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.

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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

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.