Donor images in medieval art

Donor images in medieval art

What are donor images?

Donor images are figures of the patrons of a work of art, and their incorporation into paintings, stained glass and in other contexts was a common occurrence in the late medieval West. Often these images are shown interacting with other images within a work of art, with figures of the saints or of the Holy Trinity.   I want to show you a set of battered donor images on a screen from a Norfolk church, where the donors are not focused on another image within the work of art itself but are focused beyond the painting to something outside.   

Where are these donor images?

The panels I want to look at in this article are at Edgefield church in Norfolk, a building of 1880 constructed using salvaged fabric from the medieval church it replaced. The south arcade is late medieval, and under the eastern arch of it is the section of Tudor screen I want to consider.  There is no evidence of the screen’s original placement in the previous building, but as the medieval rood screen also survives, it was not part of that.   So, we may assume that this dado formed part of what it forms now: a parclose screen enclosing part of the church as a separate chapel – although it may have been in a different part of the building.  

These donor images are unusual

What is particularly unusual about this screen is that the donor images themselves are the main event, there are no other images on this screen dado whatsoever, and the panels on the other side of the entrance are coloured but blank.  An inscription on the top rail of the screen tells us that the figures are those of William Harstong and his family and that the screen dates from 1526.

Harstong is shown kneeling with his hands apart in a gesture of adoration, a pose seen frequently in late medieval images of people at the elevation of the host at the mass.  He is leading his family, who all have their hands in prayer; his sons are arranged behind him in the same panel, and the next bay is his wife and daughters.  There are scrolls issuing from the mouths of Harstong and his wife.  All the figures gaze upwards towards something outside the existing painted panel.   If this was indeed a parclose screen, Harstong’s friends and neighbours would have knelt next to this image as they witnessed the elevation of the host, and what is probably portrayed here is the Harstong family at that solemn moment in the liturgy of the church.

The intense religious climate that led to donor images in medieval art

In the intense climate of late medieval popular religion, the elevation of the host had become the very centre of church worship. Vernacular prayers directed to the sacramental body of Christ for use at the moment of the elevation of the host became popular among the laity.  In his analysis of such prayers, Eamon Duffy says they are primarily directed as you might expect, towards Christ’s presence but often include a distinct preoccupation with death and particularly a petitioning of Christ now present in the sacrament for the avoidance of sudden unprepared death.

What reinforces my view that this a portrayal of the family at the elevation is not simply their physical focus on something outside the panel but the content of scrolls issuing from their mouths.  These reflect the faith and sentiment found in the elevation prayers that Duffy considers. Harstong’s wife is saying: ‘In Domino confido’ (In the Lord I trust); while William says ‘Memento fine quia morieris’ (Remember the end, for you shall die).  

Harstong’s wife proclaims her trust in Christ, who she believes is present in the host. At the same time, Harstong himself, as he witnesses the elevation, his hands raised in adoration to receive the power and blessing of Christ’s body, reminds himself and his neighbours who view his image, of the reality of death. 


Donor images in medieval art are part of the religious culture

Just as donor images on other works of art only make sense in conjunction with other images within the work of art itself, I am convinced that these donor images at Edgefield only really make sense if they are viewed in their correct visual context, which is within the setting of the mass and at the central moment of the elevation.        

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