Gargoyles at Wilstead church

At 9.30 on the evening of Sunday 11 April, 1742 the west tower of Wilstead parish church near Bedford collapsed.  The Bishop of Lincoln, having considered the extent of the damage, gave permission for the sale of three of the bells to put the damage right, and a timber belfry was built over the west end of the nave, housing a single bell.

Wilstead Church from the NE (1937 painting from a glass slide in the Henman Collection, Bedford Central Libraries)

In the mid-19th century it was decided to build a new west tower of stone. The work was begun in May 1851, by the Hertford architect Thomas Smith, who built a new south porch at the same time. The new tower had a battlemented parapet with gargoyles at the angles, and was illustrated in the VCH article by a drawing signed JW 1911, and appeared in picture postcards in the 1920s.

Wilstead church from the south east. 1911 drawing

This drawing also shows a new chancel, and that also forms part of the story. In 1852 the south wall of the nave needed attention, and a decision was made to drain the entire churchyard. This turned out to be a mistake. By the late 1860s, repairs were urgently required, and in 1872  the medieval chancel arch was removed and the chancel was entirely rebuilt longer than before. The architect responsible was Sir Arthur Blomfield. The new chancel soon began to sink at the east, and became detached from the nave. Attempts were made to remedy the situation in 1900 by underpinning the chancel walls and jacking up the roof, fastening it to the nave wall with a large bolt. These measures did not cure the problem and more repairs to the chancel roof were needed in 1907 and 1923.

In August 1935 the church had become unsafe, and was closed to the parishioners, who used a portion of a school that was made available to them at the weekend. In May of the following year a meeting between the Archdeacon of Bedford, the churchwardens and Professor A. E. Richardson concluded that there were three possibilities: to rebuild a part of the church at a cost of £2000, to pull down the chancel and keep the nave only, costing £1000, or to pull down the entire church and build a smaller one at a cost of at least £3000. What ultimately happened was that the building was restored at a cost of £1500 and reopened by the suffragan Bishop of Bedford on Wednesday 2 June 1937.

At some time between the 1920s (when the tower is shown with battlements) and 1964 (the date of the Historic England List Description, which describes the parapet as plain) the parapet was restored without battlements, retaining the 1851 gargoyles.

Wilstead church tower from the south east (author photograph, November 2019)

I have called the sculptures at the angles of the tower gargoyles, but they are clearly not functional now, and the task of draining the tower roof is performed by two lead spouts projecting from either end of the tower’s E wall, and set at a level just below the stringcourse at the foot of the parapet. Water falling on the tower roof is thus directed into the nave roof gutters and thence into drainpipes. On close examination the tower gargoyles all have open mouths which have been blocked, raising the possibility that they were originally intended to be functional. All perch on a stringcouse at the foot of the parapet, whose profile has a projecting vertical face over an undercut hollow with a roll near the bottom.

The SW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, SW gargoyle

This is a composite winged quadruped with a doglike head, drilled eyes under heavy brow ridges, drilled nostrils and small rounded ears. It has a wide open mouth blocked with a plug. Its body is arched and its legs are straight with lionlike claws. The forefeet rest below the lower roll of the stringcourse and the back feet rest on top of the roll, so that the back arches upwards considerably. The wings on its shoulders are small and rounded with deep fluting on the outer faces and sprocketed upper edges like a bat’s wing. The tail is curled and there are traces of fur or feathers indicated on the hindquarters.

The NW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, NW gargoyle

This is a winged biped with a toadlike head, drilled eyes and an open mouth blocked with a plug. The head is badly eroded and only the right leg survives. It is slender and straight with long knuckled toes and rests below the lower roll of the stringcourse. The body tapers from broad shoulders and the wings are fanlike with deeply fluted faces and a scalloped upper edge.

The NE gargoyle

Wilstead church, NE gargoyle

This is birdlike: its body is broad and deep-chested with a bird’s wings and a beak like a duck, The eyes are drilled and the beak is open and plugged. Its claws appear to clasp the lower roll of the stringcourse, and the skin is covered with scales like a fish. Behind the head, the body curves up in a long tail that appears to join the top of the head. The wings are outspread and are carved on the face of the stringcourse block. On top of the creature’s tail appears to be a second, lizard-like beast, perhaps an assailant. It is badly eroded and details are not clear.

The SE gargoyle

Wilstead church, SE gargoyle

This is an agile doglike beast in an attitude of springing. The back feet are pressed against the undercut at the top of the stringcourse hollow while the forefeet are on or below the lower roll; the left foot lower than the right. There is a tiny wing on each foreleg, and the front view shows small but distinct horns on the head. As before the mouth is wide open and plugged.

Obtaining accurate dates for gargoyles is not always easy, but in this case it seems certain that they belong to the rebuilding of 1851. They appear to have been functional initially, and it seems fair to assume that they became purely decorative when the parapet was rebuilt in the twentieth century. Certainly the lead spouts that drain the tower roof today are not shown on the drawing of 1911. The creatures are lively and inventive, and without detracting in any way from the skill of Thomas Smith’s craftsmen, one cannot help wondering whether they were copying medieval models. Future investigations in the area might clarify this. Finally it seems surprising that the restoration history of All Saints, Wilstead is clear until the most recent event; the removal of battlements from the parapet. If any of my readers has information about this I should be most grateful.


Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 23 August 1935; 15 May 1936; 12 June 1936; 25 September 1936; 16 April 1937.

Victoria History of the County of Bedford, 3, 1912, 325-28.

Historic England List Description, English Heritage Legacy ID 36770, 13 July 1964.

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Gargoyles 1: Introduction and interpretation

The simplest, most straightforward definition of a gargoyle is that it is a sort of high-level stone waterspout with a gutter, projecting out far enough from the wall face to prevent water erosion. From the thirteenth century onwards these spouts were carved in the form of animal, human figures or grotesques, and since the nineteenth century, art historians have reacted in various ways to their grotesque imagery.

Gargoyle from above, showing the gutter that leads the rainwater out of the creature’s mouth. Drawing from Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire

In France, Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin, Jesuit antiquarians and founders of Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, an influential multi-volume publication on medieval art that made its first appearance in 1849, took the view that this kind of high-level monstrous imagery on churches represented the legions of the enemy of salvation hovering over the heads of the faithful to deflect them from the true path. Their complex justification for this view involved Gog and Magog, widely if vaguely considered to be the servants of Lucifer in his battle against Christ, and St Paul’s description of the devil, in his letter to the Ephesians, as principem potestatis aeris ; the prince of the power of the air.

