Mediaeval Sculpture

Anne Gardom visits Tate Britain

This exhibition is a blend of three rather different and unexpected things. Firstly, of course, there are the images themselves, remnants of our artistic and religious heritage, some of those which survived destruction both under Henry VIII, Edward VI and during the Commonwealth period. Then there is the way they are displayed, with a conscious and clear intention of making the stands, rails, and plinths complement and emphasise the carvings themselves. Finally, there are the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, with their huge arches and spaces and acres of gleaming grey floors. All these have a part to play in this exhibition of mediaeval religious sculpture – a new departure for the Tate.

The Stripping of the Altars

The vast destruction of religious images created a void in religious art in this country, the effects of which are still being felt today. 1534 and after, when the monasteries were being dissolved under Henry VIII saw the beginning of the systematic destruction of images throughout the country. Pilgrimage statues were particularly singled out for obvious and high-profile destruction, but statues, images and tombs all over the country were smashed and desecrated. During the reign of Edward VI almost all that remained was destroyed, and virtually everything had gone by the 1640s. Some prestigious and protected family tombs were survivors of this wave of destruction.

As the Reformation progressed it completed much of this retreat from religious painting and sculpture, and Florentine and Renaissance sculptors ceased to work here. Their waning influence was replaced by an increasing hostility to religious sculpture and painting, with the exception of tombs and funerary monuments. The Reformation legacy of the display of Biblical text as against devotional images changed for ever the look of our churches, cities and houses.

A vision of loss

This exhibition gives us an idea of the extent of our loss, and it is hard to look at these beautiful and often quite mutilated statues and carvings without experiencing a longing to have seen them in their glory days, when they were important aids to devotion and reminders of the richness of our faith.

The exhibition opens with two images of the Virgin Mary, the first (about 1475) from the screen at Winchester Cathedral. We only have a remnant of this beautiful statue – the head and torso of the Virgin and the battered remains of the Child, but the delicate carving of her face, with its downcast eyes and traces of the original colouring gives us and idea of the quality of the original. The other is an alabaster carving of the Assumption of the virgin; she is set in a mandorla (an oval or almond-shaped frame), supported by four angels, St Thomas kneels at her feet to receive the girdle which she is dropping for him, and she is awaited by Christ, flanked by two more angels – a lovely devotional carving, very much in the English tradition.

The latest object on show is the huge free-standing tomb of Sir Thomas Andrew and his two wives, which dates from 1555. This is a magnificent piece of work, lavishly carved. Sir Thomas lies with a wife on each side, and on a panel at this feet are shown his children, five boys and three girls, kneeling in serried ranks. The tomb is rich with Renaissance decoration, and still retains some of the original colour. It gives us an idea of the richness and beauty that was displayed in the tombs of wealthy and important people.

In the same room there is another very different effigy – a monk lying on his back with his eyes closed (most of the faces have open eyes). The folds of his habit fall austerely round his long thin body, and he looks strangely up to date and contemporary. The stone had been turned over and used as a chancel step and the monk was discovered in 1917. This figure and the one nearby both have terracotta brick bases.

The other effigy in the room is a terracotta figure of Dr Yonge by Pierre Torrigiano. The face was cast from the death mask, and he lies with his hands clasped – an old man’s veined and knotted hands – almost disturbingly lifelike, and certainly an amazing survival. Just above him, sited quite high up, is a head, also from the screen at Winchester Cathedral. It is really only about two-thirds of a head and the nose is damaged, but it seems about to spring into life. The alert face with a slight frown and the wide, firm mouth has an astonishing vitality. If the rest of the screen was of this quality it must indeed have been a marvellous thing to see.

Monastic treasures

From Furness Abbey come two very early effigies of knights in armour (1250–75) The bucket-shaped helmets are carved with the visors down, only the eyes of the knights can be seen peering out from the strange Ned Kelly shapes. The figures are very plain and undetailed and may once have been covered with gesso modelling of chain mail. The effigies lie on aluminium mattresses on sloping plinths, which serve to give weight and dignity to the very mutilated figures.

Two statues from St Mary’s Abbey, York, are displayed as if on a door portal. St Mary’s was once one of the richest Benedictine foundations in the north of England and these may have been sited on a doorway. There is a heavy and powerful Moses, with his staff, tablets and ‘horns’ and a beautifully carved apostle with a book.

An unusual and very early double tomb shows a knight in full armour and his wife. They lie in a curiously box-like bed, carved from a single stone, neatly covered with a sheet and smilingly awaiting their Maker.

There is a panel (one of a probable eight) from a monastic lavabo, and example of how imagery was important in all aspects of monastic life. It shows the calling of St Peter. Christ holds Peter with a firm hand, while another boat, St Andrew paddling, and a fish are all beautifully fitted into the space.

At the end of the final hall is a monumental carving of Jesse. It is carved from a single enormous oak and must have been the base and foundation of a huge and complex construction. Jesse, heavily bearded, reclines at length, while from his robes spring the remains of a very substantial tree. It is a startling image, of enormous size, and when seen in the church in Abergavenny from where it came the whole effect must have been impressive and almost overpowering.

This is not a big exhibition, but the objects have been carefully chosen and the imagination and originality with which they are displayed, though it may be rather surprising, certainly enhances their interest and beauty.

Anne Gardom is the art correspondent of New Directions.