A Wool Church – Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk

raphaelFor anyone seriously interested in exquisite fifteenth-century stained glass then Long Melford in Suffolk is well worth a visit.

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Finished in 1484 the Great Church of the Holy Trinity contains a collection of some of the finest medieval glass in the country including a Lily Crucifix image and a rare roundel featuring a three hares motif.

suffolk-wool-church-holy-trinity-long-melfordHoly Trinity is one of Suffolk’s so-called ‘Wool churches’ as the erection of these buildings was funded from the profits of the medieval wool-trade. Advantaged Suffolk landowners prospered from the successful export of high quality wool and wool cloth to continental Europe and invested their profits building fine churches in the hope of facilitating a speedy journey for their soul through purgatory to heaven.

The medieval glass we see today filling the large ground floor windows features portraits of donors. These portraits would originally have glazed the upper, smaller, clerestory windows. For about 100 years during the 19th century some of this glass was used to reglaze the east window (1828) with more being installed in the west windows during 1862/3, however today these windows are clear. The present arrangement of the medieval glass, all along the north aisle, was carried out during the late 1940s.

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Across the nave to the north aisle windows now glazed with the medieval glass that was originally in the clerestory windows.

The height of these lofty clerestory windows helped protect the glass from the various destructive onslaughts that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. The lost/destroyed stained glass would have consisted of biblical images and religious themes popular in the medieval period and similar to those of the Victorian glass found in the south aisle windows today.

victorian-windows-long-melfordIn the medieval period clerestory windows were filled with a variety of images from Old Testament prophets and local church dignitaries to ethereal representations of angels and archangels. Amongst the many surviving medieval donor portraits (to be explored in a separate post) there are two archangels.

Here, at Holy Trinity it is the archangels St Gabriel and St Raphael that have survived. They are both exquisitely painted displaying subtle and detailed work using silver nitrate stain. They have been painted by a craftsman that understood how to use the translucent quality of his materials to achieve an unearthly quality, literally letting the spirit/light shine through.

There is another little gem hidden away in the Clopton Chantry Chapel. One of only five examples in England, the east window of the chapel bears a ‘Lily Crucifix’ dated from 1350. Christ is not on the Cross, but is instead crucified on white lilies. The blue background and the white lily represent the Virgin Mary and the motif symbolises the joint suffering of Mary and Jesus.

Finally, an unusual and rare three hares roundel has been placed above the north door. This motif is believed to have come to Europe from perhaps as far away as China via the Silk Road. If you look carefully you can see that although there are only three ears each of the three hares has two ears!

 

 

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A creative process – medieval art, craft and artisans (part 1)

Ranworth-ceiling-decorationRecently I have been working on my ‘Ranworth Collection’, a series of painted scarves that have been inspired by the medieval rood screen of St Helen’s church, Ranworth in Norfolk. The painted rood screens of East Anglia make a stunning contribution to the region’s heritage. Also as they can still be found at their original sites they provide a very tangible connection to the past lives of medieval East Anglians within some physical context.

Nowadays, these painted screens are appreciated as exquisite examples of medieval art, yet at the time of their construction and painting they were created by artisans and craftsmen and were objects of religious piety. Of course, in the late-fifteenth century the very notion of ‘an artist’ as we understand it today was a developing concept that was only just becoming established.

I don’t call myself an artist, but an artisan as my current creations do not have an overt, considered content other than their visual design. Not even if my collection of one-off pieces was to be presented as a whole in an exhibition could I name it an ‘art installation’. I have made art in the past when I set out to produce a visual representation of a sequence of experiences that were personally significant to me. However, I arrive at the creation of a painted scarf in a very different way although I employ the same techniques.

For a textile design my creative process begins with a visit to a place that has caught my attention. Sometimes it is the exterior architectural details of a medieval structure or a small carved detail found inside a church that offer potential to be translated into a two dimensional design. But with the ornate detail of the painted screens it is not just the intricate patterns that are so carefully rendered, but also the delicate, fading colours of the images that I find inspirational.

On a visit I take between 50 to 100 photographs of the various panels that make up the rood screen. I check the website for the parish church before I visit to ensure I won’t be intruding on a service and I try to start early before the tourists and visitors arrive at the more popular places. It takes at least an hour to shoot an interesting screen and, of course, there is absolutely NO FLASH when photographing 500 year old paintings.

Back at the coal face, sorry computer screen, I then start the process of selection and elimination. This procedure clarifies my visual impressions from standing in front of the originals and my own designs for pattern and colour combinations gradually crystallize as I select images from which to work.

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Appreciating random survivors

The parish church of St Helen's, Ranworth, Norfolk.
The parish church of St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk.

Locally, here in East Anglia, the porous relationship between history and heritage is on display. History as ‘heritage’ can be seen widely scattered across the landscape, and specifically, in our museums, country houses and, of course, our churches. History, a discipline consisting of sources and interpretations gathered from our past mingles with heritage, our collective inherited culture. Whilst history is often contentious it is not easily monetized unlike heritage that frequently becomes a tourist driven revenue opportunity.

interior parish church
Inside St Helen’s the rood screen divides the chancel from the nave.

The other week I went to visit St Helen’s the parish church in Ranworth. It is substantially a 14th and 15th-century church and is known as ‘the cathedral of the Broads’. Many people on boating holidays take the short walk up from Ranworth Broad to visit the church and climb the tower for the amazing views across the Broads. There is a small visitors’ centre with tea rooms within the churchyard. I spent over an hour in the church photographing its outstanding painted rood screen. During that time about a dozen visitors came in and headed for the tower, but only one couple were interested in the screen, the others didn’t even appear to notice it. The rood screen is not only of historical interest, but it also a beautiful part of the East Anglian heritage.

medieval carved tracery
Detail showing the tracery and the panels.

Rood screens were common place in medieval churches as they formally separated the most holy space, the chancel with the alter, from the nave. East Anglia has many medieval churches that still have part of their original painted wooden panel and tracery screens. Unfortunately, the top third of these structures are missing. The rood, a wooden cross bearing the crucified Christ, along with carved representations of Mary and St John that filled the upper space were all removed during the Reformation of the mid-16th century.

The rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, is a very fine example of medieval craftsmanship and painting (oil on wooden panels) and dates from the late-15th century. Original documentation, a bequest, has been located and in part it refers to the rood screen. It is the will of Robert Iryng, dated 1479, and provides evidence that some painting was carried out during the 1470s with a direct reference to the painting of the panels above the altar of St Mary (pictured below).

The Ranworth rood screen is a survivor although not in its complete form. It is also somewhat battered by the defacing attentions of the puritan iconoclast followers of William Dowsing (1596–1668), but it is still worth a visit and some up-close scrutiny. The screen looks beautiful even if your not interested in its history.

The Virgin Mary late-15th century, Norfolk
The defaced image of the Virgin Mary. One of the panels of the rood screen of St Helen’s, Ranworth