Monday 24 September 2012

Medieval People in Modern Stained Glass: Evesham Edition

[This is part two of my posts on Evesham; part one is here]

I always think that anyone who innocently stumbles across this blog might be rather puzzled by my fondness for collecting modern (that is, usually Victorian and later) depictions of medieval people in stained glass and other forms of church art.  The art is not generally - though there are some exceptions - of the highest quality, and often has no interesting qualities except the identity of the person it depicts; so perhaps a little explanation for my interest is due before I begin to show you the variety of pigs, fish, monks, crowns, minstrels and flowers which adorn Evesham's stained glass windows.

Until I started to study medieval English literature at university, I had very little idea of medieval history; it was not taught at my school, even in outline or summary form (I remember once doing something related to the Battle of Hastings in Year 7, but I don't think we learned anything more than that there was a battle, and a king called Harold got an arrow in the eye.  I seem to recall we had to write and present our own TV news reports on the subject.  I've since learned there's more to it than that, and also that Anglo-Saxons didn't actually have TV news - who knew?).  As I've realised since I started to study medieval literature, this ignorance about medieval English history is pretty widespread in Britain, as witnessed by the fact that when I tell people what I study, they have no frame of reference in which to locate it.  Usually people have heard of Chaucer, but can't even begin to guess which century he lived in; the phrase 'Anglo-Saxon' has no meaning to them as a historical term, and though they have usually heard of Beowulf, many of them are surprised to learn that it's considered English literature.

Well, the English education system has apparently decided to give up on teaching children any English literature before Shakespeare, and that may now be a lost cause.  But I do feel strongly that the lack of historical education about the medieval period is an appalling failure, and that my own schooling, for instance, could easily have sacrificed a handful of our hundreds of lessons on WW2 for the sake of the 1000 years of English history that comes between 'the Romans in Britain' and the Tudors.  I want people to learn these things and be interested in them, and - this is where the topic of this post comes in - I would especially like to believe that English Christians might be interested in learning a little about the earliest history of their own church.

Of course you can't force people to be interested; some people just don't like history, some people are attracted to other places and periods than medieval England, and there's a strong cultural imperative against it in many Christian churches - everywhere except the Church of England, really (I sometimes get the impression that traditionalist English Catholics think it's a bit too Anglican to be interested in English saints).  But I'll keep posting about these things anyway, because it feels like the right thing to do.

And so - why 'medieval people in modern stained glass'?  Because there was a time, beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century, when English churches started to be interested in their own medieval origins, and - no longer afraid of looking all Romish and idolatrous for caring about saints - began to celebrate those origins, and to commemorate their founders and forebears in the fabric of their churches.  These depictions are usually tied to the particular Christian story of some particular place, and are thus a wonderful way both of learning those individual stories and of seeing how they've been interpreted and valued by our own immediate predecessors in the faith.  The stories are all distinctive: the coming of St Augustine in East Kent and in Canterbury; the saints of the early Northumbrian church; the great kings and bishops of Wessex in Somerset and Winchester; here in Oxford, the story of St Frideswide, and St Birinus at Dorchester; in East Anglia, St Edmund and St Etheldreda and the story of Walsingham; and many more.  They contribute to a sense of local Christian identity but also, perhaps more importantly, to a harmonious interaction between the local and the universal in the life of the Church.

Modern Evesham recalls its medieval story in each of the three churches I visited there (I should note, for international readers unfamiliar with these things, that these are all Anglican churches.  And just a side-note to that: I read a comment on a Catholic blog recently which sneered that Anglican churches commemorate medieval saints today 'because they just want to cash in on money from pilgrims'.  Well, a) what a horribly uncharitable approach, and b) if you think that medieval Catholic churches didn't work to cash in on money from their pilgrims... you're totally wrong.  Churches have to be kept up somehow, and why shouldn't the blessings a saint brings their community be financial as well as spiritual?  For a more thoughtful approach to the question of saints in the Anglican tradition, see this excellent blog)

All that over, we can get to the delights of Evesham - which really are absolutely wonderful, especially the three windows in St Lawrence's church designed by F. W. Skeat.  I only wish it had been a little sunnier on the day I visited; I would have liked to see what their rich colours look like in a brighter light.  Going east to west, and chronologically (and in reverse order of picture quality), the first window depicts the vision of Eof the Saxon swineherd:

The scroll around the Virgin's head reads 'Ecce locum quam elegi', 'Behold the place which I have chosen' - the words which told Eof that the wasteland in which he was looking after his pigs ought to be the site of a monastery.  These words appeared on the medieval scroll of Evesham Abbey.

(Note the intertwined lilies surrounding the vision - a lovely touch.)


And Bishop Egwin (who wasn't actually present for the vision, but was the first person told about it.  We'll consider this as artistic license):

There are a lot more pigs to come in this post, so we should note how clean and cuddly these ones are:

And this rabbit is absurdly cute:

As is this squirrel:

Two scenes below depict Egwin's establishment of Evesham Abbey.  The first is St Egwin obtaining the grant of the land on which he founded the abbey from King Æthelred of Mercia, his supporter and friend:

Isn't that beautiful?  I love the king's crown and beard, and how their eyes seem to be meeting.  In this period Mercia was the most powerful of the kingdoms south of the Humber; while the kings of Northumbria were already Christians, Æthelred's father Penda was a notorious pagan (at least in the eyes of the Northumbrian Bede), who was responsible for the death of St Oswald in battle.  Penda's sons, however, adopted Christianity to allow for diplomatic marriages with the Northumbrian royal family, and Æthelred seems to have accepted the new faith enthusiastically.  He helped found several other abbeys as well as Evesham, and supported other bishops as well as Egwin (Wilfrid of York, for instance, among them).  The scene depicted in this window took place in 700 or 701, and in 704 Æthelred abdicated the throne and himself became a monk at Bardney.

