Friday, May 22, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 11 - The Aesthetics of Armour

  Tombs were functional objects. They had a job to do and to do that job they had to look good. Whether that job was to inspire the congregations to effusions of piety to help the departed in the afterlife, or to emphasise the worldly significance of the commemorated, and his heirs, within their community, the tombs had to be impressive and pleasing to the eye.
  The tombs of knights, as we have mentioned before, always displayed the latest in armour and military accoutrements. It was part of the code. During the period when effigy tombs were in their heyday, the nature of armour and military equipment was changing rapidly. Some of this was no doubt entirely practical as techniques of warfare changed. Armour became more defensive. Some of it may also relate to other changes discussed in earlier posts: competitive social stratification exemplified in tomb fashions themselves, heraldry, eating, clothing, architecture and status markers in general.
  When large military effigies started appearing in the 13th and early 14th centuries, that standard suit of armour for the knightly classes was a full suit of chain mail, over which was worn a long floppy surcoat. This was supposedly a practical measure developed for the Crusades, with the surcoat keeping off the beating sun and useful for displaying the sign of the cross so that the travelling crusader was not mistaken for a vagabond and treated accordingly.

  The above image is drawn after an image in a late 12th century manuscript from Bavaria in the Vatican library and depicts Friedrich Barbarossa as a crusader, identified as such by the large cross on his shield and surcoat. The crusader outfit exemplified the active life as a road to virtue and salvation (a bit of political self-justification, I fear, on the part of Western Christianity), so the depiction of a recently deceased in active, crusading mode was probably yet another reminder of liminality, purgatory and the process of getting the dead to their eternal reward, which I have been banging on about incessantly.

  Two early 14th century examples in Exeter Cathedral  show the energetic style of chain mail knightly effigies. Their legs are crossed in an active way, suggesting stress and motion. Their torsos are twisted as they grab for their sword handles. Their heads are covered with their chain mail hoods, ready for battle, not uncovered in prayer. They are in action.
  The fact that they are crosslegged and in fighting mood does not mean that they were actually crusaders. It's one of the many literalisations of metaphor found in medieval art. All these iconographic signs embody an idea; a concept of the active Christian life. So get praying, people, and help these boys on their way. Same old message.

  There is also something rather masculine and macho and, well, sexy about this imaging. The surcoat drapes open to show a bit of leg. The figure is lying down but in an energetic mode. There are lions and other tough beasties around the figure. It is a fully three dimensional sculptural entity in which totality of form, the shape and movement, define the entity. The picture above is an odd angle on the figures of a 13th century knight and lady from Bedale, Yorkshire but it shows what I mean.

  The imagery also translates into two dimensions, as in this brass to Sir Robert de Septvans from Chartham in Kent. He still has the active stance, but his head is bared (as it is in the Bedale tomb above but you can't see it from that angle) and his hands are in prayer. His armour and sword belt are meticulously portrayed. I don't know whether men of that time actually wore their hair in bouffant curls, but they were always drawn that way. It comes across as as a sort of androgynous tough image that was much drawn upon by the pre-Raphaelites.

  This effigy in East Harlsey church, Yorkshire, shows this style of effigy in three dimensions. The legs are still crossed, the drapery still cascades open, but the pose is more restful, although alert, the head is bare and the hands are in prayer. It is not a picture of a corpse. The figure has life and is fully sculptural. If the stone that the figure was carved from is fine grained, then the most precise details of the armour and accoutrements can still be seen, even though the colouring which was once on these figures has disappeared. They have been much studied by re-enactment enthusiasts.

  If the underlying stone is coarse, the detailing may have been added by surface treatment, such as covering the effigy in gesso and imprinting designs before colouring it. The detail may have become lost, especially if it has been out in the weather as appears to be the case with this knight from Routh, Yorkshire, but the underlying vigorous sculptural form is still there. These figures still have character, even in very damaged state.

  Even an elegant looking tomb may lack surface detail. There is no depiction of the actual mail on what survives if this effigy from Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire, but it is most likely that it had surface treatment and colouring in its original form. He still cuts a striking figure.

  Wooden effigies were even more dependent on the surface treatment for their detailing, and this was highly destructible. These two wooden effigies from Allerton Mauleverer church in Yorkshire are little more than cores, lacking intricate surface detail, but they still display the distinctive general shape of the two styles of crosslegged knightly effigies. The one in the foreground holds his shield and reaches for his sword in a twisted pose; that in the background lies reposefully with his hands in prayer.
  I suspect that it is the underlying aesthetic quality of the form of these early knightly effigies that has help preserve many of them that are actually in quite poor condition. Even if they have been out in the rain, buried underground in the churchyard or upside down under the floor, they have retained a striking presence. They are the essence of medieval romantic.

