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Since retiring from the process of using my various educational accomplishments and work experiences for the vulgar process of earning money, I have been devoting some time and effort to interesting concepts in teaching medieval history through new technology. Unfortunately, the new technology keeps developing faster than the projects can be completed, but the modern web does allow things to be updated. Apart from that, I am a grandmother of four and donkey owner trying to combine modern technology with living a simple life like we did in the olden days. Yes, that is an old photo. Look at the computer. I've aged better than it has.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 18: Animals on Tombs (1)

  Animals have a lively history in medieval art, depicted naturalistically, stylistically and in ways that seem quite nonsensical. As with most things in medieval depictions, the meaning of animals can come with layers of interpretation. There are the animals of the real world and animals of the imagination. The texts known as bestiaries ascribed certain moral characteristics, as well as some bizarre behaviours, to animals real, imaginary and mythical. When animals appear on tombs, they can have various significances.



  In the earliest tradition the animals have come from folk mythology. These Viking tombs in the church of Brompton-in-Allertonshire in North Yorkshire feature bears guarding the houses of the dead. There are a number of tombs of this type in parts of Britain subject to Scandinavian influence, but these are particularly good examples. They were very probably not even Christian burials, although they have migrated into the church as interesting antiquities.



  This 12th century imported Tournai marble slab in Bridlington Priory church, East Yorkshire, is definitely Christian, but predates the effigy tomb tradition. It probably commemorates the priory founder. The animals depicted include a large cat-like creature, and fox and crow and a couple of wyverns. The wyverns are hard to see in this shot. Low relief carving on black stone in a dark church presents challenges to photography. How this all comes together as an iconographic scheme is lost to us. 



  This elaborately carved 12th century tomb from Conisborough has a bit of dragon slaying going on, among other scenes. You can't help feeling there is a bit of syncretic tradition happening here. When large scale effigy tombs became the elite tomb of choice, animal depictions became rather more stereotyped.



  Some of the earliest effigy tombs of the 13th century were to senior clergy, as in this tomb of an abbot in Peterborough Abbey (as it was then). The churchman was depicted with his feet resting on a mythical serpent. Yes, serpents had legs, and often wings, in medieval art, especially when they represented the devil. Not only is the abbot stomping on it, he has the base of his crozier stuffed down its gullet. Christian leader conquers evil. I have mentioned the enigma of the orientation of medieval effigies before. There is a definite tension between whether the figure is standing up or lying down, but in this type of depictions it seems the abbot, or bishop, is tramping on the beast.



  The sculptor could really go to town on these demonic depictions. The dragon or serpent at the feet of Bishop Burghersh (d.1340) in Lincoln Cathedral sports a fine set of snaggly teeth and a contorted pose.



  The one at the feet of Bishop Fleming (d.1431), also in Lincoln Cathedral, has classic dragon wings and a malevolently curly tail. There is something kind of interesting about the way it is being dealt with by the bishop's dainty and elegantly embroidered slipper.



  Some of the earlier knightly tombs utilised this imagery, as in the effigy of Gilbert Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke (d.1241) in the Temple Church in London. No, the crossed legs do not indicate that he had been on crusade and neither does the serpent crushing, but it probably does represent the concept of the virtuous active life ie. it's fine to be a soldier and kill people if it's in a higher cause. Note that the devil is fighting back here by chomping at his spur straps. This is quite a struggle.



  Among the non-clerical classes, the lion and the dog are the most common foot supporters, as in this 15th century tomb in Swine church, East Yorkshire. This has the popular arrangement of a lion for the knight and dogs for the lady, but knights also had dogs and ladies sometimes had lions. Lions are equated in the bestiaries with virtue and with Christ. Dogs are symbols of fidelity. The animals are nearly always looking up at a space above the heads of the effigies; one of the many hints that we are supposed to be helping the souls of these folks out of their liminal state in purgatory. The figures are definitely lying down with their feet resting on their helpful animals. They are not beasts to be trodden down, but helpmates. The dogs, in this case, have had their heads knocked off, as is not uncommon, suggesting that they were regarded as symbols of no longer appropriate religious beliefs.



  Occasionally the imagery was combined. This knight in the church at Bainton, Yorkshire, has his feet on one animal, not distinguishable from this angle, but a serpent beastie is biting at his shield. Helper animal and foe animal are together in the one composition.




  Similarly, this knight in Bedale church, Yorkshire, has his feet on what must once have been a splendid lion as well as a shield biting beastie, not to mention a little bedesman near his feet to help him on his way. His lady has what appears to have been a large and splendid hunting dog.



  Big fancy hunting dogs were status symbols, and were often presented as magnificent beasts. This one at the foot of a 15th century knight in Halsham, East Yorkshire, is grandly attired with a large bejewelled collar as glamourous as his master's bling. While the animals had their spiritual significance, they could double as symbols of earthly grandeur.




  Dogs and lions also appear as foot supporters on brasses, where the whole business of whether the figures are lying down or standling up becomes even more enigmatic, especially in a composition like this one from Little Shelford in Cambridgeshire. While the knight has his hunting dog, the lady has little tiny lap dogs with bells on their collars. Pets, of course, are a luxury item. They represent fidelity and they represent the capacity to keep animals that are neither worked nor eaten.



  A proud and handsome lion and an endearing little bell collared dog chewing on the hem of its mistress's dress make a fine pair on this late 15th century tomb in Methley church, Yorkshire. Sculptors were not always so skilled at depicting lions and some are barely recognisable (#notalion as we tend to say on Twitter).



  This squat and ugly lion in the church of Sutton-on-Hull, Yorkshire appears to be chomping on a bone, which in my head seems like a threatening gesture to the family enemies.



  One presumes that this foot supporter in Sprotborough church, Yorkshire, is meant to be a lion. It does seem to have a curly mane, but it is a fairly bizarre rendition. It could be argued that there weren't too many lions running around Yorkshire at this time, but even the dogs can look a little odd at times. The convention is still being followed, with the lion graciously accepting the knight's feet upon him while gazing upwards. The formal symbolic qualities are present even when the depiction is far from naturalistic.



  As for what this might be at the feet of a lady in Adlingfleet church, Yorkshire; a strangely rendered lion, a sheep, a bird, but it's undoubtedly not an armadillo even if it looks a bit like one. It doesn't help that it has lost its head. Mystery beast.



  As for the creatures beneath the feet of this knight at Butterwick, Yorkshire, the one on the left may be a strangely rendered dog. That on the right could perhaps be a human headed serpent, representing the devil. One foot in each camp.



  The combination of dragon and dog appears on this brass to Margaret Willoughby from Raveningham. The dragon is under her feet while the dog is snuggling into the folds of her dress, for what it's worth.
  There is a lot more to discover about animals on tombs, so I guess this post is going to have to have an Episode 2. There are heraldic animals, rebus animals and animals with religious symbolism. They all mean something.

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