On 19 September 2014, poet Chris Jones, artist/writer Emma Bolland and editor Brian Lewis visited three churches in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire to record three podcasts based on Chris’s Reformation-era sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ (in Skin). Each of the podcasts is accompanied by a short essay; the essays are illustrated with Emma Bolland’s photographs.
1: ‘The Dance of Death’, Brian Lewis
(St. Mary Magdalene, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire)
I wake thick dust as chapel-sunlight pales
and into silence lift my stubborn breath…
On a late September morning of thick cloud and thin air, I visited St. Mary Magdalene church in Newark-on-Trent, accompanied by poet Chris Jones and artist/writer Emma Bolland. We’d travelled there to record the first of three podcasts based on Chris’s Reformation-era sequence Death and the Gallant; the first stop on a one-day tour of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire that would also take in the parish churches of Pickworth and Corby Glen. Death and the Gallant is an imaginative exploration of the slow purging of Catholic wall art that began in the sixteenth century (authorised by the Royal Injunctions of 1559) and continued for a hundred years. Few pictures, paintings or other ‘Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry’ (including altar rails, chancel steps and crucifixes) escaped the notice of iconoclasts like William Dowsing, who visited over 250 churches in East Anglia during 1643-1644; most of the objects and images that did survive were either effaced (often with whitewash) or concealed. Dowsing’s journal of destruction (a valuable source for Death and the Gallant) might be considered a record of an anti-pilgrimage. Our brief expedition, in which we sought to document and discuss some of the remnants that the purges left behind, was not in itself a pilgrimage – we were journeying through the faith of an earlier culture, and the efforts to bring that faith and culture to an end, rather than immersed in a personal quest – but each of the visits was focused by contemplative ritual.
St. Mary Magdalene is reputed to be one of the largest parish churches in the country; as Chris observes, its dimensions rival those of Southwell Minster a few miles to the west. At 236 feet, the church spire is the highest in Nottinghamshire; the spire and the tower were completed in the 13th century, with the nave and the chancel dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Impressive as the scale and reach of the building is, it’s not the reason for our visit, or the occasion of our wonder. Chris leads us inside, through a nave busy with clinking teacups and pockets of chat, and towards a small sanctuary, flanked by two chapels, north and south. To the south of the high altar is the Markham chantry, founded in 1506 for Robert Markham and his wife Elizabeth, as directed in (and endowed by) Markham’s will. The base of the chantry is decorated with heraldic shields; the wall above it is divided into twenty-eight bays. Of these twenty-eight, almost all are empty. In the lower right corner of the wall, flickering under reflective glass, we find a pair of painted panels, filling out the last two bays, one panel depicting a skeleton, the other an affluent young man. The skeleton (a ‘feminised’ skeleton, as Emma notes) dances, the right hand extending a carnation to the young man, the left hand pointing at the ground (or the grave). This is ‘The Dance of Death’. The colours have paled, but the message (a popular theme of the medieval period) is clear: death comes to us all, and cannot be deferred by worldly wealth. What is less clear is why, and how, this fragment survived the purges. We step back from the panels, and step forward again, the painting disappearing and reappearing in shifts of light.
Emma, who is photographing the day’s visits, starts setting up her tripod and camera. I switch on my audio recorder. This version of ‘The Dance of Death’ is the primary source for the eighth poem in Death and the Gallant. Until today, Chris had only seen the work in reproduction. He begins to speak, and speaks firstly of the painting’s presence, the details unavailable in the print and online photographs; in particular, a small dagger with an inlaid skull. The panels seem to draw him further and further in, the voice slows, is made hesitant, is moved almost to silence. We start over, and over, Chris pacing around the painting, musing on its history, refining and reconsidering his ideas about the work, always at a hush, in spite of the loud, frequent interruptions of sprung doors opening and closing nearby. I become attuned to the interruptions, footsteps in the nave, faint smears of traffic, the shutter-click of Emma’s camera, her own pacing, sensed but unseen, testing the light, testing the angle, drawing into distance, closing on the panels. I think of her work on the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project, in which she and her collaborators Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers explore the idea of ‘research as performance’, ceremonies of remembrance enacted for the camera, ritual as a defence against civic erasure, against forgetting. Today, she’s on the other side of the camera, the ritual steadying her with patience, waiting for the light, waiting for us to move into it, her image-making punctuating Chris’s narrative of image-breaking. We consider the chapel plaque, its allusion to a missing inscription, a prayer for souls that was lost to the destruction. Chris offers his last words to the painting, and Emma offers her last words to the painting. We gather our things from the pews, our voices small in the vaulted space.