  Towards the mid 14th century, armour began to change from mail to plate. Initially the process essentially involved adding plate protection to the arms and legs as well as helmets. These things all have technical names but we won't worry too much about that here. The surcoats, or jupons, became shorter and just covered the mail shirt. I guess it's hard to cross your legs while wearing plate armour on them, and probably difficult to depict it convincingly. Crosslegged knightly effigies disappeared.
  There was a tendency at this stage to depict figures, in manuscript paintings and in sculptures, in mannered poses with a sinuous body shape. I'm sure that people didn't actually walk around like that; they just drew them that way. The tomb effigies, like the one from Bedale in Yorkshire above, retained this lively curve through the body in a relaxed, supine position.

  The brass of a 14th century knight in Aldborough church, Yorkshire, displays that little mincing flick of the hips along with some wicked brass studs on his legs. Shields had also become shorter, allowing that bit of body wiggle to be displayed.

  By the end of the 14th and early 15th century plate armour extended from neck to toe, with only the aventail hanging from the helmet over the shoulders being made of mail. This forced the whole body into a rigid posture. The shape of the torso was defined less by the shape of the human form inside and more by the awkward and exaggerated outlines of the body armour. The example above is from Swine in Yorkshire, and has lost its arms, which shows the narrow waist and bulging thorax imposed on the chap by his armour. They were not done this way because the carvers had forgotten how to depict the human form, but because they were basically depicting a suit of armour.

  By the time that the neck was also encased in plate, the poor knight was stranded on his back like an inverted turtle. The only bit of human being visible is generally the face and the whole depiction, including the tough, droopy moustache, has become very stereotyped. I blame the Black Prince, or at least the makers of his tomb. In the above example from Chichester Cathedral the knight and his lady are depicted holding hands, a rather sweet gesture sometimes found on three dimensional tombs and brasses of this era. The lady's body is slightly turned in order to reach her encased husband.

  This era of plate armour coincided with the increasing use of alabaster for tombs, a relatively soft, fine grained stone that allowed to the carving of intricate detail. The effigies may have lost their colouring, but the detail survives as it was not dependent upon surface treatment. The above example is one of several from Harewood in Yorkshire. Sword belts were chunky but elaborately detailed. The articulated fingers of his gauntlets are carefully displayed. His SS livery collar is a particularly fancy one. The band around his helmet is detailed and his head rests on a lifelike depiction of his crest, a horse's head. Rather than being a sculptural and lively depiction of the human form, it has become a stiff and stereotyped shape, based on a suit of plate armour, in which many messages can be encoded through the complexity of the surface adornment.

  Nonetheless the figures could exude a certain rugged masculinity, whether depicted in stone, alabaster or brass, as in this rubbing of a brass effigy from Harpham, Yorkshire. The only problem with the brasses is it always looks as if their spurs are tangled up.

  By the later 15th century the armour itself was becoming fiddly and complicated, with multiple hinged and jointed plates and extra protective pieces. The figures really look like a depiction of the latest military technology rather than something that relates to a former human being. The proportions are starting to look a bit drastic as well. Can you really fit the waist of a burly knight into that tightly cinched shape? Victorian ladies' corsets had nothing on it. This alabaster figure is from Halsham in Yorkshire. And yes, he is lying on somebody else's tomb slab with a brass indent in it. Something else for another day.

  Encase the head in the late 15th century fashionable salade helmet, as on this tomb from Beaumaris in Wales, and you have something rather like a medieval robot. The material is beautiful and the detail is intricate, but the sculptural form is stereotyped and inelegant.

  A trend of about this time, particularly noticeable in brasses, was the exaggeration of certain features of the armour. Yes, they did have heavier duty protection for their shoulders and elbows, but this depiction from Howden church in Yorkshire makes them look enormous and somewhat unworkable. The cinched in waist is so tight the poor chap would have been unable to breathe, let alone clobber people. His pointed footwear in peculiarly long. And yes, his spurs are tangled together. But I guess he's quite a handsome bloke, in a slightly anatomically peculiar kind of way. He doesn't look like he is about to fight his way through the heathen in the active Christian life; more like those ceremonial suits of armour propped up in the castle hall.

