medieval england:: word and image
In the Middle Ages images were the books - often called the 'quick' (i.e. living) books - of the majority who could not read. Medieval art was a form of script, and artistic endeavour across a range of media was unified by a common purpose in expounding to the faithful the tenets of the Christian faith, especially within the privileged spaces of the parish church.
In the church, on top of the 'rood' (cross) screen between chancel and nave, would be carved figures of Christ on the cross, the Virgin Mary and St John (i.e the crucifixion scene). Above them, on the wall over the arch into the chancel there might be a wall-painting of the Last Judgement, showing Christ presiding over the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time and their judgement to eternal reward in heaven or damnation in hell. In the chancel there might be an altarpiece of painted wood or alabaster panels depicting scenes from the lives of Christ and Mary. The undersides of the wooden stalls used by clergy (misericords) might be carved with devotional subjects (but often with grotesques and visual jokes), and bench ends could have carvings of the seven deadly sins. On the rood screen there would be paintings of saints, and the side walls of the chuch might tell a story by means of wall-paintings on scared subjects. Stained glass windows were also a script, displaying Biblical stories or saints' lives. Others presented an integrated scheme that related the life and ministry of Christ to those Old Testament stories that were seen as 'antetypes' prefiguring events in Christ's life. (This typological organization was popularized by the early printed picture books, the *Biblia Pauperum*, or 'Bibles of the Poor'). Roofs of great churches and cathedrals (as at Norwich) might be decorated with carved stone bosses depicting narrative cycles of New Testament incidents and their Old Testament prefigurations. Many East Anglian churches had magnificent timber roofs decorated with carvings of winged angels - an intimation of heaven above - and the stone font, at which infants were baptised into membership of the church, might be carved on seven sides with representations of the seven sacraments.
The effect of the whole to a modern eye would seem an unfamiliarly polychrome profusion, and also very cluttered, with side altars crowded with images and objects of devotion.
To sketch in this way the visual culture of the medieval church is to realize the underlying unity of its concern to tell a story, often through remarkable artistry and craftsmanship. The later Middle Ages in England saw distinctive artistic achievement, and this website assembles images from the many surviving aspects of medieval English visual culture across a range of media, and drawing on illuminated manuscripts to supplement what has been lost in other forms.
This website has a double purpose:
- It can help you to enter the visual world that medieval English people would bring to encounters with texts and especially as spectators at performances of the Mystery Plays. It can help you to understand the inteface between image and text for a medieval audience familiar with the conventions of representing Biblical subjects and the patterns that interconnect and help interpret those subjects. Many connections with the visual arts have been made by critics attempting to show how the plays might have been staged. Such connections can be illuminating but are rarely provable. The greater value of images is in helping us understand what the Mystery playwrights could take as read in their audience's knowledge of the scenes they were dramatizing.
- The site has been designed, in its selection of images, to provide a library of materials for studying some of the English arts in the later medieval period. There is an emphasis on 14th- and 15th-century English material, but earlier images are included for comparative purposes, as are some French and Flemish items. For example, the site includes images from many of the most significant illuminated manuscripts produced in East Anglia, and representative selections from other manuscript traditions, stained glass, and the English manufacture of alabasters and embroidery.
The development of this site is ongoing and images continue to be added.