Living in East Anglia there are many parish churches that still retain both medieval and Victorian church art. Painted rood screens and colourful stained glass provide a wealth of inspiration for my silk scarf designs.
Detail from St Lawrence, part of rood screen paintings. St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk.
Decorative detail from a Victorian stained glass window. St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
I like to steal ideas for motifs and also re-work various colour combinations. Often I will just use a tiny part of a much larger stained glass window whether its from a Tudor pane or details ornamenting a Victorian light.
Detail from the Susannah Window at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
Design drawn out on silk using coloured gutta and resist paint brush daubs.
And, once I have created the whole design and transferred it to the silk I then steal colour combinations from a completely different medium such as the oil on board paintings of local medieval rood screens.
The finished work may not obviously look either Victorian or medieval in style, but if you look closely you may be able to spot a motif or two and recognise the ‘dirty pinks’ from the painting of St Lawrence’s robe.
Years ago I received a charity Christmas card which featured what I took to be ‘The Three Wise Men’. Last month, at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, I saw the very large Gentile and Giovanni Bellini painting, ‘St Mark Preaching in Alexandria’. This painting had originally been started by Gentile Bellini, but following his death it was completed by his brother Giovanni. It is a fascinating Renaissance Venetians’ version of an imagined Islamic Alexandria.
Whilst photographing some of the captivating detail, displaying both the vivid imagination and skill of the Bellini brothers, I noticed three bystanders in non-Western dress. Here were my Christmas card kings.
There has also been a fashion for embossed, golden cards for Christmas. I’m not sure if this version of St Peter by Crivelli has been used yet, but the relief work depicting the keys and crosier could easily be embossed. Perhaps St Peter is looking a touch too joyless for Christmas.
A small amount of gilt and glitz is acceptable at Christmas, but I think I prefer the more muted colours of frescoes. How about this fourteenth century painting by Simone da Corbetta. It fits the bill visually and would appeal more to a 21st century sensibility with the wan-faced, tall and thin female saints.
And, finally, there’s plenty of inspirational, ornate sculptural work hidden away in churches. However, church interiors are frequently gloomy and a tripod (not popular with guides and security) is often required to capture an interesting, potential Christmas card image in focus or, maybe, not quite!
For anyone seriously interested in exquisite fifteenth-century stained glass then Long Melford in Suffolk is well worth a visit.
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.
Holy 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.
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.
In 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!
Window above north aisle door with small ‘Three Hares’ roundel centred beneath the Pietà
The ‘Three Hares’ roundel. Three ears are visible yet each hare has two ears! Painted glass, Holy Trinity, Long Melford.
Recently I’ve been looking at medieval sculptural details and one of the more interesting themes is ‘The Pelican in her Piety’. When food was scarce the female pelican was thought to peck her own breast until it bled in order to feed blood to her young. This Christian imagery of ‘The Pelican in her Piety’ would have been a familiar symbol across medieval Europe representing the self-sacrifice of Christ’s Passion.
Pelican in her piety, sculptural detail from 15th-century misericord, the church of St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk.
Pelican in her piety, sculptural detail from a 15th-century tomb, the church of St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk.
It is intriguing to examine fifteenth-century English interpretations depicting pelicans despite these birds not being found naturally in the British Isles. The above sculptural representations of this theme can be seen in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the South Norfolk village of East Harling. Searching out local, regional work is one of the pleasures of investigating the creative skills and imagination of the medieval artisan.
Pelicans. 13th-century Bestiary MS Harley 4751, f46. British Library.
Cranes. 13th-century Bestiary MS Harley 4751, f46. British Library.
It is also thought-provoking to consider the dispersal and then acceptance of new ideas and symbols such as the pious pelican. Perhaps one route of transmission occurred through illuminated books. All kinds of real and imaginary combinations decorate their pages. This intriguing image of an ape riding a crane is from a fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter.
Of course, monks working away illuminating manuscripts in a medieval scriptorium in Europe may have seen a crane or a stork or even a pelican in the wild, but ever since the Ancient Egyptians there is evidence of humans capturing and keeping birds in cages. Nowadays, more often than not it is the rare and endangered birds that are kept not in cages, but in wildlife sanctuaries in attempts to save their species.
These birds – storks, cranes (members of the Great Crane Project) and ibises form part of a collection at the Pensthorpe Natural Park in North Norfolk. Sadly though there are no pelicans not even the Dalmatian Pelican whose current status is listed as vulnerable.
White stork. Ciconia-ciconia.
Eurasian crane part of the Great Crane Project.
Northern bald ibis.
Reading round the bird forums on the Internet I saw somebody describe these stunning birds as ‘deeply ugly’, surely not! I agree they are, along with herons, not tiny, sweet and cuddly, but to me they appear, with a little visual imagination, to have flown in from the Cretaceous Period. They bring with them a hint of early Earth drama with their pterodactyl-like appearance.
Rather chilly for this stork used to the warmer parts of Africa.
Last weekend I was very pleased when the Summer 2015 edition of the International Journal of the Guild of Silk Painters arrived in the post. It’s a great little journal that allows a widely spread collective of artist/artisan silk painters to keep in touch, share their inspiration and publicise personal and group work.