  This fellow, an early 16th century depiction from Roxby in Yorkshire, shows much the same characteristics of armour and anatomical disproportion. This difference is he is plain plug ugly. One does suspect that the crafters of brasses had become less skilful in their art.
  Once you get to post-Reformation monuments, many human figures were depicted, not in the reposeful, liminal, supine posture but as if they were alive; resting on one elbow or kneeling at a prayer desk. Try doing that in a suit of armour. The sculptors seem to have given up on any attempt at gracefulness or movement and the figures are as rigid as sticks and look very uncomfortable.
  Are these changes in depiction anything other than vagaries of fashion? It seems that there is a changing conception, from the depiction of a knightly ideal with generic qualities of virtue displayed through the active life, to the concept of an inanimate symbolic object, the suit of armour, adorned with surface objects that signify the subject's identity, affiliations and status. Both can be aesthetically pleasing, but in different ways. The earlier figures have their bold, lively forms; the later ones their delicacy and intricacy of detail.
  Neither style survives in their original form. Loss of gesso and paint and gilding, loss of detail and colour means they are pale shadows of their former selves. They have been scrubbed back to later centuries' concept of proper mortuary sculpture. Nevertheless they have certain aesthetic characteristics which have caused them to be preserved, because in their decay they are beautiful.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? - Part 10 Heraldry on Tombs

  This posting starts with a disclaimer. This is very bad writing practice I know, but necessary in this case. I am writing about the concept of heraldry and its use on tombs, but I have no expertise or experience in identifying the coats of arms or heraldic achievements of anybody's individual ancestors. There. That's got that out of the way.
  The development and elaboration of heraldry and the development and elaboration of medieval effigy tombs proceeded together throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This is probably not coincidental. Both were significata of social status in a period of great social change when feudalism was turning into something else, new social classes of wealth and influence were emerging, and the flower of the aristocracy were periodically murdering each other and their followers in one cause or another. Social status was a competitive business, also reflected in increasing elaboration of upmarket eating practices and fashionable clothing, the latter itself being reflected in depictions on effigy tombs.
  Would it be fanciful also to suggest that as more and more of the population could read and  the written word became more significant in legal process, requiring the use of seals and the ability to decode little black marks on a white surface, so people may have become more attuned to decoding complex, abstract visual symbolism? That's just a thought to ponder on.
  The function of heraldry was the identification of individuals and their lineage, either in battle on their armour, or in a legal context as depicted on their personal seals. Elaborations to heraldic design proceeded together in these two media. Seals on private charters of the 12th century did not display heraldic devices. Those of aristocratic males usually showed them in armour mounted on a horse. Their individual identities were established in writing in the legend around the seal.

  The above shows the seal of Ralph de Cuningburgh on a late 12th century charter to Byland Abbey (British Library, add. charter 70691). Later equestrian seals, for example of the 13th century, included the owner's coat of arms on their attire or horse trappings as an additional identifier.
  The first known example of a personal coat of arms was that of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son-in-law of Henry I of England and father of Henry II, thereby becoming the founder of the Plantagenet line of kings. They were bestowed by Henry I in 1127.

  Geoffrey's coat of arms is preserved on his enamelled funeral slab in the Musee Tesse in Le Mans. The grandson of Henry II, William Longspee (d.1220) displays this same coat of arms, six gold lions on a blue ground, on his shield on his tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. There is no doubt that in its medieval heyday the tomb would have displayed this in its glowing colours. It is a depiction of the identity of an individual, but also of his direct lineage.

  Effigies of knights of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, whether depicted in stone or brass or even wood, usually bore a shield. The earlier examples have long shields, the later ones, of the mid 14th century, carry smaller shields. If the heraldic designs have been actually carved into the shield, as in the William Longspee example above, they may survive to this day. In other cases the designs were painted on and have usually been effaced by time and the cleaning substances of church restorers. This may, of course, leave open the possibility of re-attribution of tombs at a later date by replacement of the heraldic designs.

  The above shows the white limestone effigy of John de Bordeston (d.1329) in Amotherby church, North Yorkshire, carrying his long shield carved with his coat of arms which includes the heads of three boars. These are a rebus, or pun, on his name; boars/Bordeston. These represent his personal, or at least patrilineal, identity.

  The effigy of Robert Fitz-Ralph (d.1317) in Butterwick church, North Yorkshire, carries a short shield with no sign of heraldic design. However, he is just a core, having lost all sign of his external detailing. His heraldic device would undoubtedly have been painted on his shield, and possibly even moulded in gesso, but it has been scrubbed away, leaving no clue on the effigy itself as to his identity.
  Heraldic devices could also be displayed on the long surcoats or short jupons that covered the armour on 14th century and later knightly effigies. Basically, this mode of representation reflects how the knights would have appeared in real life on the battlefield.

