A lost medieval painted rood screen

A lost medieval painted rood screen

Norfolk has some fabulous late medieval painted screens, but what is left is a remnant of what once existed, this article looks at the evidence of a now lost medieval painted rood  screen.  Many screens and their painted decoration have been lost since the mid-sixteenth century due to neglect, apathy and fire, vandalism, iconoclasm and philistinism.  Iconoclasm can be overstated, but the destructive power of philistinism, neglect and apathy are underestimated.  Our medieval church buildings were badly neglected in the 18th and early 19th centuries. More medieval art was lost in that period and from the wave of heavy-handed restoration that followed than to the zeal of the Protestant reformer.

Great Plumstead Norfolk screen Winter

A lost medieval painted rood screen recorded by a talented artist

In 1859 the talented painter Cornelius Winter (1817-1891) was touring Norfolk recording medieval art, and he visited St Mary’s church in Great Plumstead and recorded in watercolour four panel-paintings that remained from the medieval rood screen in the church.  They are now in the collection of the Norwich Castle Museum.  The four panels were all that was left of what was a fine series of panels, and he notes that the rest had ‘long been lost’.  The panels were in fine condition, and there wasn’t even the merest hint that they had been damaged by the hand of an iconoclast, not even a token scratching out of the faces.  There was some damage to the painted surface of the panels, but one must conclude that the loss of the screen in its entirety was not down to any religious ideology.

Great Plumstead Norfolk screen, painting by Winter

The Iconography of the paintings of the lost medieval painted rood screen

The four figures of clerics, a monastic superior paired with the figure of a bishop.  St Benedict is paired with St Dunstan of Canterbury and St Martin with St Giles, the latter dressed in a Benedictine habit.  It seems a particularly deliberate choice of figures and an unusual combination that, to my knowledge, is not repeated elsewhere.  As we don’t know what other panels the screen had it’s difficult to jump to any firm conclusions, but one can’t help thinking that a member of a religious order might have been a candidate as patron.  Blomfield says that the Rectory of Great Plumstead was appropriated in 1320 by Merton Priory in Surrey. Still, I can’t see them having a hand in it, as the house was Augustinian and not Benedictine.   The patronage of this very particular combination of figures must remain a mystery

The Style and Date of the paintings

What is much clearer to determine is the date, stylistically, we are looking at panels that date from the end of the 15th century.  The figures of the bishops at Plumstead immediately brought to my mind the four panels on the rood screen at Foxley about twenty miles away.  The Plumstead bishops have some distinctive features: low mitres, pointed shoes, the openness of the apparels of the amices, a particular treatment of fur and fringe, wildly curling hair and the slightly swaying posture.  All these features are found in the figures of three Latin Doctors on the Foxley screen.

The family likeness is so strong that I would guess they were by the same hand.   We know the date of the Foxley screen, and from that, we can determine a rough date for the Great Plumstead panels.  At Foxley, the panels include donor images of John Baymond and his wife and in his will of 1485, he gave four marks to paint the screen.

The Paintings Lost in a Fire

Sadly, these panels so faithfully recorded by Winter are no more.  In 1891 Great Plumstead church was almost destroyed by a catastrophic fire. The church was gutted, and all the furnishings, including the rood screen panels, were destroyed.  Nothing survived the fire except for a couple of late medieval brasses, and most of the structure had to be rebuilt – the church interior is now anodyne, cold and lacking in colour.  Thank goodness Winter recorded these lost panels, as without his fine drawings, all evidence of their existence would have been eradicated.

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3 thoughts on “A lost medieval painted rood screen”

  1. “Our medieval church buildings were badly neglected in the 18th and early 19th century and more medieval art was lost in that period and from the wave of heavy-handed restoration that followed, than to the zeal of the Protestant reformer.” It’s undeniably true that churches were neglected during the period you mention, but is it just a hunch/opinion that this neglect caused more damage than iconoclasm, or are there any statistics or studies to back it up? I’d imagine that a definitive answer is impossible to arrive at as we don’t know what’s been lost, nor (in most cases) how it was lost.

  2. Pingback: Norfolk Rood Screens | COLONEL UNTHANK'S NORWICH

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