A more whimsical explanation came from the Abbé Auber, who, writing in 1871, asserted that gargoyle waterspouts represented devils conquered by the church and set to perform this menial task. He noted that while simple stone drains were good enough in an earlier period, gothic sculptors used a variety of imaginative forms to emphasize the tortures undergone by the unfortunate demons.

This kind of approach was anathema to the highly respected French art historian, Emile Mâle who singled out Cahier’s and Auber’s analyses, as well as that of Félicie d’Ayzac for special criticism. Having expounded a complex medieval iconographic system based largely on the Speculum Maius of Vincent de Beauvais, Mâle found no place in it for the grotesque and monstrous imagery of the gargoyles, concluding that, as no medieval text can explain them they must be the sculptural equivalent of old wives’ tales, ancestral memories like vampires or dragons, and certainly unworthy of the attention of the serious scholar.

Chimera (on the parapet) and gargoyles at Notre-Dame, Paris. Creative Commons, Peter Cadogan

The gargoyles of Notre-Dame in Paris are far and away the best known and most dramatic of all, but they, and the chimeras crouching on the balustrades above them, are all the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, who spent 25 years from 1845 restoring the building from its state of post-Revolutionary dereliction. Practically all of the Gothic gargoyles were lost or worn beyond any hope of copying, while the chimeras survived only as stumps or in ambiguous antiquarian drawings.  In Viollet-le-Duc’s copious writings he was always concerned to emphasize the functionality of gargoyles. The earliest attempt to write a history of the gargoyle was his article on the subject in the Dictionnaire, which gives a closely argued history of the form, tracing its development from the short gargoyles of c.1225 at Notre-Dame to the longer ones of the nave buttresses.

This elongation inspired sculptors to produce decorative forms, and was facilitated by the availability of the limestone of the Seine basin, le liais cliquart, a fine-grained limestone that can be cut in long blocks. He stated simply that this was the reason that Parisian gargoyles were the most beautiful of all, but it is hard to resist the conclusion that they were invented at Notre-Dame. Viollet-le-Duc is perhaps closer to Mâle than any of his other French contemporaries in his resistance to any interpretation of the Gothic gargoyle beyond the functional. Another point well made by Viollet-le-Duc is that their very function means that gargoyles are subject to water erosion and were inevitably replaced, sometimes more than once, during their lifetime.  While the flow of rain through their gutters eventually compromises their usefulness, their exposed position likewise wears away their details too, so that by the time they need replacing, old gargoyles can no longer be copied. In this he found justification for his approach to replacing them, considering that what the medieval carvers had made was akin to the activity of his own team in bringing their own imagination to bear when giving monstrous shape to a practical member.

In England, something similar happened at Chester Cathedral, built of New Red Sandstone in many medieval phases from 1092. This building material is characterised by its ease of cutting when freshly quarried, and by hardening followed by rapid erosion thereafter.  Hence the striking gargoyles certainly belong to the restorations of Harrison (1818-20), Hussey (1844), Scott (1868-76) or Blomfield (1882). George Gilbert Scott’s restoration in particular was criticised at the time for the extent of his interventions.

There seems no doubt, however, that the freedom enjoyed by Viollet-le-Duc in his restorations at Notre-Dame and elsewhere was not experienced by the masons and sculptors of the Gothic period.  Why should the Dean and Chapter pay their workers to indulge their imagination in stone unless they had a specific programme in mind? It seems reasonable to look for an explanation of the forms of gargoyles that goes beyond the ghost story and the carvers’ nightmares. Cahier and Martin certainly provided one that may have satisfied their contemporaries, but to the modern audience it appears wilfully learned and would probably be inaccessible to the medieval viewer of the sculpture.  An explanation more convincing to today’s reader, developed in the work of Michael Camille, is that these terrifying creatures represent the sin and vice that fills the world, which must be rejected by the man of God.  But perhaps more than a mere representation; instead they may enable the sinful churchgoer to see what is actually present.  This is part of a far broader solution aimed at cracking the paradox of monstrous imagery in the holy space. The predatory birds and fierce beasts of Reading cloister; the grotesque and obscene corbels that surround so many churches, and the foul creatures that cluster around their doorways are there to remind us that the world is really like that, however beautiful and serene it may appear, and that the only refuge is to be found in the Church.

In a future post I will examine a few British gargoyles in more detail.

Further Reading
A. Auber, Histoire et théorie du symbolisme religieux, 4 vols, Paris 1871, II, 256, 377.
C. Cahier and A. Martin, Mélanges d’archéologie, d’histoire, et de littérature, Paris 1847-49, I, 75-77.
C. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992, esp. 77-97.
C. Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago and London 2009.
E. Mâle, L’Art Religieux du XIIIe siecle en France, Paris 1898 (7th ed. 1931), 46-58.
E. Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, Paris 1854-68, VI, 21-28.

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Not the hand of St James


The hand at St Peter’s, Marlow. Photograph author


St James the Great

JAMES the Great was the brother of the apostle John, and the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and Salome, arguably (at a stretch) the Virgin Mary’s sister. James and John may thus have been first cousins of Jesus. Following the account in Acts 12, 1-2, James was executed in Jerusalem with the sword on the orders of King Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, in AD 42 or 44. What happened thereafter has been a matter of some controversy, and I shall examine two mythical histories which have met with very different levels of success.

The Santiago de Compostela myth

THE official line, synthesised from various legends dating back to the seventh century, was that the apostle had preached in Spain during his lifetime, and that at his death two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, had taken his body to Spain, landing at Padrón on the Galician coast.  It was then taken inland to Compostela, and buried. Later the two disciples were buried nearby, and the discovery of graves that fitted this story in 814 AD was taken as evidence that it was true.  The Historia Compostellana, an account written by an author in the circle of Diego Gelmirez of Compostela (Bishop 1100-20, then Archbishop until 1140), was in some sense a codification of the cluster of Spanish legends, and the success of Santiago as a pilgrimage destination testifies to its general acceptance.

Compostela claims to have the entire body except for two pieces.  Between 1048 and 1054 an arm was sent by the King of Navarre to the Bishop of  Tongres and Liège in modern Belgium, and permission was granted for a lock of hair to be taken by the deacon of the Bishop of Pistoia in 1144.  He took bone along with the hair, but was allowed to keep it, and this act of generosity was to prove useful in the later history of the shrine.  Pope Callixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims to the shrine in 1122, and this was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in the Bull, Regis Aeterni, issued in 1179. Most recently in 1884 Pope Leo XIII proclaimed in the Bull, Deus Omnipotens, that the relics in Santiago were those of St. James.

The Arm at Torcello


The Tomb of St James, Valley of Josaphat, Jerusalem. Photograph A. Salzmann 1854-56.

