Pictorial representations of figures were usually coloured " proper," that is with the natural hue, especially of flesh, but the heraldic system of alternation and counter-change was adhered to where possible, in the majority of instances.
Of vehicles or mediums it is impossible to state, with accuracy, whether oil or tempera was employed. The Van Eycks have been credited with the first use of an oil medium, but the evidence for this is dubious. The late Professor Ernest Berger (who was, perhaps, the greatest European authority on the Van Eyck school) was of opinion that the medium used by the brothers was an emulsion of egg and varnish. It is inconceivable that oil could have been unknown as a medium before the end of the fourteenth century. It is referred to by Theophilus in the twelfth century, and in the Cathedral accounts of Ely, Westminster and elsewhere, there are references to purchases of oil for painting. That oil was a treacherous medium unless thoroughly purified was also known in the fifteenth century, or before, and the greatest care was taken in its refining. To obviate the danger of the darkening or discolouration of pigments, a tempera medium of egg emulsion was often preferred, the work being subsequently varnished.
If the Chancel is older in inception than the Nave, it is also of greater importance as the Sanctuary. Its chief treasure is the Altar, the centre round which the liturgy of the Church has grown. From this the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered and the sacrament administered to communicants. These Altars were of wood, in the earliest churches, but in the fourteenth century these were replaced by stone in nearly every - instance, in obedience to the clerical law. It remained for a later secular edict to command that these stone altars should be taken down and replaced with plain wooden tables, under pain of severe penalties, and very few of the early examples remain at the present day.
These early altars must have been richly decorated, surmounted, frequently, by a retable or reredos of carved wood or sculptured stone, painted and gilded. In the case of high altars this reredos often occupied the full height and width of the chancel.1 Side altars were also placed in the nave or aisles, as at Ranworth, and sometimes on the rood loft. These subsidiary altars were usually dedicated to particular saints, and, unlike the high altar, they were enriched and maintained at the expense of the parishioners.
The reredos was sometimes in the form of a triptych, with central and hinged side panels which could be folded back or closed. Of Gothic painted super-altars very few have survived. The triptych form was more usual in the churches of Italy and Germany than in England.
1 As in some of the Oxford Chapels.
Fig. 111. Barking, Suffolk, W. Side Of Chancel Screen.
The coloured frontispiece to this volume shows a fragment of a coloured retable of the last years of the fourteenth century, now preserved in Norwich Cathedral. It was discovered in 1847, it is said, with its face downwards, in use as the top of a table. It was owing to the efforts of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society that it was rescued and preserved, although in a deplorably mutilated and incomplete state.
Originally, this super-altar was formed by five horizontal boards of quartered oak, three-quarters of an inch in thickness, with an applied moulded framework, fastened with pegs. The five panels were formed by four vertical moulded mullions, mitred at the intersections, of which only one remains. In the five panels, on a carefully prepared ground of gilded and finely patterned gesso, are shown (1) The Scourging at the Pillar; (2) The Bearing of the Cross; (3) The Crucifixion; (4) The Resurrection and (5) The Ascension. The upper part of this super-altar is missing, and the central panel may have been somewhat higher than the others.
Fig. 112. Ranworth Chancel Screen With Parochial Altars. - Late fifteenth century. - Mr. Fredk. Sumner, Photo.
On the bordering framework the beads were originally gilt, with the fillets or chamfers between picked out in alternate blue and red, with small flowers stencilled in gold as a relief. The outer framing has a flat band of ornament, of which the corner sections, and the whole of the top length is missing, on which are the remains of small heraldic paintings on glass. These are, evidently, the coats of the donors, and from them the date of the production of the altar-piece can be deduced. Mr. St. John Hope, M.A., in a paper read at the meeting of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, in 1897 (Society's Proceedings, Vol. XIlI), stated that he had deciphered such of the coats and banners as remain. They show the arms of Henry Despencer, Bishop of Norwich, 1370-1406, Sir Stephen Hale, Sir Thomas Morieux, Sir William Kerdeston (or a later member of the same family), Sir Nicholas Gernon and Sir John Howard.
Fig. 113. Ranworth, Norfolk, Detail Of Figures In Base Of Chancel Screen. - Mr. Fredk. Sumner, Photo.
It is difficult to resolve this painted super-altar into any school, as it stands, more or less, alone. Dr. Tancred Borenius is of opinion that it may be French in inspiration. but in the closing years of the fourteenth century, the greater part of France, at least those districts from which this work could have emanated, were English possessions. Dr. Borenius also points out that the possibility of its English origin must not be ignored. It may be the work of a Church luminer rather than of a pictorial artist, and it is known that an English school of religious painting did exist at this period, the works of which have perished in nearly every case. This Norwich retable, therefore, may be an almost solitary survival of such work. It must be remembered, also, that it is prior in date even to Hubert Van Eyck, at least to the period of his better known works. He was court painter to the reigning Prince of Burgundy, Philip the Hardy, from 1410 to 1420. True, he must have been between forty and fifty years of age at this date, and must have had a long painting career behind him, but it is more probable that he was influenced by this Norwich school of religious painters than that the reverse was the case. We know that there was considerable intercourse between Burgundy and England in the last years of the reign of Richard II. This Norwich retable is contemporary with the wonderful roof of Westminster Hall already referred to and described.
Fig. 114. Ranworth Chancel Screen N. Altar And Reredos.
Fig. 115. Ranworth Chancel Screen S. Altar Reredos.
Fig. 116. Ranworth, Detail Of Painted Vaulting.
Fig. 117. Ranworth, South Parclose.
Fig. 118. Ranworth, Detail Of Flying Buttress. - Mr. Fredk. Sumner, Photos.