I was especially pleased as it included my article about the inspirational medieval rood screens of East Anglia. It was interesting to see photographs of my work in print as opposed to on a backlit screen, and I must say the colour printing was excellent and very true to life. It made me wonder why so often colours in clothing catalogues are wildly wrong. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s down to the lighting.
The scarf pictured on the frame (above) has since been sold, but this one, Hilda mouse, is currently available and we took some time to get the shot and get those colours right!
In this third and final visit to the Huth Hours illuminated manuscript (Part I and Part II here) we find that it was not only flowers and birds that have been carefully illustrated. The Master artist, Simon Marmion, along with the other Flemish artisans who painted this fascinating Books of Hours, depicted the delicate damselfly
Damselfly – blue demoiselle detail from the Huth Hours. Add. MS 38126 f.15r
along with the odd snail or two
Snail in my back garden.
Snail detail from the Huth Hours. Add. MS 38126 f.84r
Snail detail from the Huth Hours . Add. MS 38126 f.17r
Snails on my Swiss chard!
and a nuisance fly.
Fly on the floor.
Detail from the Huth Hours. Add. MS 38126 f.20v
And, finally I couldn’t leave the Huth Hours without showing at least one saint and I’ve chosen St Anthony. This representation of the Temptation of St Anthony shows a very green, Lowlands countryside and the devil dressed as a lady of the late-fifteenth century (see the clawed foot poking out from under the cloth of gold gown). Perhaps an Egyptian desert landscape and historically attired devil temptress would have been too distracting for the devotions of the Northern European reader of this Book of Hours.
Detail from miniature of The Temptation of St Anthony from the Huth Hours. Add. MS38126 f.133v
No temptation here just friends at the school fête!
The beautiful illuminated Flemish manuscript, the Huth Hours (c.1485), not only has delightful representations of flowers decorating its margins, but every now and then a bird or animal is depicted within the ornamentation.
Starling detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f244r
Starling having a splashing time.
Thought to have been produced in either Ghent or Bruges over five hundred and thirty years ago, the Huth Hours contains many miniatures as well as pages of text with decorated borders. It is considered to be the work of Simon Marmion and his workshop in collaboration with other unnamed Master artisans.
Young Great Tit
Great Tit detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f.179r
Five hundred and thirty years ago sounds a long time to us, but it’s less than a blink of an eye for Mother Nature. Spying birds in the finely decorated margins such as starlings and great tits, and then spying the same species in my back garden evoked a wistful sigh from me as I contemplated the cycling of the years and the passing of the centuries.
Possibly a Blue Tit detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f.156r
When I was a teenager my family visited El Escorial, Spain. It was a memorable experience as apart from queuing down a marble staircase to visit the Pantheon of the Kings, it was the first time I saw a medieval illuminated manuscript. In fact, the library of El Escorial now, like many of the world’s great libraries, shares its collection online and thanks to digitisation we can all scrutinise these exquisitely decorated manuscripts.
Detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f223r
I’ve recently been looking for inspiration from the collection of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library. And, a Flemish Book of Hours, the Huth Hours (Add. MS 38126), created some time between 1485 and 1490 contains a selection of beautiful wild flower and bird illustrations. These strawberry flowers and bluebells caught my attention.
Bluebells detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f82v
Repeating a simple bluebell shape, but
not entirely sure about the colours so far – will probably add a little brown.
Originally, a hall house in Old Barge Yard, Norwich, Dragon Hall was remodelled and extended during the 15th century by successful merchant, alderman and member of Norwich’s Guild of St George, Robert Toppes (c.1405-1467). Toppes wanted a building that was both a showroom and a warehouse with easy access to the River Wensum. This striking timber-framed building was known then as Splytts and the main showroom was the magnificent first floor hall (85ft by 21ft). Here merchant Toppes would have laid out his fine woollen cloth, the famous worsted wool, to be traded and exported to Europe. And, at the same time he would have set out his recent imports from the Continent to sell to his Norwich clients.
The showroom was made impressive by a high crown-post roof displaying arched braces and tie-beams. And, in the spandrel of one tie-beam we can still see the fearsome carved dragon (top photograph) showing traces of medieval coloured paint. Some of the roof timbers we see today are original 15th-century beams and these too would have been painted. The showroom/hall was lit by three projecting full-height windows on the west side and one similar large window on the east, river side, of the building. This would have been a bright, innovative, outstanding commercial space in its heyday.
Away from the showy hall the rib-vaulted, brick undercroft provided warehouse space.
Nowadays visiting Dragon Hall you can see the sensitive restoration (1979-1988) which has peeled back centuries of patchwork remodelling and, interestingly, at the same time leaves some very early reworking detail in place such as a three times altered doorway.
Just thought I’d share my recent re-working of a design littered with medieval rood screen motifs. This time the new colour combination is – pink!
I had originally painted a pale turquoise, mushroom and sage version (below left) and after a few sketches decided that a mostly pink with a few old gold highlights would make an attractive combination.
This scarf has now been steamed and is listed in my shop – Mildred Pink.
Recently 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.