DESPITE all this, the story is inherently unlikely, and a second myth seems on the surface to have much more going for it.  In this account, James was not only executed in Jerusalem but was buried there too. In the late fourth century Bishop Heliodorus of Altino visited his shrine and took away an arm. In 640 the arm was given to Torcello Cathedral, on an island at the northern end of the Venetian lagoon; a safer home than Altino which was overrun by Lombards. There it stayed until the visit of Adalbert, Arcbishop of Hamburg Bremen in the 1040s, when Bishop Vitalis of Torcello surrendered the hand, retaining the rest of the arm, to the Archbishop. Adalbert’s visit to Italy was as a member of the court of Emperor Henry III, who convened the Council of Sutri at which three rival claimants to the papacy were deposed in favour of the Emperor’s own candidate. Adalbert was his first choice, but turned it down and Henry’s own confessor, Bishop Suidger of Bamberg, was elected as Clement II. With the power of the Emperor behind him, Adalbert apparently had no difficulty in obtaining the relic he desired.

The hand in the Imperial Treasury

WHEN Adalbert died in 1072, his treasury contained little except books, vestments and relics, and these were seized by Emperor Henry IV, subsequently passing to his son and successor Henry V. In 1114 Henry V married Matilda, the 12-year-old daughter of King Henry I of England, and when he died in 1125 her opportunities in Germany were extremely limited, so she left for Normandy taking her personal collection of jewels, her own imperial regalia, two of Henry’s crowns, and the hand of St James.

The hand at Reading Abbey

A charter dated 1126 states that King Henry I gave the hand to Reading Abbey at the request of his daughter, Matilda, who had brought it from Germany. This charter is demonstrably either corrupt or a forgery, but the chronicler Matthew Paris recorded that the relic was sent to Reading from Normandy by the king in 1133, and this might be the true date of its arrival. Within three years it had gone again. In 1136 it was borrowed by the new king’s younger brother, Henry of Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester, and he could not be persuaded to return it until 1155. It was certainly back at the abbey by 1161, when it was mentioned in an indulgence issued by Theobald, Bishop of London as being there. Thereafter it was mentioned occasionally throughout the pre-Reformation period most notably, perhaps, in a manuscript of circa 1200 that describes 28 miracles, mostly cures, worked by the hand. It was recorded in the relic list of circa 1190 now in British Library MS Egerton 3031 as Manus sancti Iacobi cum carne et ossibus (the hand of St James with flesh and bones), and the final mention was in the short list of relics made in 1538 by Dr London at an early stage in the Dissolution of the house. 

The rediscovery of the hand

IT is at this point that the Reading hand disappears from the historical record, but it might have survived the Dissolution.  In October 1786 workmen digging the foundations for Reading Gaol discovered a left hand in a wall at the east end of the abbey church.  Interestingly, although nowhere in the medieval accounts of the hand is it stated whether it was a left or a right hand, the image on the abbey seal in use in 1239 clearly shows a left hand raised in benediction, accompanied by the words ORA PRO NOBIS SANCTE IACOBE, which would be unusual unless this represented the reliquary itself.

3 Seal Press 2 Box 1_2 - Copy

The seal of Abbot Adam of Lathbury, Salisbury Cathedral Treasury

THE newly rediscovered hand came into the possession of one Dr Hooper, who gave it around 1801 to the Athenaeum, the museum of the Reading Philosophical Institute, where it was displayed for some years.  When this closed down in 1853 the relic was returned to Dr Hooper’s executors, who sold it to the Roman Catholic Lewis Mackenzie in 1855.  Mackenzie died the following year, and his heir sold the hand to Charles Robert Scott-Murray (1818-82) for 50 guineas. Scott-Murray had converted to the Catholic faith in 1844, and he engaged the architect Augustus Welby Pugin to build a catholic church dedicated to St Peter in Marlow-on-Thames, and a private chapel at Danesfield, his own house nearby.  The hand was kept in Danesfield chapel until the house was sold out of the family to Robert William Hudson, heir of the Sunlight soap magnate Robert Spear Hudson, in 1897.  Hudson rebuilt the house and demolished the chapel, and the hand was given to St Peter’s Marlow, where it is still preserved in a casket of brass and glass.

Competing claims

FATHER John Morris, a Roman Catholic parish priest of Marlow in the 1850s, took a great interest in the hand, attempting to secure it for pious purposes while it was still in the museum, and in 1852 writing to ask Archbishop Miguel Garcia Cuesta of Compostela whether the apostle’s body had a hand missing. The archbishop replied that the tomb was not accessible, having been dismantled in 1597 when Sir Francis Drake attacked nearby Corunna. The body was concealed below the sanctuary for safe keeping and walled in.  This was clearly something of an embarrassment to the Spanish authorities, and in 1878 Cardinal Miguel Paya y Rico, the new Archbishop of Compostela, authorised a search for the apostle’s bones to be performed by Canon Antonio López Ferreiro, the historian of the church, and another canon.  They ultimately announced their success, having found a chest of brick and stone under the floor behind the altar.  It proved to contain the bones of three men, one of whose skull had damage consistent with a decapitation.  When the relic of bone and hair at Pistoia was remembered, it was sent for and proved to fit the skull, and this was taken as confirmation that this was indeed St James, accompanied by his two disciples.

THESE events, and the consequent proclamation that the relics were genuine in Pope Leo XIII’s Bull of 1884, obviously had implications for the other alleged relics, and when the scholar Brian Taylor asked whether the state of the bones identified as the apostle’s was consistent with the claims of Torcello, Liège and Marlow he received a scribbled and unsigned note in reply, ‘Parece que si’ – apparently yes – for Liège; ‘No consta’ – no clear evidence – for Torcello; and ‘Parece que no’ – apparently not – for Marlow.

Scientific testing before 2018

THE hand was X-rayed in 1960, and Mr Mulvaney of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London stated that it belonged to a mature male, and had suffered a fracture to the little finger a short time before death. In 1965 it was submitted to Professor A. J. E. Cave of St Bartholomew’s, who had previously examined the skull of the Blessed Ambrose Barlow, executed as an unrepentant Catholic at Lancaster in 1641. Prof. Cave was unable to provide any useful information about the hand, but he did show it to an expert at the British Museum , who observed that it was preserved by desiccation – a typically Middle Eastern process.

Radiocarbon dating evidence, 2018

THE hand was recently submitted to the Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art for radiocarbon dating, and the results were made available to St Peter’s in Marlow earlier this year. Radiocarbon dating provides a value for the date of death of a living organism, calculated from the decay of radioactive carbon-14 in a sample.  If this were the hand of St James the Great, we would expect a date range around the year 44 AD when he was executed. The results date the death of the hand to AD 994-1037 with a 68% degree of certainty, and to AD 987 – 1150 with a 95% degree of certainty.


