander Cameron (armed with Pevsner) of the innumerable architectural campaigns rounded out the church visit, ended by the arrival of a rehearsal wedding party, plus florists.

By Emily Pegues

Architectural fragments in triforium gallery

Architectural fragments in triforium gallery