But the wash of lime blanking out the old world was a thin layer. Scratch away at the surface and the old ways are still visible.
Jonathan Bate, The Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare
No matter how many layers of white paint are applied, the image always finds a way of coming back to haunt the British imagination.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, A History of British Art
One of the questions that pushed me to write the sequence Death and the Gallant was: what would Britain (and specifically England) be like if it had remained loyal to the Catholic Church? The focus behind this question is not political or religious, as such, but cultural: would our view of art be any different if the Reformation, with its inherent mistrust of the image, had not dominated the country’s affairs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
Pre-Reformation communities would have found art available in their everyday lives. Specifically, the act of worship on the Sabbath would have revolved around ‘reading’ pictures: the majority of medieval churchgoers would have known and understood the teachings of the Bible through the wall paintings that decorated in elaborate detail their local church or chapel. The role of the artist, in this respect, would have been central in each parish.
I decided to write a series of poems that looked backwards to the old systems of faith as represented by a wide range of church art, and at the same time presaged a new kind of thinking about the role of creative ‘making’ in civil society.
The titles of the poems in Death and the Gallant themselves refer to particular figures, thematic concepts, or stories from Biblical teaching that would have been familiar narratives to our Pre-Reformation congregation. So in ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, for instance, I pick up on the oldest of the three kings who come to worship the infant Christ in a Bethlehem stable: Casper (or Jasper) brings gold for the child. The kings themselves – the young Melchior, the middle-aged Balthazar, and the elderly Casper would have been seen to symbolize the cycle or journey of life. St. James the Great is the central figure in the fifth poem of the sequence. He was not only a Patron Saint of Pilgrims but also the pin-up boy for the armies of the Crusades. St. James was known, after all, as the ‘Moor slayer’ – or, as I name him in the piece, ‘Matamoros’. One final detail concerning titles: I highlight the Tree of Jesse in a subsequent poem. The tree delineates the generations of royal figures and prophets from Jesse, the father of King David, through to Christ himself at the pinnacle of the tree, showing an unbroken lineage of wisdom and holiness. It would have literally been painted as a tree with incumbent figures on the wall of the church. You can still find versions of the Tree of Jesse on Creationist websites as pictorial evidence of Biblical ‘fact’.
These church paintings, along with other ‘Popish’ artifacts, were destroyed or effaced over a hundred year period of English history. The process began with the dissolution of the Monasteries as ordered by Henry the Eighth. The last surviving English church wall art was obliterated or painted over during the English Civil War. If you read the journal of William Dowsing, who operated his own brand of iconoclasm in the 1640s, for any believers who still carried a light for the old religion, it must have felt like the Taliban had come to town.
The old man, the narrator of the poem, I see as a kind of double agent who is essentially a custodian of the old values. As with any ‘Year Zero’ policy, artifacts, ideas and beliefs would have survived the initial purges. Some of this church art would have been concealed, or ‘superficially’ damaged, or the owners were rich enough to pay off those who were sent round to do the damage. The old man in the act of destroying seeks to catalogue what he finds. He also attempts to do his job badly enough so that some art-objects slip through the iconoclast Brown’s net. For all his work as a conservationist, I think he realizes, as his work moves on, that this is truly the end of the old life, and prepares as best he can for the practices of a Protestant nation: a new England. His treatment of Brown’s body (and soul) under Catholic auspices is a last act of defiance within the bounds of the poem.
Death and the Gallant appears in Skin (Longbarrow Press, 2015). Listen to Chris Jones reading the first poem in the sequence below: