There’s been a medieval theme to this weekend. We caught up with Thomas Asbridge’s superb documentary about William the Marshal Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219), Europe’s Greatest Knight. It’s available on BBC iplayer til Wednesday. William the Marshal was a legendary jouster and military hero, a signatory to Magna Carta and the servant of three Kings. He is also, as Dr Asridge did not mention, the inspiration for Heath Ledger’s character in ‘A Knight’s Tale.’
Then on Saturday my mother sent me another beautiful postcard of the wall-paintings in South Newington Church, near Banbury in Oxfordshire. St Peter ad Vincula has one of the best preserved painted interiors in England. There are two cycles: a provincial Passion series of c.1500
Flagellation, Road to Calvary and Crucifixion English c.1500 St Peter ad Vincula South Newington (c) Rex Harris
and a set of c.1330 – 1340, including this Madonna and Child and Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket.
The Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket English c.1330 – 40 St Peter ad Vincula South Newington (c) Eric Hardy
This series can be dated within about a decade or so. There is an extremely rare subject alongside the Murder of Thomas a Becket, the Execution of Thomas Earl of Lancaster. The Earl was beheaded in 1322 for his part in the murder of Piers Gaveston, so this is very recent history. Miracles were reported at the hill near Pontefract where Lancaster died. Thousands of pilgrims called for him to be made a Saint, furiously resisted by King Edward II.
The Giffard family had been supporters of Lancaster. Perhaps Thomas Giffard and his wife Margaret Mortayne – who commissioned the paintings and appear as Donors in a painting of St James – intended these complementary subjects as an expression of past loyalty and a sermon on arbitrary Royal power. Thomas a Becket was a story with a strong message; King Henry VIII banned representations of it in 1538. Both Thomases were also namesakes of Thomas Giffard, just as St Margaret of Antioch shown in a window embrasure was for his wife. St Margaret was the patron Saint of childbirth. Perhaps Margaret Giffard was pregnant when the work was commissioned, or had her image made as thanks afterwards.
We know the paintings date before 1340, because the Royal Arms of England below the Virgin and Child have not been quartered with the Arms of France, as King Edward III would do in 1340. The fact that Mary is shown standing on an illusionistic corbel with the Arms of England might express the idea of England being ‘the Virgin’s gift,’ the central theme of the Wilton Diptych. It might also advertise the present Giffards’ loyalty to the Crown in the person of King Edward III.
It is modern, Court-quality painting, a very early example of oil on plaster; the only other surviving oil painting on plaster of this date is at Westminster Abbey. So little is known about early English painting (by me, at least; to bring myself up to speed I’ve ordered Rosewell’s Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches, £3.59 on abebooks.co.uk). I wonder who the artist was. The faces have the pinched features and narrowed, elongated eyes that Pamela Tudor-Craig notes as typical of English medieval painting, and the style looks identical to English manuscript illustration at this date. This distinct narrow-eyed English characterisation lasts a long time, incidentally. This portrait of King Edward IV in the Royal Collection is believed to be an English copy c.1520 of a Burgundian original c.1470 (Tabitha Barber in Karen Hearn ed. Dynasties Tate 1995 p37).
Portrait of King Edward IV English School English c. 1520 Her Majesty the Queen (c) The Royal Collection
Very few names survive in the historical record this early. There is the occasional celebrity. Thomas Prince, also called Thomas Littlington, King’s Painter in the 1390s painted the full-length portrait of King Richard II in Westminster Abbey, and the Wilton Diptych is sometimes attributed to him. How many other front-rank painters were English though is another question. The Reformation used to be blamed for extinguishing artistic talent in this country, leaving it to be rebuilt in a new genre, portraiture, and by new imported Continental painters. But as early as the 1520s, King Henry VIII was inviting Flemish and Italian painters to his Court rather than commissioning native talent. Perhaps the general pattern of painting in England from the 1520s to the 1570s is also applicable much earlier: Continental artists with the training and reputation did the most prestigious work, English studio hands and workshops did everything else. Clearly there were exceptions, English painters of the highest ability, like Thomas Prince, and perhaps the South Newington painter. Something to look into.
And wall-paintings are always being coming to light. This St George and the Dragon, with its hint of Paolo Uccello, was discovered at St Cadoc’s Church in the Welsh Border village of Llangattock Lingoed near Abergavenny. It was painted in the mid 1400s, perhaps as a reminder that Llangattock was under English control!
St George ?English c.1450 St Cadoc’s Church Llangattock Lingoed (c) Contours Walking Holidays
One more knight, hanging on our bathroom wall, shows work in another medium that medieval English workers were incredibly good at. This is a copy from the English Heritage giftshop of a Fourteenth Century misericord in Lincoln Cathedral.
Misericords remind me of netsuke – their form and their size are dictated by function, but within those limits the artists shows boundless inventiveness and personality. This charging knight is better than anything I’ve ever seen in paint. The detail is spare and to the point – elements like the head bent low over the horse’s neck and the way the knight’s left hand comes all the way over to the right rein, as if he’s controlling the horse with his whole arm, show that our carver knew what he was talking about. He had seen the real thing, and then turned his memory of it into this pure image of speed and mass going like a train, like some Futurist painting, only this is so real, you can almost hear the harness and the hoofbeat.