A considered judgment must conclude that this retable is of English workmanship and painting, one of the few, if not the only remaining example of a school of religious painters of the late fourteenth century. It is as remarkable for its technique as for its inspiration, considering that it is within half a century of Cimabue and Giotto. It must have inspired much of the fifteenth-century work in the panels of chancel screens, which have now to be considered and illustrated.
In the Church of St. Michael-at-Plea, Norwich, is a reredos formed of several painted panels which, although upwards of a century later than the Norwich example, still show the same manner perpetuated in this pictorial decoration of Church woodwork. One of these panels, representing the Crucifixion, is shown here in Fig. 92. It forms the south wing of the reredos. There is the same intricacy in the patterning of the gesso ground as at Norwich Cathedral, but in a more free and flowing manner. The drawing of the figure of Christ is less archaic, as one would expect at this date. St. Michael-at-Plea possessed a magnificent screen in earlier times, of which this panel may have formed a part. Of this screen nothing now remains, if we except these panels. In 1504 the will of Katherine, widow of Alderman Thomas Bewfield, leaves 5 marks for the painting and gilding of the rood-loft. A mark or mark of gold weighed eight ounces at this date, and was in value sixteen pounds, thirteen shillings and fourpence in the coin of this time, a large sum in the reign of Henry VII and up to the date when his son began to debase the coinage, as in those days money purchased so much. It is improbable that a gold mark was indicated in this bequest, as the present-day value of such would be well over one thousand pounds, an exaggerated sum for the painting and gilding of a rood-loft.
Fig. 119. Southwold, Suffolk, Chancel Screen. - Late fifteenth century. 124 - Gothic Woodwork. and Colour Decoration
It is with the chancel screens of the fifteenth century, the purpose of which has already been described, that both Gothic woodwork and its colour decoration reach their highest limits in England. Their use was to guard the sanctuary of the altar, and also to support a rood-loft, on the rood-beam of which was displayed the image of the crucified Christ, flanked, at a later date, with other representations of St. Mary and St. John the Evangelist. The rood is of great antiquity, - the name itself being of Saxon origin, - and was the object of much devotion in the Middle Ages.
At festivals, numbers of lighted candles or tapers were fixed to the rood-beam, and in some churches, as at Burford, Oxon, a light was kept burning continually on the rood-loft. These lofts, among other uses, were often the pulpits and the reading desks of the Middle Ages, and the primitive musical instruments of the time, including the organ, were played from them.
Fig. 120. Southwold, Parclose Screen. - Mid-fifteenth century.
Fig. 121 Southwold Chancel Screen. - Detail of figure paintings. Late fifteenth century.
Fig. 122. Southwold Chancel Screen. - Detail of figure paintings. Late fifteenth century.
Fig. 123. St. Andrew's, Bramfield, Suffolk, Chancel Screen - Width, 20 ft. 0 in. Height, 8 ft. 10 in. Late fifteenth century.
Fig. 124. Bramfield Screen. - Detail of figures.
Fig. 125. Bramfield Screen. - Detail of figures.
Fig. 126. Bramfield, Suffolk, Detail Of Painted Vaulting.
Fig. 127. Bramfield, Suffolk, Detail Of Gesso-Decorated Transom.
Fig. 128. Yaxley, Suffolk, Chancel Screen. - Width between arch 3 ft. 10 in. Overall 12 ft. 10 in. Mid-fifteenth century.
Fig. 129. Yaxley Screen, Detail. - Top of cill to top of transom 4 ft. 3 in.
There is no doubt that many superstitious practices were indulged in from these rood-lofts,1 and their removal was ordered in Commonwealth times, and William " They discovered many impostures about relics and wonderful images to which pilgrimages had been wont to be made. At Reading they had an angel's wing, which brought over the spear's point that pierced our Saviour's side. As many pieces of the cross were found as, joined together, would have made a big cross. The rood of grace at Boxley (Bexley), in Kent, had been much esteemed, and drawn many pilgrims to it. ft was observed to bow and roll its eyes, and look at times well pleased or angry, which the credulous multitude imputed to a Divine power; but all this was discovered to be a cheat, and it was brought up to St. Paul's Cross, and all the springs were openly showed that governed its several motions. At Hales, in Gloucestershire, the blood of Christ was shown in a phial, and it was believed that none could see it who were in mortal sin; and so, after good presents were made, the deluded pilgrims went away satisfied if they had seen it. This was the blood of a duck, renewed every week, put 111 a phial very thick of one side, and thin on the other; and either side was turned towards the pilgrim, as the priests were more or less satisfied with their oblations. Several other such-like impostures were discovered, which contributed much to the undeceiving the people."
1 The following extract from Burnet's " History of the Reformation " may be quoted here. Gilbert Burnet as Bishop of Salisbury, would hardly be unduly biassed in these matters. Writing of the year 1537, he says : -
Fig. 130. Ludham, Norfolk, Chancel Screen. - Dated 1493.