Friday, June 6, 2014

Malmesbury, Wiltshire

Now and then

The entrance to Malmesbury Abbey contains some of the most celebrated Romanesque sculpture in England but, in this blog’s spirit of searching out the unregarded, I’m featuring today not the great carvings in the porch, but one of the bosses from the ceiling in the church itself. I’m not claiming greatness for this carving, just suggesting that bosses can give pleasure if we take the time look at them – armed perhaps with what their medieval creators could not have imagined, a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.

This boss, then, is not a great piece of carving, but has some nice touches, such as the swirling hair and flanking leaves, to compensate for the rather small mouth and lack of modelling around the chin. I don’t know who it portrays – some say that it represents Margaret of France, second wife of Edward I. Margaret died in 1307 and the vault is early-14th century, so that’s a possibility. She was not formally crowned, so the carving’s lack of a crown doesn’t mean it cannot portray her.

The other interesting feature of the boss is the colour. I believe this was added during a restoration in the 1920s, but the yellow and terracotta shades and the gilding are probably not too far from the medieval colouring. However the overall effect is more modern somehow. Is it the blushing cheeks? Or the use of flesh tones that make it look as if the subject has naked shoulders? Whatever the case, the carving is now an interesting hybrid, part of the evolving and transforming history of the building that contains it.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I wonder if the sculptor quite realised that the work would never be seen adequately from floor level? A guidebook to Laon cathedral reckoned the carvings on the tower were there for only God to see, but this face is hardly a holy picture, just a rather nice celebration of the human face. Or would all such works of art be "offered up" (as long as, presumably, paid for)? Is this the ecclesiastical equivalent of providing work for the sake of providing work cf. the 18th century follies? (There are certainly worse kinds of job creation, as all too many jobless can testify.)

Philip Wilkinson said...

I think it was more than job creation, more like offering up. Also, many greater churches provided at least the chance of seeing ceiling carvings from a closer vantage point than the floor, because there were galleries, triforia, and so on, where at least some of those who used the building might go. This does not apply to tower or other exterior carvings, though.