  This detail is of a very splendid memorial brass to William de Aldeborough (c.1360), now located on the wall of the church in Aldborough, North Yorkshire. His arms are displayed on his short shield as well as on his heraldic jupon. This is quite a practical arrangement for battle as hopefully it prevents you from being killed by someone on your own side.

  The alabaster effigy above is one of a number found in the church at Swine, East Yorkshire. He is depicted as a knight of c.1400. The design of roses in a circle is found on the jupons of all the knightly effigies in the church, all members of the Hilton family, and represents a family badge.  It seems that nobody is quite sure any more which Hilton is which.
  In this era, coats of arms were not generally issued by the king or by a College of Arms, because they didn't have one. That didn't come properly into effect until the Tudor period. The earliest rolls of arms were lists of the participants in combat on assorted battlefields with their armorial bearings, compiled presumably by the heralds so that they would know which side everyone was on when they had to account for the corpses. The lists show that the specialised Frenchified vocabulary of heraldry was already in place. Aristocrats could ascribe coats of arms to their relatives by private charter.

  Above is an example of this process, by Ralph, Baron Stafford, assigning arms to his nephew, Master Edmund de Mortayn (Eton College Library, from The New Palaeographical Society, 1910). If you really want to decode this awful cursive catscratch to read what it says, you can find the key here on the Medieval Writing website.   During the course of the 14th century, coats of arms became more elaborate, as depicted on seals, on tombs, in paintings or on carved representations. The actual shields themselves became more complex with various quarterings and suchlike, so that they no longer simply represented an individual, but defined various relationships of that person as a social entity. 

  The brass rubbing shown above displays just one of several different shields of arms on the tomb of Nicholas and Joanna Kniveton (1475) in Mugginton church, Derbyshire. The designs are a bit blurry as the brass matrix has lost the coloured inlays that would have added to both the aesthetics and the information, and what has been rubbed is the roughened backs of the hollow cells.
  Funerary monuments displayed rows of shields, sometimes carried by angels, along the sides of table tombs. Brasses could display a set of shields, which in many cases would have been set with fancy coloured inlays to display them in their full glory. For those who know how to read the code, these sets of images tell the tale of a person's position in society in considerable detail.

  The above shows a tomb chest in Howden church, East Yorkshire, with a series of repainted heraldic shields. There is no effigy on the chest. The standing figure of a priest is just a misplaced sculpture from elsewhere in the church.
  Armorials, as depicted on seals, acquired added elements: helms adorned with crests and mantling, supporters, sometimes mottoes, all produced in very fine and fiddly metalwork in the production of the seal matrix.

  The seal above is the 15th century seal of Edmund de Mortimer, Earl of March, complete with shield of arms,supporters, helm and crest. A fascinating aspect of seals is how they reproduce in intricate miniature elements which appear in grand monumental form in other media.
  On tombs, these elements were displayed in a grander but more dispersed manner around the effigy. The head of a knight was depicted resting on his helm with the crest and mantling displayed below his head. His feet often rested on an animal, frequently a generic animal such as a lion or hunting dog, but occasionally an animal that had some symbolic relationship to his coat of arms or his name.

  The very fancy alabaster tomb of Walter Griffith (d.1481) and wife in Burton Agnes, East Yorkshire displays complex (repainted) shields of arms carried by angels. The knight's foot supporter is a griffon, presumably a rebus on his name.

  The head of the alabaster effigy of of John de la Pole (d.1491) in Wingfield church, Suffolk rests on his helm with mantling and the crest of a Saracen's head. There are other examples of elaborate crests on the helms on alabaster tombs in a previous blog posting on the tombs of Harewood. The Hilton effigy from Swine, shown earlier, rests his head on a helm with a crest that appears to be a bird's head, perhaps an eagle.
  There are surviving examples of the actual military objects which depicted these heraldic devices being displayed above the tomb: shield, helm and crest, sword. The most famous example is that of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral, and similar achievements of Henry V survive in Westminster Abbey.

  The tomb of  John de la Pole, of which the detail is shown above, has his helm and crest, as well as two supporters, displayed above his tomb canopy. Shields in quatrefoils surround the tomb chest. The whole tomb arrangement has virtually turned into a heraldic display.
  Ladies also displayed shields of arms around their tombs, indicating their biological and marital relationships within the community, but they did not, on the whole, display the arms on military accoutrements. The animal at their feet was more likely to be a small domestic dog rather than a heraldic beast. Yup. Sorry. They were who they were related to.

