Revisiting Rood Screens – Suffolk I

Three-hunting-dogsIt was just over 18 years ago that I spent several months visiting a number of medieval churches in East Anglia to photograph their painted rood screens. At the time I was working on the rood screens as part of my research for my Master’s dissertation. Often my mother accompanied me and helped out with the photographs. I was surveying the painted details found within the cloth of gold worn by the saints and prophets. She would patiently hold a cardboard scale slightly in front of the painted motifs embellishing the robes depicted on the screens. It was in the days just before digital cameras became widely available (and affordable!) and I had to wait for my film to return from the developers before I knew if my prints were a fair record for my work.

Page-27
Page 27 of my dissertation ‘Inspiration and Aspiration: The Patterned Silks in the Painted Rood Screens of East Anglia’. Photographs of the ‘hunting dog on nesting swan’ motif.

Following my recent house move my dissertation has surfaced. Looking for fresh inspiration I scrutinised the photographs I used to illustrate my text. What a disappointment! At the time I wrote and produced my dissertation the finished printed version appeared good enough, but compared to my photos today they are, well, of exceedingly poor quality.

St-Helens-Ranworth-St-Paul-side
Part of the rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St Philip, St James the Less and St Jude. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1470s (recent digital photograph)

There are six rood screens in East Anglia that are particularly fine and are known as the ‘Ranworth Group’. These late-fifteenth-century screens include from Norfolk; St Helen’s, Ranworth; All Saints’, Filby; St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton; All Saints’, Thornham; St Mary’s, North Elmham and from Suffolk, St Edmund’s, Southwold. Maybe one day I will be back up on the North Norfolk coast and visit Old Hunstanton and Thornham again, but for my immediate needs Southwold is my nearest resource. (I have already been back to, rephotographed and worked from Ranworth – see here.)

The rood screen at St Edmund's, Southwold, Suffolk
Part of the rood screen at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St James the Great, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Simon. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

It is the case that the Ranworth screen is by far the best preserved, but Southwold is also in a reasonable condition despite some Victorian renovation work. All six rood screens of the Ranworth Group appear to have been made and painted by a single workshop. The designs and motifs for the cloth of gold used to adorn the saints and prophets probably came from the same pattern source book. If you look carefully at the examples above (Page 27 -apologies for the poor quality) you can see a dog with collar attacking a nesting swan. This motif is found clearly on five of the painted screens, the exception being North Elmham which was too dark and damaged to see the detail clearly. All measured 6 x 7 cm suggesting the motif was traced from an original source. There are other motifs and stencilled patterns that are also seen repeated on the rood screens, including the screen at St Edmund’s, Southwold, providing consistent evidence to support the long held view that a well-respected artisan workshop from Norwich created these masterpieces during the period 1470 – 1500.

Earlier this week I went back to Southwold to rephotograph its glorious rood screen and you can see from the image below that modern technology, a better camera and a better lens have enabled me to record this treasured medieval art as it should be done.Southwold-dog-swan

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A creative process – medieval art, craft and artisans (part 4)

As with all creative processes, repeating it rarely results in a second identical copy and as often as not a practitioner makes minor adjustments each time they make a new piece for a series.

Obviously, in my Ranworth collection I have used different panels from the rood screen as inspiration for different colour combinations, but as I’ve worked on each scarf I have also slightly changed the pattern details too.

These scarves have ended up similar, but different. I have endeavoured to capture the relationship between my inspiration and the finished work, but it is tricky to accurately reproduce the qualities of the colours in a photo for a computer/mobile screen. (For your info at the moment these scarves are at the Smiths Row at Christmas Exhibition).

When the unnamed medieval artisans rendered their very beautiful images onto the Ranworth rood screen the colours would have been fresh and vibrant. Perhaps those artisans would be shocked at our 21st-century sensibility that so favours these now scarred and faded images not for their religious content, but their visual charm and serendipitous survival.

Gilded archangel
Detail of the archangel above St Barbara from the St John the Baptist chapel, St Helen’s, Ranworth.

A creative process – medieval art, craft and artisans (part 2)

Following sorting through my collection of Ranworth photographs (see previous post) it is time to begin working up the design, its shapes and colours.

First, I look for an appealing sequence of motifs and patterns.

Then, I open one or two photos on the computer screen and with continual reference to these images I start to mix the colours I want to use. It is worth noting that it’s only really since the mid-19th century when William Henry Perkin discovered aniline dyes that the option for very bright, clean colours has been available. Even if used as a dilution, the basic, unmixed dyes are too sharp, too harsh. For my work to achieve the more muted, slightly muddy colours similar to the variety of pigments, dyes and gilding of the medieval screens, I mix either a little brown or grey into each colour blend.

Once I’m happy with the colours I work up some small scale designs in my sketchbook.

Then it’s time to pin out the silk.

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.

Painted-image-medieval-carving

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

Caught in the act!

Me workLike many people who work from home I tend to have the radio on all day long. And, if not the radio then I have an audiobook plugged into my ears. So, it is quite possible for a camera-toting daughter (home for the holidays) to sneak up on me and catch me off guard.

Recently, I’ve been working on smaller pieces, but I decided I must just knuckle down and finish this large scarf. It is inspired by the colours of St Peter’s robes as depicted on the Ranworth rood screen. You can see my photograph of the bottom of the robes (with feet!) propped up in the above picture and a bit more detail at Motif combinations.

Me caught working

Motif Combinations

Clematis armandii SnowdriftHere, in East Anglia, we’ve had a ‘green’ winter – that is no significant periods of below freezing temperatures and no snow. Early March and both my clematis armandii climbers are blooming almost a month earlier than last year.


St Peter, Ranworth rood screen
Detail of 15th century painting of ornate garment worn by St Peter on the Ranworth Rood Screen. Ranworth, Norfolk.

I am currently working on a 90 x 90 cm crepe de chine scarf. I’m combining a floral shape taken from the clematis and motifs that appear on the ornate robe of St Peter as depicted on the 15th-century Ranworth rood screen. At first glance you might assume that the motifs painted on this 15th-century panel were inspired by the surrounding flora and fauna of East Anglia. However, it is more likely they were copied from a pattern book that had been brought over from Northern Europe. It is even possible that these patterns were lifted from silk cloth woven in the northern cities of Italy such as Catanzaro and Lucca. And, some of these woven motifs were designs that had originated in China, migrating along the ‘Silk Road’ embedded in the rich silk cloth traded from the East to the West.

Clematis armandii Appleblossom
Clematis armandii Appleblossom

I read that the clematis armandii is native to China, but I don’t think this small flower shown on the St Peter’s robe is an ‘armandii’ motif, however I liked the idea of combining shapes from the 15th-century screen with a flower from my spring garden.

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.