Saturday 20 April 2013

Medieval People in Modern Art, Rochester Edition

When I wrote this post last year about Rochester Cathedral I hadn't visited it for several years, and was relying on memory and a patchy collection of photographs. Over Easter I went there with my medievalist hat on, and with a new appreciation of Bishop Gundulf - so here's an edition of 'medieval people in modern art' which also features various types of actual medieval art which I had previously overlooked.

Rochester is a lovely old-fashioned place, an oasis in the middle of an area of Kent increasingly spoilt by development. I don't believe the high street (essentially the only street) boasts a single chain store; it's all bookshops and quirky little antique shops, with one of the nicest local history museums you'll ever see. The local council like to pretend Rochester is just one part of 'the city of Medway', but of course it isn't any such thing; it's a city in its own right, and was so even before the Romans came. The history of Rochester ranges from Dutch invasion to Charles Dickens, but we'll concentrate today on the medieval (of course!). Two medieval buildings dominate the town: the castle and the cathedral. The cathedral you see above, and this is the castle:

It was snowing when I went there (which was a bit of a shock, because it was two days after this glorious sunny day in Canterbury), so my outside shots of the town are rather limited.  But this house is where Edwin Drood was murdered (or was he?):

(Note the board for 'Tiny Tim's' sandwich shop - they're proud of their Dickens connection here!)

The snow was a particular inconvenience because the west door of the cathedral is glorious, and I was much too cold to do it justice.  But it looks like this:

This is 'substantially unaltered' since the time of Bishop Ernulf (1115–1124); here's the tympanum:

A close-up - the scene shows Christ in a mandorla, supported by angels and other winged creatures, and with the apostles below:

Flanking the door are two much-eroded statues, which are said to represent Henry I and his queen Matilda:

The king's face is gone, but you can just about see a crown:

And the queen has rather wonderful plaits:

Modern depictions of Saxon women often have them in long plaits, and it's nice to see (apparent) evidence that this isn't just fancy.

Modern statues above the door show two builder-bishops, our friend Gundulf (d.1108):

And Bishop John (1125-1137):

They're both holding (snow-covered) buildings, and, as it will transpire, bishops holding little buildings constitute a large part of Rochester's medieval past.  Bishops of Rochester have done some interesting things apart from building churches, but you wouldn't really know it from looking round the cathedral!

There's also this darling little fellow by the door, but I don't know who (or what) he's supposed to be:

Now very cold, we move inside...

This post is about modern memorials to various people, but when it comes to Gundulf, of whom I was chiefly thinking while I was there, the truth is - 'if you seek his monument, look around you':

This splendid Norman nave is his work, which adds an extra piquancy to the Life of Gundulf's story about him hiding away in a stable to pray in peace.  Of the builder-bishops of Rochester, he was the first and greatest; he also designed the White Tower, the earliest part of the Tower of London, and castles both here in Rochester and at Colchester.  Don't let anyone tell you that eleventh-century monks had no practical skills.

A survey of Rochester's most famous figures is provided by statues in the quire screen.  Here are three pre-Conquest men (King Ethelbert and Bishops Justus and Paulinus):

On the other side, four post-Conquest bishops (Gundulf, William of Hoo - another man holding a little building! - Walter de Merton, and John Fisher):

I talked about these figures in my previous post on Rochester, so we'll move on swiftly to the stained glass.  It's really rather interesting, as Victorian glass goes, and the cathedral very helpfully has a special booklet telling us who designed most of the windows.  This is far more than most churches manage to do, and this blogger is grateful for it.

Let's start with Gundulf in the north quire transept, with a window installed (says the booklet) by Clayton and Bell in 1885:

The architectural motifs, the windows at the bottom and the castellation above his head, seem particularly appropriate, and it's nice to see that he looks, accurately, like an old man.  Several stories in the Life of Gundulf emphasise his age (he was 83 when he died in 1108), which makes his achievements as bishop all the more remarkable.  Below him is a scene of the building of his cathedral:

Holding the plans while the builders break the ground is taking overseeing the work a little far, Gundulf ;)

By the same designers, and on the same wall, is Walter de Merton:

Walter de Merton was Bishop of Rochester two centuries after Gundulf, in the 1270s.  He's another man with a little building, because he founded what is now Merton College, Oxford.  Below his window, he's accompanied by some of his Oxford clerks:

Obviously I was happy to see this!  We don't dress like that any more - well, not often.  The middle scene is a recognisable (if unusually colourful) depiction of Merton College - compare this picture.