  The tomb of Margaret, wife of Thomas of Egmonton (c.1370), in Adlingfleet, East Yorkshire, has a row of assorted carved heraldic shields in quatrefoils along the tomb chest.
  In the later 15th and 16th centuries a style of tomb depiction appeared that took heraldry into an extreme space. Knights could be depicted wearing heraldic tabards over their armour, looking rather like heralds actually, while women were shown wearing enveloping cloaks composed entirely of complex coats of arms. Tomb effigies were rarely portraits, but this style of depiction is not even symbolic of individuality. It is entirely a construction of relationships.

  This is a rubbing of a memorial brass to Sir Humphrey Style, his two wives and eleven children of 1548. That makes it a little late in the day for us here, and the style is definitely becoming post-Reformation, with the figures all quite alive and kneeling; no significata of liminality of purgatory. Part of the inscription has been erased, probably because it referred to praying for the salvation of souls. That is yet another thing for another day. The point for now is that the man wears a heraldic tabard and both his wives wear heraldic mantles. With the shields above, it's all becoming a complex code.
   (I actually have a gorgeous rubbing of a heraldic brass from Chesterfield, Derbyshire which I will provide for your delectation and delight once I can extract it from a tightly furled roll with a bunch of others and photograph it without disappearing under uncurling piles of paper.)

  And here it is, rubbing of a brass to Sir Godfrey and Dame Katherine Foljambe (1541) with their four sons and five daughters, four elaborate shields of arms and a marginal inscription. He wears a heraldic tabard as well as resting his head on the most amazing crest and mantling while she wears a heraldic robe. The shields in the corners formerly contained coloured inlay. The heraldic representations are so fine and fiddly that this magnification doesn't do them justice, but you get the idea. It's all about detail

  Such depictions are also found in images of donors to the fabric of the church in stained glass windows, which links in another thread to be followed one day. I have got almost this far through a blog post on tombs without mentioning liminality or purgatory, but you can't escape it. The images on donor panels in windows served the same purpose as the effigies on tombs; to remind the congregation to pray for the souls of these people, whose virtues are evident from their deeds. Just look around. The difference with the windows was that those being prayed for were not necessarily dead at the time, but the purpose was similar. Yes, some tombs were erected within the lifetime of the person commemorated, and the windows lasted long after the donors had died. There is an intersection here.

  These donor figures in heraldic attire are a few of many in the stained glass windows of Long Melford church, Suffolk. Shields of arms also appear in stained glass windows with the same purpose; a combination of affirmation of worldly status and a reminder to pray for certain souls. Sometimes their contribution to the church fabric was the family chapel that the tombs resided in, so not only status but ownership creeps in. That is something else for another day.
  At this point I can hear little voices saying, there you go, it is all about feudalism. By the time that these elaborate monuments with their complex heraldry were being constructed, feudalism as an economic system or process of government was running out of fuel. Social mobility was high. People rose from yeoman status to the gentry and beyond to the aristocracy. Ancient lineages died out, or slaughtered each other. New wealth appeared in the towns rather than all being generated from rural land ownership and privileges. The symbolism of status remained historically based. It happens all the time. Why are all ceremonial uniforms for anything usually based on something from previous centuries?
  People who owed no military service to the king bought themselves a suit of armour to prop up in some conspicuous place and were depicted in that manner on their tombs. They also desired heraldic achievements. Town merchants had distinctive marks which were used to identify their goods. These became used in the same manner as coats of arms on tombs as well as on their seals.

  The brass to Richard and Margaret Byll (1451) in Holy Trinity church, Hull shows half effigies of a man in civilian dress with his wife above an inscription. There are roundels in the corner, and in the middle is his merchant mark, displayed in the manner of a heraldic shield. A new kind of status marker was in town.
  These sometimes morphed into actual coats of arms, or simple graphic devices that lesser folks had used on their seals evolved similarly into coats of arms. By the 16th century, heralds were trotting around Britain recording all the coats of arms in use and actually assessing their legitimacy. The process had become complex and rigid.
  The tombs of significant ecclesiastics were peppered with heraldic representations, either their own personal ones or those of the institutions which they represented. They represented, not feudal privilege and obligation, but status and stability. Institutions with coats of arms must surely last forever. But they didn't.

  The tomb of Rahere, founder of St Bartholomew's Augustinian priory and hospital in Smithfield, London, stands in what's left of the church, complete with heraldic imagery as well as the usual reminders for prayer.
  The significance of the usage of heraldry on funerary monuments is intriguing. It seems that the representation becomes both more rigid and more complex as society becomes more labile, complex and dependent on a more diverse range of parameters in the definition of individual identity.