The Artisan in the Global Village

It is easy to believe with the power of the Internet that there is a Global Village, and, to some extent I think that we have never known so much about other people from across the planet. Yet, the word ‘village’ suggests a small community and community suggests personal knowledge of and interaction with individual people. We think we know about celebrities because so much of their everyday reality is displayed for the rest of us to consume. Despite the relentless pressure from the world of advertising and celebrity endorsements, I don’t think we believe we live in the same online village as celebrities. I do however sense that there are small villages of likeminded people clustering together in the blogging world.

Rood screen St Edmund's Southwold
The Rood Screen at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk.
Tempera on wooden panels with stamped gesso covered with gold leaf. c. 1459-1480s
Restoration work on faces probably undertaken in the 1930s.

Five hundred years ago in the small communities of East Anglia villagers knew each other, their roles, their status and their reputations, and the pre-Reformation parish churches provided a centre to their lives as well as their afterlives. These buildings were places where an individual would be remembered in the prayers of the community. In fifteenth-century Norfolk, artisans or decorators or painters or craftsmen (or creators or producers or makers), adorned the wooden rood screens of parish churches with painted representations of saints, prophets, and possibly benefactors. Members of the local community donated funds for a panel and asked to be remembered in the prayers of their fellow parishioners when they were dead. On the rood screen from the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, Aylsham, Norfolk, the following fragments can still be read along the bottom of the screen 500 years later;

‘Pray for the souls of Thomas Wymer, Joan and Margaret his wives who caused this part ….. John Jannys …. of this work to be gilded who …. died 1507’.

Roodscreen St Michael Aylsham
The Rood Screen of St Michael and All Angels, Aylsham, Norfolk, UK
Panels of Saints painted in tempera – circa 1500.

St Helen's Ranworth rood screen
Detail from rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk. Tempera on wooden panels. c. 1479
(Evidence from the will of Robert Iryng.)
Saints shown from left are James the Great, Andrew and Peter.
There are a number of medieval parish churches in East Anglia which still have their fifteenth-century painted rood screens in place. The condition of the painting varies and there are some sublime surviving examples most famously St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk and St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk, but I chose this one at Aylsham as it possibly mentions one of the makers, an artisan. The surviving text can be interpreted with more than one meaning – did John Jannys do the gilding or pay for it? It is rare for pre-Renaissance makers to leave their name. Artisans worked locally and were known locally with the transference of style, skill and reputation spreading by the real life journey to the next village or the next county.

So, John Jannys, half a millennium later, we know your name and we can see you contributed something to the rood screen. You would be amazed at our globally interconnected world, but not surprised if you were an artisan that artisans are still trying to be recognised for their work only now they labour in the shadows of ‘artists’ and ‘designers’.

Here is a beautiful scarf I love by the French artisan Sophie Digard with this pertinent quote describing her work ‘French designer Sophie Digard creates artworks that beg to be touched’. (The highlighting is mine.)

Her work is available at Sophie Digard.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

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