Between these two bishops is the only pre-Conquest bishop of Rochester to get much of a look-in here, Paulinus:

Paulinus did his best work far from Rochester, in Northumbria, which is perhaps why he doesn't feature much in the cathedral - but Bede wouldn't be happy if we overlooked him.

For some reason he's surrounded here by a whole host of post-Conquest bishops, with not an Ithamar in sight.  It's true the pre-Conquest bishops of Rochester are an obscure lot; between the seventh century and the eleventh there's not one who played much of a role in history.  They're a bare series of names and dates, and the people behind the names are lost to us.

However, Paulinus is great enough to make up for it; below his window is a scene, partially obscured, of him with a king - Edwin of Northumbria, presumably.

Above Paulinus, and a bad picture because this window is right up in the roof, we have Gregory the Great (mostly because I can't resist a 'Non Angli, sed Angeli' scene):

What brightly-coloured Saxon boys!

The monument obscuring Paulinus and Edwin is the tomb of Walter de Merton:

He lies in state with four panels of glass (Ninian Comper, 1911 - thanks, guidebook) behind him:

One of these is Rochester's pilgrim saint, William of Perth (d. c.1201).  William, with his pilgrim's badge and scrip, looks pensive, as well he might; he is famous for being murdered, while on pilgrimage to Rochester, by his own adopted son - kind of the opposite of what happened to young Edwin Drood (or is it?).

Apparently 'the body was discovered by a mad woman, who plaited a garland of flowers and placed it first on the head of the corpse and then her own, whereupon the madness left her. On learning her tale the monks of Rochester carried the body to the cathedral and there buried it.'  His tomb attracted pilgrims, so many that you can still see the steps worn down by their passing feet; but it's not the most edifying story, even as medieval hagiography goes, and one can't help thinking that the monks of Rochester promoted this saint pretty much only because they didn't have any better ones.

None of the builder-bishops attracted much in the way of a cult (the best efforts of the Life of Gundulf notwithstanding), and I was surprised to see so many of them commemorated in the cathedral - Gundulf, Paulinus and Walter de Merton are not so unexpected, but William of Hoo?  And here, Haymo de Hythe (1317-1352), yet another bishop-with-a-building?:

More familiar to me is Ernulf:

Ernulf, like Gundulf, was a monk of Bec who originally came to England with Lanfranc, to Canterbury; he was made prior of Canterbury in 1096, successor to the Prior Henry whom Osbern (Ælfheah's hagiographer), as a teenage rebel, refused to obey.  Ernulf did some building at Canterbury - he built the existing crypt, and there's a statue of him down there which is one of the ugliest I've ever seen - and some more when he became Bishop of Rochester in 1114.  More exciting than his building work is, however, his role in the compilation of the Textus Roffensis, medieval Rochester's greatest legacy to the study of Anglo-Saxon England.  This manuscript preserves the earliest surviving English law code, dating back to the reign of Ethelbert in the seventh century (and thus the earliest written text in the English language).  I'd like to think the scene below Ernulf (Powell of Whitefriars, c.1917) depicts the copying of the Textus Roffensis.

There are exciting plans afoot to create a permanent display for the Textus Roffensis in the crypt at Rochester, which sounds like an eminently worthy project.

Speaking of Ethelbert, here he is in a Kempe window of 1889:

I like his furs!

I don't know what St Margaret of Scotland is doing down here in Kent, but it's always nice to see her.  She was keeping company with a sort-of medieval but definitely not saintly figure:

King Arthur!  Why?  His thoroughly ridiculous helmet is entertaining, though.

After suffering through all that Victorian glass, here's a reward: some beautiful, though fragmentary, medieval windows down in the crypt.

There's nothing to show who this handsome young bishop was meant to be, but at least he's not carrying a building...

This poor monk has had his head put on a body too small for him, but he looks calm enough about it:

Back outside in the snow:

This was the cloister and chapter-house, and it has some remnants of medieval carving; though the tympanum, which might have been as impressive as the one we began with, is no more:

At least this little angel survives, though; he's probably withstood worse than a bit of April snow in his eight centuries of life:

1 comment:

Ben Hardy said...

I mean to visit Rochester Cathedral one day in search of St Ithamar. My MA 'Project' (too short for a dissertation - 6,000 words) was on the 'creation' of Ithamar as a saint and possible reasons for his miracle collection. So it explored the relation between Rochester and Canterbury in the twelfth century, and (I think - it was 4 years ago) a look at the importance of Ithamar being an Anglo-Saxon. Disappointing to see that there is no remnant of him surviving in the Cathedral, but I loved this post nonetheless.