Next we see Egwin and three of his monks arriving at Evesham; I like the far-away look in Egwin's eyes:

I don't really know why the monks are wearing deep blue rather than black (they were Benedictines), but I must say I like it.

The second window depicts more scenes from the life of St Egwin, and the consecration of the abbey:

(Those are the arms of Evesham; if you compare them with the medieval stone depiction I posted the other day, you'll see this artist makes the padlock more prominent!).

Egwin drops the key of his shackles into the River Avon:

He looks rueful about it:

If you want to know what Anglo-Saxon keys really looked like (not much like this delicate object), have a look here.

The key is miraculously found within a fish caught in the Tiber:

I don't know why the servant's clothes are so flowery!

Egwin looks a bit nonplussed by the return of the key, as well he might.

The large scene above these little ones depicts the consecration of the abbey.  It was consecrated on All Saints' Day, 714 (or perhaps a few years earlier, but that's the date of the charter recording it) by Egwin and the man who would succeed him as Bishop of Worcester, Wilfrid.

This kneeling king is so beautiful that I'm loath to spoil the effect by linking to the article for Ceolred of Mercia, whom he must be intended to be; Ceolred was not a very devout king.  But his robes and sword are gorgeous.

I liked the face of the young monk at Egwin's side, carrying a banner with the arms of the abbey:

One more scene, and for this we jump forward more than five hundred years to 1265 - in which year:

I must confess that I know very little about Simon de Montfort, but these windows are beautifully colourful and medievalish anyway.  They reminded me a bit of the ones at Ash.

This depicts, I think (but am happy to be corrected), the moment when lookouts on the tower of the Abbey spotted the approach of the royal army under Prince Edward (according to this site).  The battle took place very close to the town.  This monk is, perhaps, praying during the battle:

I don't know whether thirteenth-century monks went to pray on the actual battlefield, as Anglo-Saxons monks sometimes bravely did, carrying with them the relics of their saints.  There were several monks at the Battle of Hastings, from Waltham Abbey and from Peterborough - as I did not learn in my Year 7 history class.

The other nice feature of these windows in St Lawrence's is the four little minstrel angels which appear in the consecration window.  They look exactly like schoolchildren from the 1920s, complete with sandals, but less than two inches high.  Look:

They're just so cute!

I promise that's the last time the word 'cute' will appear in this post.  It doesn't apply to the windows at the other Evesham church, All Saints', which are older and heavier and darker and generally less attractive.  They appear inside the chantry chapel of Clement Lichfield, one of the last abbots of Evesham.  In fact, here he is, holding his bell-tower:

And there's a very fierce-looking Simon de Montfort (no gentil parfait knights kneeling to receive the Eucharist here!):

Prince Edward (later Edward I) who defeated Simon at the Battle of Evesham:

St Egwin, complete with fish and key:

(The key hanging around the fish's neck is efficient from a space-saving point of view, but it does remind one unpleasantly that the fish is, you know, dead.  Dead fish are not aethestically pleasing.)

The Blessed Virgin Mary:

It's interesting to see that this artist, whose name I could not find out, hasn't attempted to make this look like 'Eof's vision of the Virgin' instead of a generic Marian figure in an architectural surround.  The difference reflects the gap between these fairly uninspired compositions and the spirit of the Skeat windows, which delight in the exotic 'medievalness' of it all.

And here's Eof, with a fat red pig.

Dear me.  Wouldn't a swineherd find bare legs rather chilly in Worcestershire?

Much nicer was the wooden altar-piece in the chantry chapel:

The central four figures are (from left to right) Abbot Clement Lichfield, St Egwin (holding a church), St Wilfrid, and St Paul:


I was pleased to see two women I think of as Oxford ladies, St Frideswide and St Hilda:

(Not that St Hilda ever went near Oxford in her life - but she does have a college here!)

And on the other side, two post-Conquest bishops, St Hugh of Lincoln with his swan and St Richard of Chichester:

I only just learned, from looking up St Richard, that his attribute is a chalice at his feet because "he once dropped the chalice during Mass and nothing spilled from it".  I told you these posts were educational.

And we can close with one more vision of Eof.  On the day I visited, after exploring Evesham itself, I crossed the river and walked through the adjoining area of Bengeworth, chiefly in the hope of finding out why the guidebook said Cnut had a manor there. This I failed to learn, though this is the house built on the site of said manor:

Also visible in that picture are the remains of the parish church of St Peter's, which was replaced in 1872 with this church:

I popped into this church because, well, why not? and found another modern depiction of the Eof story:

This window dates to 1954. It's interesting that the Skeat windows are from 1956, almost exactly contemporary, but these feel much more modern in style.  Personally I prefer Skeat's winsome figures, though I can imagine some people might find them too pretty and sweet - for some reason they remind me a little of Pauline Baynes' illustrations for Narnia, with perhaps a similar kind of innocent charm, and the same close attention to detail.  However, I do like the slightly unearthly colours of this window, especially around Eof - his pig is rather more realistic than Skeat's version!

At the Virgin's feet is the bell-tower of the abbey, and an appropriate quotation from Isaiah which had me humming this song all the rest of the day.