Inspiration from the defaced and faceless


In the past I’ve blogged about the beautiful examples of medieval art in East Anglia not least the stunning rood screen at Ranworth. However, although many parish churches across the region still have their original rood screens often they have survived in much reduced circumstances.

village church Horsham St Faith
Church of St Mary and St Andrew, Horsham St Faith, Norfolk.

The Church of St Mary and St Andrew in the Norfolk village of Horsham St Faith is a fine medieval building. It is essentially a 15th-century church with some earlier 13th century features such as part of the flint and freestone West Tower dating from 1290. Inside the building, separating the chancel from the nave, is the rood screen comprising of twelve painted panels.  There is a dated inscription (1528) recording one William Wulcy and his two wives as the donors of the screen.

church interior rood screen
Twelve panel rood screen of St Mary and St Andrew, Horsham St Faith.

The church also has a similarly decorated pulpit with more painted panels. It’s accompanying inscription records the pulpit was painted in 1480.

Pulpit of St Mary and St Andrew, Horsham St Faith.
Pulpit of St Mary and St Andrew, Horsham St Faith. Tempera on wood panels, 1480

Like so much of the medieval ornate imagery of saints found in churches, both the pulpit and rood screen have been subjected to the iconoclastic forces of the puritan William Dowsing (1596–1668) and his followers.

At the moment I am working on a piece inspired by both the beauty of these paintings and the various examples of the defaced and faceless images that still survive. My own preference is for work that is either unrestored with all the fury of the scraped and scored faces still visible, or, panels that have been gently restored by restrained contemporary conservators.

Obviously, in the past there have been efforts at restoration with good intentions such as these carried out in 1978, but the heavy-handed often frankly amateurish repainting of the faces significantly detracts from the whole. And, in some cases the work is so bad it looks almost comical. (Somehow my photos, below, have softened this coarse attempt, but nevertheless the faces show no interest in capturing the medieval aesthetic.)

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

22 thoughts on “Inspiration from the defaced and faceless”

  1. This is interesting. The faces of these pictured saints, people, etc., show their history, just as living people do in their faces and the scars, etc. I like the look of this church.

    And I live near a town called Horsham, in Pennsylvania, USA. Once again, the web of the world twitches just a little with this connection!

    1. Another Horsham – how great! The main Horsham in England is actually the market town in West Sussex. Apparently Horsham was originally a place where horses were kept – Horse Ham!

      1. Our Horsham, I’ll have to see why it was named. It’s located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and developed only in the last 30-40 years or so – before that -it was out in the countryside. Now it’s pretty suburban, the usual neighborhoods, etc, nice houses, and the like. There is not a town center as such, really – the nearest thing to it that is, is Hatboro, which has been around since the 1700’s, I guess, and named that because of – manufacture of hats!

        I will look up Horsham, PA’s, naming history – now I am curious.

  2. It is sad to see old things in such a state of repair, but I agree restoration does somehow detract from that they were. And let us not forget Ecce Homo.

    1. Quite – amateurs should not really be let anywhere near anything that needs restoring. At the very least trained conservators should be invited to give an expert opinion first. Once it’s damaged it’s damaged!

      1. Saying that when I visited Rochdale town hall – a lot younger and in a safer environment, I admit – there was a young girl up a scaffold putting a lot of effort into the sculptured bits. I had to go and ask her (she wasn’t part of the tour) because I couldn’t conceive how she was conserving/repairing a sculpture. I can’t for the life of me remember what she said but she did have a good answer and she seemed very dedicated. So maybe restoration isn’t always bad.

      2. ‘Restoration’ in the art world is a hot potato. Do you remember all the furore when they restored the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? That certainly ruffled some feathers.

  3. East Anglia seems crammed with magnificent churches, magnificently decorated. No wonder it has perforce let so much tumble intio decay. But I agree, decay is often better than restoration which fails to recognise the spirit of the piece.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right about so many churches and any restoration costs a fortune. I think balance is required, but I still appreciate the look of the decayed in that 18th century Romantic way.

  4. What amazing cultural/religious architecture. And we also have a Horsham here in Victoria Australia. Its a farming service city out in the western plains. Very hot in summer and cold in winter.

    1. Another Horsham – it’s great the way these names have travelled. Actually, I was reading yesterday that the word Horsham could also have Saxon roots. I always like to think of myself as an Anglo Saxon so I rather liked that thought! 😄

  5. Like Denis, I am always amazed when you feature these churches and bring our attention to the details. Imagine attending a church whose origins date back to 1290. Our oldest is a modest stone building dating to around 1810, and we don’t have any of this type of iconography of course. Unless you count the Serbian Orthodox churches in many towns.

    1. I expect you appreciate your 19th-century survivors more than we do our medieval churches as there are so many old parish churches even in the heart of Norwich that people simply take them for granted.

  6. So interesting to draw links between the period of defacing these depictions many hundreds of years ago and the destruction of the giant buddhas and other icons today. Every generation seems to have its zealots. It makes sense that these should be left alone and not ‘restored’ since that too alters their history. Great post!

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes, history goes on repeating itself with each new generation of vandals thinking they are doing something shockingly new. In the end nothing will last forever and we do well to appreciate the surviving culture we have in the here and now. And, of course, enjoy all our wonderful moments with our fellow companions, people, dogs, horses. . . . .

    1. Yes, precisely 😊. Although this is an example of a ‘lesser survivor’. There are six churches, five in Norfolk and one in Suffolk where truly, magnificent rood screens still exist in a good and relatively original state. I feel very lucky to have lived in both Norfolk and Suffolk and have these beauties on the doorstep! Plus as I saw from one of your posts the other week you were impressed with Suffolk. It is a most charming county in which to live and one day I hope to move back there to my childhood town.

      1. I visited Europe for the first time in 2014 and was enchanted. I live in British Columbia, Canada ~ nothing is old here!

        Inspiration for art is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? It comes from everywhere!

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