Category Archives: Past Events

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

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British Museum handling session: Objects with apotropaic inscriptions

GroupThe Courtauld has a reputation for getting up close to objects, sometimes to the concern of nearby gallery attendants. However, a number of handling sessions for postgraduate students to indulge in pawing exhibits without rebuke have been arranged at the British Museum with the kind assistance of Lloyd DeBeer and Naomi Speakman, both in progress with individual collaborative PhDs at the Museum. The theme for this December session was objects with apotropaic inscriptions, that is, words that apparently warded off evil, as requested and selected by Dr. Tom Nickson.

VikingprowAs we gathered round the table, putting on our unpleasant plastic gloves, what could not fail to draw attention was the impressive (and perhaps also apotropaic) axe-carved prow ornament under conservation for the forthcoming Viking exhibition. However the objects we were to be handling lay beyond this fearsome monster, and were of a much more manageable weight.

BellThis bell was my first port of call, partly being the second biggest thing on the table after the prow, but also because I had just written about bell-founding through the lost wax method with my post on Courtauld favourite Tudor Monastery Farm. Bells are one of the most common medieval objects to be inscribed with the craftsman’s signature, but this one also had four holy figures inscribed upon it which perhaps were there to protect the bell, while the former maybe acting as a perpetual prayer to the maker. Handling a bell like this immediately gives you the impression  that it is far too heavy to ring by hand. Instead, the shape of its upper aperture was suggested as perfect for it to be attached to a wooden frame, and rung by a mechanism. Although there were a few accidental semi-peels, we of course were not going to see if one could bear to have this bell hung low enough to be reminded of its maker while sounding the call to prayer.

FrenchringhandlingOne object that proved particularly popular was this French fifteenth-century finger ring, inscribed with an amorous inscription playing on Latin tenses. This blog is possibly not far from the truth in that it represents a particularly nerdy love-token: the image of the squirrel and lady on the inside being a not-so-subtle medieval double-entendré.

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However, that ring represented an object that matched our expectations, ideally sized to be placed upon a lady’s finger for her to cringe at the grammar puns forever more. My personal favourite object of the day was the Coventry Ring, both for its content and the puzzles its actual presence made manifest. On the outside, we have an image of Christ, and a prayer that relates to each of His five wounds. This prayer is accompanied by the characteristic disembodied floating sharplyCoventryRing2-pointed ovoids dripping blood, which, after Caroline Walker Bynum and others’ in-depth investigations of textual and iconographic parallels for the femininity of Christological imagery and devotion, you are allowed to state the obvious resemblance without the risk of getting too Freudian. This prayer is obviously supposed to be read while the ring is turned around the finger, but even this does not explain why it is so conspicuously large when you try it on. Was it made to commission for a particularly big man? Was it designed to be worn over a leather glove? Was it even supposed to be worn other than for prayer? The startling condition of the ring, even the enamelling of lettering inside and out, suggests perhaps so.

These are just a few of the thoughtful fruits that were generated from handling the objects set out for us. But perhaps what never really came out were many opinions about the apotropaic inscriptions which they all had in common. The Coventry Ring was one of many of the objects that had the names of the Three Magi inscribed upon it for instance, clearly from some common mystical significance. Yet so often the more mysterious and magical inscriptions were sidelined in our discussions for other, seemingly more primary functions that the objects embodied. Perhaps it was the same for their users: these were merely conventions that it was proper to have, and even the owner of the Coventry Ring themselves may have been hard-pressed to explain what “ananyzapta tetragrammaton” was all about.

Here is a list of the objects we had out and a link to their catalogue entry:
Laureate head pendant
Late Medieval Bell, English
The Hockley Pendant
The Coventry Ring
Cameo/Amulet ring, Italian, C14 (no image)
Amulet ring, Italian, C14
Annular Broach, English, C13
Finger ring, C15
Pilgrim badge of Henry VI
Mould for similar Henry VI badge
Thomas Becket pilgrim ampulla

We also had a large box of rings of lesser interest out.

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These included:
1856,0701.2707, 1856,0721.1, 1858,0628.1, 1865,1203.34, 1872,0604.379, ML.3995, OA.7467