THE fact that the hand is mummified suggests that it came from the Holy Land at some stage.  It is clear that this hand did not belong to the arm collected from Jerusalem by Heliodorus, taken to Altino and transferred to Torcello – it is not old enough. It may, however, be the hand that left Torcello, in which case the switch could have been made by Bishop Vitalis, which would explain why Archbishop Adalbert received a hand rather than the arm he was expecting.  This would make the relic an extremely modern one at the time the exchange was made, presumably a recent addition from Jerusalem. There seems no reason to suspect any chicanery while the hand was in the possession of Archbishop Adalbert or the Imperial Treasury, and we can be confident that Matilda thought she had the genuine relic. Similarly a substitution seems unlikely while the hand was in Reading, except for one occasion – the period from 1136 to 1155 when it was borrowed by Henry of Blois. He could certainly have exchanged the hand for a relic of less value from Winchester or Glastonbury.

Plate 15

Harry Morley. 1917. The Martyrdom of Hugh Faringdon, last Abbot of Reading. Reading Museum

The hand that was discovered in 1786 on the abbey site must surely have come from the abbey, and the method of preservation suggests a relic rather than a burial. It was presumably the hand that was venerated as St James’s during the life of the abbey, although it is fair to point out that the twelfth-century relic list mentioned another hand, that of St Anastasia, which had become a hand of St Anastasius by the time of Dr London’s visit in 1538. As it happens, we know something about this relic too. At the Dissolution, the Abbot of Reading, Hugh Cook of Faringdon, was executed along with two of his monks, John Eynon and John Rugge. From Thomas Cromwell’s papers we have a series of questions he had prepared for Rugge’s examination, including a request for an explanation of his possession of the hand of St Anastasius. It is hard to imagine that this hand was not destroyed by Cromwell’s agents.

Further Reading

R. Baxter, The Royal Abbey of Reading, Woodbridge 2016.

B. Kemp, ‘The Miracles of the Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 65 (1970), 1-20.

B. Taylor, ‘The Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 75 (1994-97), 97-102.


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Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon

To be clear, I am using the word canon here to signify a list of works accepted as being representative of Romanesque sculpture. This is not necessarily the same as a list of works accepted as being of the highest quality, especially as art historians are notoriously cagey about identifying quality (which is sometimes, though not always, equivalent to craftsmanship). Authors writing about Romanesque sculpture must decide which works to write about; teachers of the subject must choose the slides to use in their presentations, and such decisions will define their view of what Romanesque sculpture is. So your list might not be the same as my list, in theory. In practice, however, things are a little more treacherous.

The first thing to bear in mind is that Romanesque, as an adjective, along with Norman, its predecessor in general use, was initially applied to architecture rather than sculpture or painting. It was defined in architectural terms, and in using it to describe sculpture it could only refer to the carvings that ornamented these round-arched, thick walled buildings.  While Romanesque buildings were indebted to Roman architecture, there was no necessary connection between Romanesque and Roman sculpture. Sometimes similarities existed, but more commonly they did not.


The Raising of Lazarus (detail), Chichester Cathedral. Dated c.1000 by Prior & Gardiner but now generally assigned to the second quarter of the 12th century (© Kathryn A. Morrison)

This has important implications for the whole idea of a canon, because when we come to look at the various lists we notice that not a few of the objects lack a precise architectural context, and dating becomes a matter of connoisseurship. Take the Chichester Reliefs, for example, two panels depicting Christ Arriving at Bethany and the Raising of Lazarus, displayed in the south presbytery aisle of Chichester Cathedral. They were behind the choirstalls of the cathedral in 1829, but it is by no means certain that this was their original position. Dating them was problematic because there was nothing dated to compare them to. The closest parallels were with 10th-century manuscript painting and ivories, and the consensus until well into the 20th century was to assign them to the years around 1000 AD, and to speculate that they may have been imports from the lost minster of Selsey.

Edward Prior and Arthur Gardiner’s An Account of Medieval Figure Sculpture in England, published in 1912, may be considered the first serious attempt at an account of English medieval sculpture, and the authors accepted the 1000 AD date for the reliefs. Since the 1950s, Zarnecki’s redating of the reliefs to the 2nd quarter of the 12th century has been generally accepted, and it is based on manuscript parallels, notably with the figure style of the St Albans Psalter. This is no place to discuss the extent of the validity of comparisons between works in different media, but I will doubtless get around to it in a future post.

Having brought Prior and Gardiner into the discussion it will be as well to begin my analysis of the Romanesque canon with their work. I should first say that Romanesque was not their favourite period of medieval sculpture. As I have argued in my post on their work, Romanesque was presented as a stage on the road to a sculptural perfection that was achieved in the second half of the 13th century in the Judgement Portal at Lincoln. Nevertheless, a canon of dated Romanesque sculptures can be extracted from their work, and to avoid clogging up this post with a long list I have posted it separately here.

There are fifty one sites in the list, and it is a tribute to the lasting value of Prior and Gardiner’s achievement that my readers will probably recognise most of them. On the other hand, it might be a worry to find that the bulk of the Romanesque canon was established more than a century ago.  Where we no longer agree is on the issue of dating. A group of works that Prior and Gardiner dated well before the Conquest is now universally dated up to fifty years after it. Apart from the Chichester Reliefs, discussed above, what they have in common is a degree of stylisation in their figure drawing, characterised by our authors as crude or savage.

The relief of St Michael and the Dragon at St Nicholas’ Ipswich, dated by Prior and Gardiner c.1000 AD

The table gives ample scope for analysis, but I just want to make two points here.  First, most of the works chosen are figural, many narrative. This explains the concentration on relief panels, tympana and fonts, which have large fields available for extended scenes. This fits in with the authors’ larger aim, which was to propose a model of development that moved in the direction of naturalism (by the later 13th century) turning to excess and visual depravity in the 14th and 15th centuries. For more on this, see here.   The second point is that the practice of sculpture has no place in the list. Prior and Gardiner divided Romanesque sculpture into that based on drawing, that based on painting and that based on metalwork; a legacy that has lasted for far too long. What is omitted is the possibility of a sculptural tradition. The list is therefore unbalanced as a survey by (for example) a focus on just a few related groups. Four of the entries are the work of the Herefordshire School, and three on the workshop of St Peter’s, Northampton. These are important works that merit inclusion, but the picture is unbalanced by the use of so many of them, when there is nothing at all from the Yorkshire School and none of the fonts of the Aylesbury group in the list.  The over-reliance on a style model is obvious in their treatment of Kilpeck, where the south doorway is dated a quarter-century later than the chancel arch and corbels, despite belonging to the same sculptural campaign.

