Monday, October 31, 2016
1636.* Charles I, full of a sense of his own importance as an absolute monarch, is ruling without Parliament; he’s attempting to get round the awkward fact that only Parliament can raise taxes by imposing the hated feudal levy called Ship Money (normally only used in wartime and only charged in coastal areas) in peacetime and across the whole country. The church is being reformed by a new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who is reducing the Calvinist influence on the church, standardizing liturgy (emphasizing the use of the Book of Common Prayer) and ordering churches to be arranged – with altar rails, and an altar raised on a platform – in a way that sharpens the focus on the altar and on the sacred rite of Holy Communion. Both these changes – the taxation, the religion – cause upset and tension. More tension, and the Civil War, are around the corner.
In Axbridge, Somerset, it’s not just fittings like altar rails that are exercising the parishioners. They’re reroofing the nave of their church – and giving it an astounding ceiling quite remarkable in its network of plaster ribs and decorations. The very idea of a ceiling is, if not unusual, far from the norm in English parish churches: many make do with open roof timbers and these are often displays of virtuoso carpentry. This, on the other hand, is virtuoso plasterwork, from the hands of a local man called George Drayton.
In the 1630s, plaster ceilings in grand houses often have a network of protruding ribs, frequently with pendant features where the main ribs intersect. The patterns can be intricate and dizzying to look up at, and the effect is frequently one of worldly richness.† Here, Drayton has taken this idea and adapted it, adding curves and pointed cusps that turn some of the shapes into quatrefoils. This cusping and quatrefoiling is a motif of the Middle Ages – in other words the plasterer has taken a 17th-century design and applied medieval additions to it, turning it into something that looks almost Gothic. The result, combined with the striking blue and white paintwork, is dazzling.
I don’t know whether this mix of old and new styles reflects in any way the mix of old and new ideas prevalent in England at this time. Some would perhaps see the addition of Gothic into the decorative scheme as a nostalgic backward glance to the old Catholic religion that inspired medieval churches. Others might compare it to the nostalgia prevalent in the theatre of the period, which featured frequent reworkings of earlier dramatists like Shakespeare and Jonson, as if Charles I’s anxious citizens wanted their previously great country back. Or perhaps it was a more neutral preference – people just liked Gothic.
Such speculations are interesting. But today we can marvel at this ceiling for its own sake, and for the pleasure in the ways that English churches, so apparently conventional and part of the establishment, can pull breathtaking tricks on us, just when we think we have them taped.
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* This has turned out to be a rather long post. Here’s an executive summary for those in a hurry. This is a wonderful intricate church ceiling. It was made in 1636 but incorporates design elements from 250 years earlier. There are many possible reasons for this stylistic puzzle, but we don’t need to know the answer to enjoy the effect.
† Such ceilings in country houses were also often studded with images of heraldic beasts, flowers, and other decorations. There’s one from Lanhydrock on this page.