Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Well connected 

Hailes is a tiny, remote place I’ve featured here several times before. It gets my attention often because it’s close to where I live, indeed the church was one of the last I visited before the current lockdown. It’s one of those with medieval wall paintings, images that have faded and that put the modern viewer in a combined state of fascination and puzzlement. The paintings in the chancel – the detail in my photograph is a tiny fragment of three walls full of fragments and fading wholes – must have been very lavish. Large areas beneath and between the windows are covered with square and diamond grids contain heraldic symbols. If nowadays it seems odd that such a small and isolated place should display so much aristocratic symbolism, it’s because in the 13th century the church acquired a new neighbour, the large Cistercian abbey of Hailes, founded by Earl Richard of Cornwall (King of the Romans* and younger son of King John of England) to house a relic said to be the blood of Christ, which was to attract pilgrims from far and wide. The little church by the abbey appears to have become of the gate chapel of the larger foundation. The decoration in the church reflects this rise in the building’s status. 

The heraldic devices on a display include a large pride of lions rampant (visible here) and the occasional spread eagle: both are devices used by Earl Richard. Most of the other heraldry is said to belong to Richard’s wives – he had three, two of whom predeceased him. In the upper areas of the walls, above the windows, are scenes that are difficult to decipher possibly portraying the death of the Virgin, plus saints and Apostles. Another feature of these upper areas are grotesque and mythical beasts, such as the pair in my photograph. On the left is a dragon-like creature: its reptilian wing has faded but is still there in outline. On the right is another winged beast with a rather canine head. I’m really not sure what these creatures are doing here. There are plenty of explanations for images in this vein in sacred spaces – they’re survivors of pagan religion, they’re apotropaic images, meant to keep out evil spirits (often placed at ‘vulnerable’ points like doors or, as here, windows). But we can’t be sure, and scholars like Professor Paul Binski, who has been studying medieval imagery for years, advised in a recent lecture† that one should beware of overthinking them. Images like this, he argues, could just as likely be bits of fun, like the marginalia in Medieval psalters. And that is precisely what the Hailes images resemble.  

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* This medieval title means, in modern terms, king of Germany. 

† In a recent lecture for the Churches Conservation Trust in their excellent series of online talks; most can be found on YouTube at the time of writing.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Why should there be anything "posh" about heraldry in medieval art work? Heraldic devices indicate gentry, but can be freely enjoyed by all. Likewise, dragons, etc. - why any special significance? See G. K. Chesterton on Chaucer, The Epistle of Othona (Early English Text Society) and numerous other literary sources. The encyclopaedic medieval artists allowed fun and games and Classical mythology in a quite exuberant and natural way to illustrate their theologically-centred world view, inclusive and if necessary irresponsible rather than straitlaced and pedantic. What would be a surprise is that blank spaces would not be filled with red dragons or other beasts of the right shape and size. After all, dragons are mentioned in the Scriptures as well. A "pagan" device on one of the carved crosses led to a lot of ink being spilt to explain it: it could just as easily be the Prophet Isaiah being sawn in half.