My second example of a canon is that provided by George Zarnecki in the two little Tiranti volumes he published in 1951 and 1953; English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140 and Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210. This is clearly a much more serious piece of work despite containing only just over 100 pages of text between the two books. They are basically a series of plates with captions; 82 plates in volume 1 and 133 in volume 2. The intention to produce a national survey is made clear by the inclusion of a map of sites as a frontispiece to volume 2, showing that the entire country is pretty much covered.

Zarnecki frontispiece

G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture (1953), frontispiece

The most obvious difference between Prior and Gardiner’s canon and Zarnecki’s is the doubling of the number of sites. This was achieved partly by expanding the area of coverage in an attempt to include the whole of England, and partly by Zarnecki’s policy of examining the sculpture on its own terms. His aim was not, as Prior and Gardiners had been, to justify a model of artistic production, but rather to find out how medieval sculpture was produced. He studied the changes in sculptural practice brought about by the Conquest, which meant examining what had gone before, and explored the survival of Anglo-Saxon forms after the Conquest. He tracked the influences from Continental sculpture associated with the Conquest, and identified changes in workshop practice that went with new building methods. For example, post-Conquest sculpture was dominated by the capital, a feature all but unknown in Anglo-Saxon building, but the dominant form of post-Conquest capital in England, the cushion and its variants, did not come from Normandy.

Canterbury 007

A capital from Archbishop Anselm’s wall arcading at Canterbury Cathedral.

He was always interested in tracing the movements of craftsmen: from Canterbury crypt (which he dated to c.1120) to Westminster Abbey, Reading (whose sculpture was discovered after Prior and Gardiner’s work, partly by Zarnecki himself), Winchester, Romsey Abbey, Christchurch Priory and elsewhere. He also explored the workshop that was active in Castor (apparently dated by an inscription to 1124), Wansford, Sutton and Maxey in the Soke of Peterborough.


Capitals from the crossing at Castor (Soke of Peterborough) by a workshop active in the area

The Herefordshire School was examined in detail too, as well as the Yorkshire School, one centred on St Peter’s Northampton, and three groups of late-12th century fonts in Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and Cornwall. All of this research vastly increased the size of the canon, and went some way to relating it to sculptural practice. He was aware that English Romanesque could not be properly appreciated until all of it was known, which was why he establish the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture towards the end of his time at the Courtauld Institute.


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The Romanesque canon according to Zarnecki (1951 and 1953)

This list of dated works, taken from G. Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140, London 1951, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210 London 1953 is meant to be read in conjunction with my post on Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon.

Location Work Date
Durham Castle chapel Capitals c.1072
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) Crypt capital (Lanfranc) c.1075
Tower of London, St John’s Chapel Capitals c.1080
Gloucester Cathedral Crypt capitals c.1089
Bramber, St Nicholas (Sussex) Chancel arch capital Late 11thc
Newton in Cleveland, St Oswald (Yorks) Dragon relief Late 11thc
Uppington, Holy Trinity (Salop), Dragon tympanum Late 11thc
London, V&A Westminster Hall capitals 1090-1100
Kirkburn, St Mary (Yorks Nave window capitals c.1100
Barton Seagrave, St Botolph (Northants), N doorway tympanum c.1100
South Milton, All Saints (Devon) Font. Early 12thc
Fincham, St Martin (Norfolk), Font Early 12thc
Bredwardine, St Andrew (Hereford) N doorway lintel Early 12thc
Handborough, St Peter (Oxon) N doorway tympanum Early 12thc
Thorpe Arnold, St Mary (Leics) Font Early 12thc
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) S transept corbels Soon after 1107
Hereford Cathedral Choir capitals c.1115
Southwell Minster (Notts) Crossing capitals c.1120
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) External choir arcading c.1120
Canterbury, St Augustine’s (Kent) Corbel c.1120
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) crypt capitals c.1120
Wansford, St Mary (Northants) Font c.1120
Steyning, St Andrew (Sussex) Inhabited foliage relief c.1120
West Haddon, All Saints  (Northants) Font c.1120
Castor, St Kyneburgha (Northants) Tower arch & chancel arch capitals 1124
Luppitt, St Mary (Devon), Font 1100-50
Hook Norton, St Peter (Oxon), Font 1100-50
Toller Fratrum, St Basil (Dorset) Font 1100-50
St Marychurch, St Mary (Devon) Font 1125-50
Charney Basset, St Peter (Berks) Tympanum 1125-50
Reading Abbey (Berks) Cloister sculpture c.1130
Durham Cathedral N doorway capitals c.1130
Hyde, St Bartholomew (Hants) Hyde Abbey capitals c.1130
Romsey Abbey (Hants) Choir aisle capitals c.1140
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) Chapter house doorway c.1140
Lewes, Anne of Cleves Museum (Sussex) Lewes Priory capitals c.1140
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) Capitals c.1140
Norwich Cathedral (Norfolk) Cloister capitals c.1140
Ely Cathedral (Cambs) Prior’s doorway c.1140
Chichester Cathedral (Sussex) Relief panels c.1140
Westminster Abbey (London) Judgement of Solomon capital c.1140
Avington, St Mark and St Luke (Berks) Font c.1140
Darenth, St Margaret (Kent) Font c.1140
Avebury, St James (Wilts) Font c.1140
Alphington, St Michael (Devon) Font c.1140
Coleshill, St Peter and St Paul (Warwicks) Font c.1150
Oxford, St Ebbe W doorway c.1150
Barford, St Michael (Oxon) N doorway c.1150
Bishopsteignton, St John the Baptist (Devon) W doorway 1150-75
Northampton, St Peter Capitals and tomb slab c.1150
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Hereford) S doorway, chancel arch, corbels c.1150
Eardisley, St Mary Magdalene (Hereford) Font c.1150
Castle Frome, St Michael (Hereford) Font c.1150
Brinsop, St George (Hereford) Tympanum c.1150
Stretton Sugwas, St Mary Magdalene (Hereford) Tympanum c.1150
Stottesdon, St Mary (Salop) Font c.1160
Chaddesley Corbett, St Cassian (Worcs) Font c.1160
Durham Cathedral Chapter House Atlas figures c.1140
Winchester Cathedral (Hants) Tournai font 1150-75
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Capital from Old Sarum 1150-75
Ely cathedral (Cambs) Bishop Nigel’s tomb 1150-75
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Old Sarum gable with lions c.1140
Salisbury Museum (Wilts) Old Sarum beakhead voussoir, head from arch c.1140
Lincoln Cathedral W doorway and frieze c.1145
York Minster Virgin & Child 1154 (?)
Barking Abbey (Essex) Rood fragments c.1150
Durham Cathedral screen panels 1150-60
Lenton, Holy Trinity (Notts) Font 1150-75
Brighton, St Nicholas (Sussex) Font 1150-75
Bridekirk, St Bridget (Cumberland) Font 1150-75
Selby Abbey (Yorks) Nave capitals c.1140
Brayton, St Wilfrid (Yorks) Chancel arch capitals c.1150
York Minster Crypt capitals c.1160
Alne, St Mary (Yorks) S doorway c.1160
Fishlake, St Cuthbert (Yorks) S doorway 1160-70
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) W doorway c.1160 & 1175
Barfreston, St Mary (Kent) N doorway c.1180
Malmesbury Abbey (Wilts) S porch and doorway 1160-70
Stanton Fitzwarren, St Leonard (Wilts) Font c.1180
Southrop, St Peter (Glos) Font c.1180
Shernborne, St Peter and St Paul (Norfolk) Font c.1170
Great Kimble, St Nicholas (Bucks) Font c.1180
Bodmin, St Petroc (Cornwall) Font c.1200
Stafford, St Mary Font c.1200
Tutbury, St Mary (Staffs) W doorway c.1180
Iffley, St Mary (Oxon) Doorways and chancel vault 1175-82
Elkstone, St John the Evangelist (Glos) Chancel vault boss c.1180
Canterbury Cathedral (Kent) “Screen” reliefs c.1190
Bobbing, St Bartholomew (Kent) Figure of bishop c.1200
Much Wenlock Priory (Salop) Lavabo c.1190
Bridlington Priory (Yorks) Statuette 1170-80
York, Yorkshire Museum St Mary’s Abbey figures & voussoirs c.1210
Lincoln Cathedral W front figures Early 13thc
Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset) Lady Chapel doorways c.1210
Durham, St Mary-the-Less Christ in Majesty Early 13thc
Bridlington Priory (Yorks) cloister label stop Early 13thc
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The Romanesque canon according to Prior and Gardiner

