Cataloguing · Volunteering

What can a fragment tell us?

… Well, that depends who you ask. Fortunately for us at the St Cuthbert’s Reredos Project in Wells, we have the pleasure of working with archaeologist Jerry Sampson, who for the last six weeks has been working in a locked room at a secret location, diligently cataloguing the remains of two 15th century reredos, destroyed during the Reformation and unceremoniously stuffed into a wall as packing. Plastered over and forgotten for nigh on four hundred years until their accidental discovery in the 19th century, they have been lying around waiting for just this moment. I journeyed to that small, darkened room to ask Jerry what he was able to tell me about the particular piece he was working on at that time – a 20cm tall fragment of St Margaret of Antioch.

STC 410 Lower fragment of a figure of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1470-2. Strongly oolitic bed of ?Dundry stone. Possibly derived from Jesse reredos, or alternatively from another altar in the church.
STC 410 Lower fragment of a figure of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1470-2. Strongly oolitic bed of ?Dundry stone. Possibly derived from Jesse reredos, or alternatively from another altar in the church.

There are two reredos in St Cuthbert’s with different geological origins, Jerry explains. The north reredos is in Bath stone whilst the south reredos is in Dundry stone and that should allow us to split the corpus of fragments between the two.

The fragment in question is a piece of Dundry stone revealing what looks like the bottom of a figure standing atop a dragon. Jerry points to an ear which, he explains, would probably have been joined to the dragon’s head, and most probably would have had a cross headed staff or spear thrusting between its jaws. Across the centre part of the fragment a big wing stretches in front of some feet, and right at the bottom of the piece are two claws of the dragon’s foot. “Why just two claws, where is the third one?” Jerry asks, “dragons always have three claws!” he says with a glint in his eyes, revealing to me just what makes this archaeologist tick: the need to understand why something is the way it is and to uncover its lost history. Every mark then, is a clue and even absence is evidence of some unknown fact.

So here is a fragment which has been identified as St Margaret, apparently part of the southern reredos according to its stone of manufacture. This immediately presents us with a problem though. The south reredos is that of the Tree of Jesse, and should only be comprised of kings and prophets (as the lineage of Christ descending from the father of David, Jesse). In other words, a figure of St Margaret doesn’t belong iconographically. Thus, in order to add weight to Jerry’s assertion, he needs to be able to say that it has a precedent. Fortunately for us there is one.

A Tree of Jesse reredos at Christchurch Priory, Dorset, from circa 1340-1350 has miniature figures which do not belong to the iconography. It has, explains Jerry, a St Catherine, a St Margaret and a John the Baptist, therefore allowing him to make the attribution with more confidence. Further support is given to his thesis by the remains of paint which match the colour schemes seen on the more iconographically consistent fragments.

Christchurch Priory - Tree of Jesse reredos c. 1340-1350
Christchurch Priory – Tree of Jesse reredos c. 1340-1350

Stylistically and materially then, our fragment does seem to belong with the Jesse reredos, but to a vanished northern wing, as it appears to have been shaped to fit a niche that no longer exists. Jerry is able therefore, to tentatively suggest that the central part of the Jesse reredos while restricted to the kings and prophets, had two wings which faced inwards containing figures which don’t actually belong in the lineage of Christ.

Has the mystery been solved? We will have to wait a bit longer to find out, as Jerry patiently catalogues each fragment and slowly builds up a clearer picture.

Christchurch Priory, Jesse Tree reredos: St Margaret from the canopy shaft, holding a spear in her right hand, its point thrust into the dragon's jaws, and a book in her left hand.The figure is crowned and is not winged, and therefore cannot be intended for St Michael (another slayer of dragons).
Christchurch Priory, Jesse Tree reredos: St Margaret from the canopy shaft, holding a spear in her right hand, its point thrust into the dragon’s jaws, and a book in her left hand.The figure is crowned and is not winged, and therefore cannot be intended for St Michael (another slayer of dragons).

Finally I ask what the connection is between St Margaret and the dragon:

“She was probably the second most popular saint in the middle ages after St Catherine and her main task was probably to assist women in childbirth, because of the symbolism of the way she was martyred. She was actually devoured by a dragon and her prayers as she’s devoured, swallowed by the dragon, were answered in such a way that the dragon burst asunder and she emerged from it. So an obvious symbolism, an obvious connection with childbirth.”

All this has piqued my interest in the iconography of the reredos; next I am going to look into the ways symbolism was used during the medieval period as a means of communicating truths, and see what symbols have been identified from the St Cuthbert’s reredos so far.

 

Tim Earney, Volunteer Documentation Assistant

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