Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Colourful Canterbury Tomb

I was reading about Canterbury this evening, as happens fairly often, and it encouraged me to post this little collection of pictures of a particularly interesting tomb in the cathedral. It's the resting-place of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414 to his death in 1443, and founder of All Souls College, Oxford.

The tomb is in a prominent position on one side of the choir, and the most famous thing about it is that it's a cadaver tomb; in other words, on the top you have an effigy of the archbishop, gloriously vested:

But beneath!:

The tomb was built nearly twenty years before Chichele's death, so he certainly had a long time to contemplate his own mortality. It features a rather ugly mourning figure, kneeling at the foot of the effigy:

And by the head, a rather prettier angel:

The structure which surrounds the tomb is decorated with a series of brightly-coloured figures. The restoration of the tomb is, I believe, kept up by All Souls College (or at least it used to be); if it still is, they must expend a good deal on paint!  These figures were installed in 1897-9 under the direction of C. E. Kempe, and they have a kind of late-Victorian storybook medievalism about them which is very charming, but very period.  The figures originally in their place were apparently destroyed by Puritan reformers - several other tombs at Canterbury have statues with their heads hacked off (here's one example from another archbishop's tomb).  I've posted pictures of one or two of these figures before, because they include depictions of some of the people I write about often. So, for instance, St Augustine of Canterbury:

St Anselm and his most famous work:

St Alphege, with the stones of his martyrdom:

And St Dunstan, who, rather wonderfully, is carrying a miniature version of an actual manuscript illustrated by Dunstan (the so-called 'Glastonbury classbook'):


For comparison:

The monk kneeling beside Christ is probably a self-portrait of Dunstan; the text beside the monk says Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas ["I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me"].

These four saints are easy enough to recognise, but I have more trouble with the other figures around the tomb. This is Archbishop Chichele himself, holding the frontage of All Souls College (aka 'the view from the window of my college library'):

We also have some recognisable Biblical figures; here a depiction of the 'bosom of Abraham':

In medieval art the man in Abraham's lap represents the souls of those who died before the coming of Christ. This kind of image always makes me think of the passage in Piers Plowman where the dreamer runs into Abraham (as you do), and sees patriarchs and prophets playing in his lap:

And thanne mette I with a man, a myd-Lenten Sonday,
As hoor as an hawethorn, and Abraham he highte.
I frayned hym first fram whennes he come,
And of whennes he were, and whider that he thoughte...
I hadde wonder of hise wordes, and of hise wide clothes;
For in his bosom he bar a thyng, and that he blissed evere.
And I loked in his lappe: a lazar lay therinne
Amonges patriarkes and prophetes pleyinge togideres.
"What awaitestow?' quod he, "and what woldestow have?'
"I wolde wite," quod I tho, "what is in youre lappe."
"Lo!" quod he - and leet me se. "Lord, mercy!" I seide.
"This is a present of muche pris; what prynce shal it have?'
"It is a precious present," quod he, "ac the pouke it hath attached,
And me therwith," quod that wye, "may no wed us quyte,
Ne no buyrn be oure borgh, ne brynge us fram his daunger;
Out of the poukes pondfold no maynprise may us fecch
Til he come that I carpe of: Crist is his name
That shal delivere us som day out of the develes power,
And bettre wed for us wage than we ben alle worthi -
That is, lif for lif - or ligge thus evere
Lollynge in my lappe, til swich a lord us fecche."

[And then I met with a man, on mid-Lent Sunday, who was as hoary as a hawthorn-tree; his name was Abraham. I asked him first from whence he had come, and where he was from, and where he was meaning to go... [Abraham says he is in search of Christ, tells some of his own story, and explains the doctrine of the Trinity]. I wondered at his words, and at his voluminous clothes - for close to his bosom he carried something which he kept blessing. And I looked within his cloak: a leper lay there, among patriarchs and prophets playing together. "What are you waiting for?" he asked, "and what is it you want?" I said, "I want to know what's in your cloak." "Look," he said, and let me see. "Lord, mercy!" I said. "That's a precious gift; what prince is it intended for?" "It is a precious gift," he said, "but the devil has seized it - and me, as well - and no ransom may redeem us, nor can anyone pay our bail or free us from his power; no payment of surety can take us out of the devil's prison, until the one comes whom I speak of: Christ is his name, the one who shall deliver us, some day, out of the devil's power, and pay a better price for us than we are all together worth - that is, life for life. Else we would lie thus for ever, lolling in my lap, until such a lord saved us.]

The leper in his lap is Lazarus, of the parable, who was carried up to heaven (as the ballad has it) 'to sit upon an angel's knee'...

Also easily identifiable:

(The cobweb adds character).

But then things get more uncertain. We have more archbishops and a few kings, among whom I would expect to find - but cannot certainly identify - people such as Lanfranc, Thomas Becket and Edmund Rich, and Kings Henry IV, V or VI, the monarchs through whose reigns Chicele lived. I hope not knowing whose these people represent doesn't impair your ability to enjoy the colour and expression of the figures:

Guesses at their identity would be welcome...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting all these fantastic images! The archbishop's cadaver tomb reminds me of a similar one made for Alice de la Pole in Ewelme church.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Interesting! I've heard so much about Ewelme but have never been there - I must make it a priority.

Anonymous said...


I felt as I was walking in the aisles, among the tombs and statuary of the remotely deceased, by a docent of intimate knowledge.