This list of dated works, taken from E. S. Prior and A. Gardner, An Account of Medieval Figure-Sculpture in England. Cambridge 1912, is meant to be read in conjunction with my posts on Prior & Gardiner – sculpture as evolution and Romanesque Sculpture – the Canon.

Location Work Assigned date
Ault Hucknall,  St John the Baptist (Derbys), Tympanum and lintel c.1000
Southwell Minster (Derbys) Tympanum c.1000
Ipswich, St Nicholas (Suffolk) Tympanum c.1000
Daglingworth, Holy Rood (Glos) Reliefs c.1000
Chichester Cathedral (Sussex) Reliefs c.1000
Durham Castle Chapel Capitals c.1070
Burnham Deepdale, St Mary (Norfolk) Font c.1100
Westminster Abbey (London) Capital c.1100
Hereford Cathedral Capital c.1100
Moreton Valence, St Stephen (Glos) Tympanum c.1120
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Herefords) Chancel arch/ corbels c.1125
Dinton, St Peter (Bucks) Tympanum c.1125
Fordington, St George (Dorset) Tympanum c.1125
Stone, St John the Baptist (Bucks) Font c.1125
Eardisley, St Mary Magdalene (Herefords) Font c.1125
Romsey Abbey (Hampshire) Corbel table c.1125
Harpole, All Saints (Northants) Font c.1140
Northampton, St Peter (Northants) Relief and capitals c.1140
Rochester Cathedral (Kent) West doorway c.1140-80
Kilpeck, St Mary and St David (Herefords) South doorway c.1150
Elkstone, St John the Evangelist (Glos) Tympanum c.1150
Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire) Bishop Nigel’s tomb c.1150
Toftrees, All Saints  (Norfolk), Font c.1150
West Haddon, All Saints (Northants) Font c.1150
Highworth, St Michael (Wilts) Tympanum c.1150
Romsey Abbey (Hampshire) Capitals c.1150
Canterbury Cathedral Crypt capitals c.1150
Fownhope, St Mary (Herefords) Tympanum c.1150
Much Wenlock Priory (Salop) Lavabo c.1150
Water Stratford, St Giles (Bucks) Tympanum c.1150
Winchester Cathedral Font c.1150
Elstow, St Mary (Beds) Tympanum c.1150
Ely Cathedral (Cambridgeshire) Prior’s doorway c.1150
Durham Cathedral Chapter House Atlas figures c.1150
Lincoln Cathedral (Lincs) West front frieze c.1160
Malmesbury Abbey church (Wilts) Tympana c.1160
Iffley, St Mary (Oxon) Doorways c.1160
Southrop, St Peter (Glos) Font c.1160
Hereford Cathedral Font c.1170
Barfreston, St Nicholas (Kent) South doorway c.1170
Brighton, St Nicholas (Sussex) Font c.1170
York, Yorkshire Museum Death of Dives tympanum c.1170
Durham Cathedral Screen reliefs c.1170
Kelloe, St Helen (Durham) Cross c.1170
Coleshill, St Peter (Warwicks) Font c.1170/60
Stafford, St Mary Font c.1180
York Minster Hell relief c.1180
Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel North doorway c.1185
York, Yorkshire Museum St Mary’s Abbey figures c.1200
Worcester Cathedral Christ in Majesty c.1200
York Minster Virgin and Child relief uncertain




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Corbels and corbel tables

A corbel is a projecting block of stone or timber that supports a feature above. A row of corbels supporting a parapet, stringcourse or the eaves of a roof is called a corbel table. Corbels and corbel tables are thus functional features, but in the early Middle Ages, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries, they were often decorated with carving.

Single corbels

Corbels are often used to support the tympanum of a Romanesque doorway.  At Ely Abbey (now cathedral), corbels were often used in this way. The fishscale tympanum of a small internal stair-turret doorway  was supported by a pair of corbels taking the form of rolls decorated with chevron and daisies on the ends.


The N transept stair turret doorway at Ely Cathedral


…. and a detail of one of its corbels

On the more elaborate Prior’s doorway, human head corbels support a tympanum showing Christ in Majesty.

Corbels could be similarly used as an alternative to responds with capitals to carry internal arches, the ends of arcades or vault ribs, and in these cases the corbels usually take capital forms, with impost blocks above and sometimes conical terminals below.


At Buildwas Abbey the rib vault is carried on corbels

Corbel tables

A corbel table is a row of corbels carrying a projecting stringcourse under the eaves of a roof, or supporting the parapet of a tower.  Sometimes the corbels carry an arcade.


