Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Shattered and broken: the ungodly in the house of God...

The news these days seems just so full of horror. So full of terror, death and destruction. The temptation is to simply give up reading it at all. To close your eyes and your mind to the deliberate acts of wilful hatred, in the hope that they will simply go away. It is tempting too for us to look upon these acts from afar, condemn them amongst our friends and upon social media, and to simply refer to them as though they are the acts of the uncivilised, of the unenlightened. To take nothing away from the immense individual suffering and human tragedy of it all, for those of us who care about history and cultural heritage the news is bleak indeed. Historic sites are now, well and truly, in the front line. Sacred objects are smashed, museums looted, and entire historic cultures are being wiped from the archaeological map. A modern horror inflicted upon the ancient world. As ancient temples to long forgotten gods feel the bite of sledge hammers and cheaply bought western explosives, as four thousand year old statues are smashed and scattered, it is all too easy for the good people of Budleigh Salterton or Saffron Walden to pause over their second latte, and condemn these acts as the work of bigots, zealots and the uneducated. However, it is worth remembering that it was, in historical terms, only a very short time ago that the good burghers of Melton Constable and Bishop's Stortford were carrying out just such iconoclasm in their own local parish churches.

Most people who know anything of English history understand that there was a time when we attacked our own places of worship, stripped the images from the walls and woodwork, and smashed the splendours of the medieval church. However, when confronted with such destruction the most common reaction is to place the blame fairly and squarely upon the cropped heads of Oliver Cromwell's puritan soldiery. The parliamentary stronghold of East Anglia, swarming in our imaginations with bible-bashing puritans and roundhead ironclads, most certainly suffered such attacks during the period of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. However, in terms of the destruction of the artworks and glories of the medieval church the real damage had been done over half a century before Oliver and his shock troops had even been born. Whilst there are cases of such seventeenth century destruction, with the notebooks of the notorious iconoclast William Dowsing still surviving in witness to these acts, the churches that they entered had already been largely stripped of their medieval beauty. To place the blame upon the roundheads is, in some respects, to follow the easy route. It is simple to look at the itinerant puritan fanatics and the visiting rough soldiery and conclude that it was violence born of indoctrination and ignorance. It is far harder to accept that such wanton destruction, such an attack on beauty and devotion, was actually carried out by the parishioners themselves. That such iconoclasm was undertaken by, in some cases, the children and grandchildren of the people who made bequests and offerings to create such objects of beauty in the first place.

In 1530 the parish church was essentially medieval in character. A place of vibrant wall paintings, bright stained glass, luminous alabasters and gaudily painted statues. A place of imagery, angels and the saints. By 1550, only two decades later, almost all of this was gone. The statues had been taken down, much of the glass was gone, the rich embroidered vestments had been sold off, and the wall paintings lay hidden beneath coat upon coat of fresh lime-wash. Whilst the changes were monumental they were also incremental. While it may be true to say that the process was begun, as many people will undoubtedly assume, in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, the process was a relatively slow one. Many of the major changes, changes that we still see around us today, actually took place long after Henry's death, in the short but turbulent reign of his son Edward VI.

Under the influence of 'reforming' advisors, and brought up to be a devout protestant, Edward oversaw the deliberate and piecemeal destruction of the medieval catholic church. It was a targeted and sustained attack on the fabric, furnishings and social structure of the medieval parish. Whilst some have argued that these were changes welcomed by many at a parish level, as evidenced by the lack of resistance to the changes themselves, it must be noted that the reformation was a gradual process. It was a gradual chipping away at the foundations of medieval faith and belief, until the whole structure had been built anew. It was a series of small acts, each in itself largely innocuous, that taken together resulted in fundamental change.

Bressingham, Norfolk

It was the statute against the veneration of images that left such a trail of obvious destruction that can still be traced through almost every East Anglian church. The act was uncompromising, with orders being given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. It was this act that led to the covering over of wall paintings, the dismantling or defacement of rood screens, angel roofs and stained glass windows. At Bressingham in south Norfolk the masterpieces of carving that decorated every bench end were attacked with chisels, with each human face hacked from the timber. At North Elmham the world class painted panels that formed the rood screen were removed from their frames, turned upside down and used as floor boards. At Colkirk the beautiful late medieval glass panels were smashed from the tracery, only for fragments to be recovered from the churchyard centuries later. At Houghton St Giles the parish chose to leave the magnificent rood screen in place, but instead roughly gouged out the complete faces of every individual saint, whilst at mighty Attleborough church the multi-tiered doom painting above the chancel arch disappeared for centuries beneath layers of whitewash. It was, quite simply, an attack on medieval art of a scale never seen before or since; destruction on a truly horrific scale.
North Elmham, Norfolk

What is perhaps the most surprising thing is just how much beauty has survived in East Anglia's churches. Given the periods of destruction and unrestrained iconoclasm, the fact that almost every church, almost without exception, contains at least one noteworthy survival is something of a puzzle - but something also to be endlessly thankful for. It is clear that in some cases, as at North Elmham, the survival of such rare beauty was simply a matter of chance. In other cases though it must have been a matter of deliberate choice. A parish that saw those objects of, now unorthodox, beauty and chose to defy or ignore directions for their destruction. A congregation for whom the links created by such objects to their own parish past, and their own ancestors, was far too strong to simply be put aside on the orders of a distant authority.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that such objects were destroyed without thought and without care. At the tiny parish church of Wellingham in central Norfolk can still be seen one of the very last medieval rood screens made in East Anglia prior to the reformation. The upper section has been long gone for centuries, but the lower section still survives - and it is a rare survival indeed. Images of St George and the dragon, St Sebastian, and Christ accompanied by the instruments of the Passion, are almost as fresh today as on the day they were first painted. The screen was a gift to the church in memory of Robert Dorant and his wives, with the dedicatory inscription dated 1532 - a bare few years before the first stirrings of the reformation that would lay waste hundreds of screens just such as this one. However, in Wellingham, the parish appears to have taken a different approach. The parishioners chose to follow the injunction against imagery, but in the most half hearted way possible. Many of them would have undoubtedly still remembered Robert Dorant and his wives, and so the action they took was barely action at all. Although some of the faces are gone from the screen, St George's horse being one puzzling example, many of the other bear only the very lightest of scratches. A few neatly incised crosshatched lines made with the very sharpest of knives. The screen had been defaced - but you would have had to get pretty close to it, as you do today, to even notice the markings. They had done their duty by the law, the church, and the king - but more importantly done their duty to the memory of old Robert.
Wellingham, Norfolk

Such restraint wasn't just to be found at Wellingham. The stunning screen at Thornham on the Norfolk coast, donated to the church in the late fifteenth century by the wealthy local merchant William Millar, suffered similarly half-hearted scratchings - leaving us, thankfully, with another medieval jewel in the crown of East Anglian churches. Such restraint, particularly under pressure from both church and state, must have been by parish-wide agreement. A tacit understanding to do only the very minimum that was required. Whilst the fundamentalists may have held sway within the administration what occurred at a parish level was, quite frankly, the business of the parish. Sadly such cases were not the norm.

Thornham, Norfolk

At Binham priory, a few miles south of the north Norfolk coast, is perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the destruction caused by the fundamentalism of the English reformation. Encased now behind perspex is the forlorn remains of what must have once been one of the most beautiful rood screens in the region. The upper section, undoubtedly once filled with delicately carved timbers and fine tracery, has long since gone; recycled, destroyed, or simply crumbled to dust by centuries of woodworm and rot. However, part of the lower section, the dado, survives. During the reformation, as most of the priory was dismantled around it, leaving only the nave to act as the parish church, this section was redecorated. In line with the official policy of the day, the images of the saints were lime-washed over. With a new emphasis being placed upon the word of God, rather than elaborate imagery, the screen was covered instead the excerpts of religious text. This seemingly wanton destruction was also one of the most beneficial acts of the whole reformation, for instead of being defaced and destroyed, the images of bright faced saints were preserved fully intact beneath the later paintwork. Now, nearly five centuries later, the lime-wash of the reformation has begun to peel from the surface of the screen. The panels of text are literally falling away from the woodwork, and the faces of the golden robed saints, are once more being revealed in all their original glory and splendour. So here, at least at this one special site, the effects of a small part of the English reformation were only temporary, and the saints are once more returning the Binham...

Binham Priory, Norfolk

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