Listen to Chris Jones discuss ‘The Dance of Death’ and its relationship to the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St. Mary Magdalene church, Newark-on-Trent, 19 Sept 2014):
2: ‘The Last Judgement’, Emma Bolland
(St Andrew’s, Pickworth, Lincolnshire)
I point at sinister and say to Brown
there’s ones like you, stewing in sex…
But Hell’s not prised for Brown’s gathered elect.
And you, old man, do you rise or go down?
What shape does the devil take? What is the colour of evil? How much ‘dark matter’ does it take to weigh us down? In the ‘Doom’ painting (a name often given to depictions of the last judgement), dated to 1380 and filling the entire Chancel Arch in St Andrew’s church in Pickworth, a ‘swim of souls’ (Jones, ibid.) ascending into heaven are counterbalanced by a suffocating net of the damned, hauled hopeless into the gaping maw of Hell. The landscape of heaven sitting to the right hand of Christ is a noncommittal pastoral. How does one depict that hazy notion of Nirvana? The environs of evil, both figuratively and literally speaking, are on the other hand, even in their abraded, ‘desecrated’ state, vividly drawn with cauldrons, flames and leering demons of unequivocal iconography. Evil is easily described and given shape. We see it clearly, located in our particular visions of ‘the other’, formed in the image of that which is not us.
… Brown works the whitewash,
and just for good measure, cuts Mary’s face.
The word ‘blasphemous’ comes to us from the Greek: blapsis = evil + phēmē = speech. To be blasphemous is to speak (and I include the word of ‘image’ here) evil. Within the institutional structures of faith, the malevolent utterance is defined in relation to that which is sacred; or, more importantly, those linguistic or visual devices adopted to serve such definitions, and in some interpretations, will constitute a sin that is beyond redemption. The new Protestantism of the Reformation had to differentiate itself from that which it now positioned as the other – Catholicism – by adopting the word as its definitive tool. It became the faith of scripture, of language, and thus the Catholic emphasis on the visual, the figurative representation of doctrine through painting and statuary, had to be condemned as idolatrous and blasphemous in the extreme. Particular attention was paid to the head, the face and ultimately the gaze. The common iconoclastic belief was that evil could enter in through the eyes, by implication suggesting that evil was therefore emitted from the eyes of the idol, evoking primitive anxieties regarding the sorcerous, hypnotic stare. Statues were not merely smashed, they were beheaded; faces not simply painted over – first, their eyes were gouged out. The paradox is that whilst the paintings and statues were condemned as superstitious, superstitious actions were required to properly destroy them.
Snow falls on fire. Saved and damned lie buried
under snow. Christ and his colours
The pre-Reformation supplicant would have sat (or more commonly stood) within a space ablaze with colour. Paintings, statues, decorative ornament flooding their visual field with an unruly display that has more in common with the murals and paintings of a Latin American Day of the Dead or Mardi Gras, than with the spare anti-iconographic aesthetic that we now identify with the Anglican Church. Even in its abraded and faded state, the paintings at Pickworth were shocking and seductive, the smallest trace of pigment conjuring their original saturated viscerality. On our secular September pilgrimage, the Romantic decay of the images and the place allowed us to be lost in wonder – at times I was speechless at these extraordinary sights, flooded with gratitude and emotion at the privilege of standing beneath them – whilst distancing ourselves from the implications of the doctrine for our personal and political selves. Fading chevrons glancing along the stones, the elusive half-shy face of the Madonna peeping sweetly from the interior gloom: my eyes pricked at such things. We stood, enraptured, outside of history – we, who most certainly would have been amongst the damned.
Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Last Judgement’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St Andrew’s, Pickworth, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):
3: ‘The Shepherds of Corby Glen’, Chris Jones
(St John the Evangelist’s Church, Corby Glen, Lincolnshire)
I trail my shadow round this Lord’s demesne –
closed cottages, forge, tavern, farm…
It’s very rare that you get to see depictions of medieval individuals going about their daily business in the flesh. You could visit a ‘high end’ art gallery, for sure, and study sombre portraits, or go online and hunt down illuminated manuscripts and books of hours that showed wealthy patrons rooted in the narratives of their good lives. Then – perhaps more humbly – there are those paintings in parish churches that offer wider perspectives on Pre-Reformation England and its culture. The art on offer is often fragmentary, worn-away, and incomplete, but the views on offer in these settings are compelling, haunting, and tantalising in equal measure.
As part of our peregrinations around Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, we came across paintings of three shepherds at St John’s church, Corby Glen. The shepherds, represented on the south arcade of the church, are coming in from the fields with their sheep. The two adult shepherds depicted are carrying crooks across their shoulders. Hanging from these staffs there seem to be lunch pails or baskets. An accompanying boy shepherd is playing a musical instrument, perhaps something like a bombard (in the official literature it says, more prosaically, ‘pipes’). You can see by the way the boy is pursing his lips that he is playing an instrument with a reed. The shepherds also have a sheepdog for company. Although the animal is five hundred years old you can still see the spots on its coat – the red blotchy pigment that remains is echoed in both the boy’s and the adult shepherds’ garb.
These shepherds of the nativity story are, quite naturally, medieval citizens. They straddle Biblical time and ‘contemporary’ time in a relaxed, uncomplicated manner. Yet however much this small group is stylised, however much they escape from ‘realist’ perspectives and framing devices, there is a sense in which we are looking at authentic representatives of a time and place. The men and the boy have names, they have families. They know their fields around the village.
The modern viewer might want to perceive these images in terms of continuity: the wall paintings offer evidence of an unbroken lineage of worship in Corby Glen that goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the very existence of these portraits is underpinned by acts of violence and suppression. The shepherds now occupy space on the walls of the church because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation. These stylised bucolic images, however endearing and romantic our responses to them, signal the end of one dominant religious system of belief in the country, and flag up (through their concealment over the centuries) new approaches to praising God in Protestant England. The shepherds are not only messengers sent to herald the birth of the new king but revenants of the ‘old ways’. They offer interested parties, day-trippers, sightseers, perhaps even pilgrims, a glimpse of some strange and beguiling worldview of man’s place in the universe that has long since been repudiated, abandoned. The shepherds seem very old and at the same time immediate, knowable: fresh from their day’s work on the land.
What remains with me from the three churches we visited over the course of one morning and afternoon is the way in which these images come back to me, floating up through the bricks and stone. However faint or half-formed these pictures appear on the walls, they linger on the retina like strange dreams you can’t quite shake in daylight. I felt deeply humbled to spend time among these medieval paintings, created by anonymous artists who left no signature or ‘thumbprint’ in sight.
Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Tree of Jesse’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St John the Evangelist’s Church, Corby Glen, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):
Some of the ideas regarding the nature of blasphemy in ‘The Last Judgement’ were first explored in Bolland’s essay Somebody’s Heaven, Somebody’s Hell, written to accompany her exhibition Nightwood, and presented at East Street Arts’ ‘Thought For Food’ meal sharing and seminar series. The essay grew out of an ‘in conversation event’ with the writer David Peace, where Peace and Bolland discussed the mythologies of violent and sexual crime in relation to their own respective practices. The essay has been reposted on Bolland’s blog and can be read here.