The N nave wall of St Martin’s, Little Stukeley, Hunts, showing its plain arcaded corbel table

Since corbel tables do not invariably appear in these positions in Romanesque buildings, it would seem that they perform no essential function.  Their symbolic functions, however, are a matter for endless debate and speculation.

As Michael Camille pointed out, the position of the corbel table on the exterior of the church places it outside the sacred space itself, at the junction between the church and the everyday world outside it. From this we might conclude that the imagery of the corbel table might be a representation of the outside world.


The apse of Kilpeck church. The corbel table surrounds the entire building

The complete Romanesque church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, has 93 surviving exterior corbels. Of these 24 surround the apse, 18 are on the chancel walls and 49 are on the nave walls. The final two corbels are reused as label stops for a chancel window. 12 of the corbels are either lost or too badly damaged to be interpreted.  The first point to note is that only two of the corbels show recognisable religious subjects. Both depict the Agnus Dei, and they are placed in key positions: on the axis of the apse, and above the S nave doorway, which was the parish entrance.

Agnus Dei corbel above the South doorway

For the rest, we have a mixture of humans – both heads and complete figures, grotesques, more or less conventional animals, plants and interlace. If this is a representation of the world outside the church, then all is not as it appears on the surface. The figure scenes include a musician, a pair of wrestlers, lovers embracing, a falling figure, perhaps signifying pride, and the best-known of all, an explicit female exhibitionist.

A musician and a pair of embracing lovers on the apse


A female exhibitionist

All of these suggest that vice is a theme here, and this sheds some light on the interpretation of the other corbels. Grotesque and ordinary heads are juxtaposed, both in the human and the animal world. A muzzled bear has two human heads sticking out of the corners of its mouth; and a demon with the head of a hawk makes two appearances, sinking its beak into the mouth of the man whose head it straddles; elsewhere a carrion bird eats another bird’s body.

A hawk-headed monster and its human prey

The scenes of torment and the grotesque creatures would lose their point if they were not set in the midst of the ordinary – men and women, hares, rabbits, rams and pigs. The message to be taken must be that the world outside the church is not as it seems, and that the Lamb of God above the doorway points the way to the salvation that can only be gained inside the building.

I suspect that there is more to be read in the corbel table than this. There are differences in the content in different parts of the corbel table. Most of the scenes of vice and its punishment, for example, are set around the apse. I also strongly suspect that other churches would offer slightly different messages, but this little essay is not intended to provide any more than a starting point.

Further Reading

M. Camille, Image on the Edge: the Margins of Medieval Art, London 1992.

A. Weir and J. Jerman, Images of Lust, London 1986.

N. Kenaan Kedar, Marginal Sculpture in Medieval France, Aldershot 1995.

But to be honest, your best bet for pictures and descriptions of British Romanesque corbels and corbel tables is the website of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture


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Public and Private: the chancel arch

The chancel arch of a church marks the important boundary between lay and priestly zones.  In the Anglo-Saxon church of St Lawrence, Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire) this arch is no larger than a doorway into the chancel, emphasising its status as a private priestly domain. By the mid-eleventh century chancel arches had become wider, but sometimes retained a monolithic solidity, like that at All Saints, Wittering (Soke of Peterborough) perhaps suggesting the notion of fortification.

The massive chancel arch at All Saints, Wittering

The rood, an image of Christ on the cross often flanked by standing figures of the Virgin and St John, with angels flying above the arms of the cross, was painted or carved in relief on the east nave wall above the chancel arch in Anglo-Saxon churches. At Bradford-on- Avon the central part of the wall has been rebuilt, and Christ is lost, but the angels remain near the top of the wall.  Something similar survives at St Andrew, Nether Wallop (Hampshire), where the Anglo-Saxon chancel arch was replaced with a much taller and wider one c.1300, removing the rood but leaving the angels more or less intact. At Breamore and probably also at Romsey (both Hampshire), the rood over the chancel arch was moved to another location when  it was no longer convenient in its original position.

The rood at Breamore, moved from the chancel arch to a position above the south doorway

From the twelfth century onwards, several tendencies in church architecture combined to render obsolete the rood painted on the east nave wall. Lower and wider naves replaced the tall Anglo-Saxon type, and chancel arches grew in height and width. Communication between the nave and the presbytery remained restricted by the introduction of a screen with a narrow central entrance, although such screens were usually of tracery, which allowed the laity to see what the priests were doing.


The congregation’s view into the presbytery at St Mary’, Bozeat (Northants). The chancel entrance is narrow but the laity get a good view of the ritual

The rood was still needed, however, and from this time it was generally mounted on a beam at the top of the screen and under the chancel arch, approached by a stair at the north or south end.  At St Mary of the Assumption, Ufford (Suffolk) the rood beam and the base of the screen are still in place, while at St Petronilla’s, Whepstead in the same county the rood stair survives in the south nave wall but the rood beam is lost.

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The rood beam at St Mary, Ufford

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St Petronilla, Whepstead. The rood stair remains in the south nave wall, but the rood is no longer there.

Surviving rood stairs are by no means uncommon in parish churches, but often the only evidence for a screen is found in chancel arch capitals and imposts cut away to accommodate it, as at Hanslope (Bucks), Kempley (Gloucestershire) or Bruera (Cheshire).


At St James, Hanslope grooves have been hacked out of the Romanesque capitals and impost blocks to house a later screen.

Roods and screens are very much secondary elements in church building; added after the architecture and its sculpture defined its spaces, and arguably always seen as subject to change.  What is striking about the structure of the chancel arch, however, is that there is a clear tendency for its two faces – the western public face and the eastern clergy face – to be very different. For the laity the chancel arch was, especially in the twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries, an elaborate frame for the sacred ritual. The clergy had a different view – of an arch that was almost or entirely plain.  This was achieved by the use of multiple decorated orders on the west face only, so that the chancel arch almost operated like a picture frame and in one direction only.  To take a random example, the chancel arch at St Peter, Rowlestone (Herefordshire) is lavishly decorated on the nave side, while the chancel face is quite plain.


The chancel arch at Rowlestone. The west face (left) has elaborate carving while the east face (right) is plain

Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely; it is practically a rule, and for architectural historians it offers almost infinite scope for speculation, which I am determined (as ever) to resist.

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Cushion and Scallop Capitals Part 2

Part 1 of my series on cushion and scallop capitals introduced these widespread and enduring features, and in this second part I will look at some ways in which the basic forms were varied and elaborated.

The first and commonest forms of elaboration affected the shields of the capital and the cones below them. The loose capital in the church of St Peter & St Paul, St Osyth (Essex), shown above, has sheathed cones, and elsewhere we might find wedges of various profiles or cylindrical rods between the cones.


Capitals at St Anselm’s Chapel, Chester Cathedral

Thus the vault respond capitals at Chester Cathedral shown above have triangular wedges between the cones, except for the left capital which has conical wedges. There is a limit to the visual stimulation to be gained from this sort of thing (although painting with bright colours would certainly have livened things up), but the shields themselves also offer opportunities for decoration. They can be recessed and framed in various ways, or relief ornament can be added to their semicircular fields.


Nave arcade capital at St Mary, Grendon (Northants)

The multi-scallop nave arcade capitals at St Mary, Grendon (Northants) are carved with several variations on this theme. The example shown here has half-daisies in the shields, and sheathed cones with wedges decorated with rows of nailhead between them.

Trefoil scallops

Beginning in the 1120s, a variation of the scallop capital called the trefoil, or trefoil scallop began to appear, arguably first at King Henry I’s foundation of Reading Abbey. The exact forms of these capitals vary enormously, but all are basically a kind of cushion capital with three-lobed shields


Trefoil scallop capital from Reading Abbey, now in Reading Museum and Art Gallery

The Reading trefoil capitals are among the most elegant and striking products of any Romanesque sculptural workshop; the forms of the capitals apparently growing organically from the octagonal shafts that supported them.  The form was widely copied…


Capital of the south doorway of All Saints, Pitsford (Northants)

… not always successfully.

Romanesque Mannerism

Romanesque architecture and sculpture is above all a rational system.  Whether we look at a nave elevation, a chancel arch, a doorway or a capital, each element stands in a logical relation to its neighbours. Each shaft of a multi-order doorway has its own capital and archivolt; each cone of a multi-scallop capital carries its own shield. But in the third quarter of the 12th century there are indications that some of the most accomplished sculptors – those working on important sites for wealthy patrons – began to pervert and play with the logic in a way that has parallels with the games that architects like Giulio Romano played with the classical elements at the Palazzo del Te. Which is why I label this exciting phase Romanesque Mannerism, and the opportunities for transgression offered by the logic of the scallop capital provided a rich field for this kind of experimentation.

One of the most fruitful sites for the student of Romanesque Mannerism is the Infirmary Hall at Ely Cathedral. The dating of this is disputed, but the best guess is that the building was completed before 1169, the latest date for the death of Archdeacon William who was carried there a few days before he died. A couple of examples might provide a taster of this aesthetic.

Slipped scallop capitals in the sanctuary of the infirmary at Ely Cathedral

In the sanctuary are capitals in which the shields of the scallop capitals appear to be slipping down the bell of the capital …

Hyphenated slipped scallop capital in the infirmary hall arcade at Ely Cathedral

… while in the hall arcade the same thing happens, but only to alternate shields, producing hyphenated slipped scallops.

Trumpet scallops

During what is usually called the Transition period between Romanesque and Gothic (c.1170-1200 in England) a variation of the scallop capital in which the cones flare outwards like trumpets first appeared.  I cannot say for certain where this motif first arrived, but it is commonly found alongside other transitional forms like waterleaf, and it seems fairly safe to date any examples after 1170.

Trumpet scallop capital on the south doorway of St Lawrence, Preston-on-Wye, Herefordshire

By 1220 trumpet scallops had practically disappeared from production. The nave arcades at Longparish (Hampshire) exemplify many transitional features in their capitals, including early stiff-leaf and trumpet scallops. The keeled cones of the latter are an indicator of late-stage transitional, and the arcades are usually dated to the first decade of the 13th century.

Keeled trumpet scallop capital at Longparish

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Cushion and Scallop capitals Part 1


Ely Cathedral north transept, west arcade capitals

Cushion capitals (also called cubic capitals) are normally described as capitals formed by the intersection of a cube and a sphere. They have a flat semicircular face, or ‘shield’, at the top of each side, and the curved triangular lower angles of the bell are all that remain of the spherical form. This kind of description is fine as far as it goes, but of course medieval capitals were never produced by combining geometrical forms, and in practice there is a continuum of forms between the Platonic ideal described above and a block-like form that has been rounded off at the corners and lower edges, and they are all called cushion capitals.  In some cases the shields don’t really appear at all, and capitals like this are often called ‘tectonic’.


A tectonic capital in the nave arcade of St Mary Magdalene, Ickleton (Cambridgeshire)

As well as variations in the way the block is shaped, special treatment may be applied to the angles, which might be keeled or tucked (removing the spherical element from the equation).


Cushion capital with keeled angles at St Mary, Ilmington (Warwickshire) – Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland


Cushion capital with angle tucks in the stone store at St John, Chester

It is normally assumed that Romanesque sculpture was painted, and cushion capitals have the advantage of a relatively large flat area, the shield, for the application of colour. Paint does not often survive, but a rare survival is at Copford (Essex), and although the polychromy has undoubtedly been refreshed many times it seems safe to assume that the decorative schemes we see today reflect the originals.  Copford uses both of the common early post-Conquest capital forms, the cushion and the volute, and the palette employed contains a rich mixture of reds, blues and earth colours.


Cushion capital from an apse window at St Michael, Copford (Essex)

A few of the Copford capitals are carved on their shields as well as painted, adding to the illusion.


A nave clerestorey window capital at Copford with both paint and relief carving

Cushion capitals appeared in England around the middle of the 11th century, but there are no  examples that are demonstrably pre-Conquest. The earliest appeared in southern England at Archbishop Lanfranc’s Canterbury Cathedral and in the crypts of Winchester and Worcester, and in the north at Jarrow in the later 1070s.  They were common in various parts of Europe before the Norman Conquest, but Normandy was not one of them. As we shall see, capitals in Norman France were usually of the volute type, whereas cushion capitals were common in Northern Italy, the Low Countries and Germany; a reminder that mid-11th century England had links with other parts of Europe than Normandy.


A cushion capital in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral, Germany (crypt consecrated 1041).

Photograph kindly supplied by Ralf Houven, CC BY 3.0,

Scallop capitals are a development of the cushion in which the number of shields is increased to two (double scallop), three (triple scallop) or more (multi-scallop).  Another way of looking at it, found in some authors, is to consider the cushion capital as a form of scallop capital (single scallop) but this term is usually used to distinguish cushion capitals with angle tucks from other varieties.  It is worth noting that the varied group of ambulatory capitals at St John’s Chapel in William the Conqueror’s Tower of London (c.1080) includes both a cushion capital and a double scallop, suggesting that the development from the former to the latter was an early one.



A multi-scallop capital in the chancel arcade at St John the Baptist, Kingsthorpe (Northants)

In the second part of this post I will look at the rich variations in decorative forms found in cushion and scallop capitals, and especially the playful treatment of standard elements as a form of Romanesque Mannerism.

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