Taming wild horses; quantum theories of art history

Last weekend Mum told me of a story doing the rounds locally. A guy who solves historical mysteries had discovered one of the tablets of the Ten Commandments in a village in the Burton Dassetts. I can’t find the link on his site now, but the gist of it was one of the surviving wall-paintings is a coded reference to where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden by the Knights Templers, who certainly did have a temple in the vicinity. Sir Walter Raleigh had believed it, he says, and he and Bess Throckmorton had bought the old chapel, and dug up the country all around looking for it. He mentions a reference to the story in Dugdale’s Warwickshire. I haven’t found it yet in my hallowed edition. Dugdale is not into modern gossip. I didn’t know there were Warwickshire Raleghs. That’s interesting. They had Farnborough. Anyway, a Nineteenth Century antiquarian/eccentric cracked the code in the wall painting, found the Tablets of the Law and hid them under the arch of a roadside spring because no one believed him. This is potent stuff, like acting out a story from the Golden Bough. The Spring of Knowledge. Timothy Spall would be brilliant in the part. He left a clue in a stained glass window he commissioned, for the window of the church where he is buried, to be put in after his death, as his own memorial. This window, he says, is the clue to the location of the Tablets.

The modern author has solved this riddle. The window shows the Star of Bethlehem – two five-pointed superimposed swivelled which does look a bit unusual – and the Adoration of the Kings. There are crowned initials round the border of it, C, M and B. I couldn’t think what they meant. Dad pointed out it was Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The modern author takes M and B for the Hebrew names for archangels Michael and Gabriel, also the names of two stars in the Plough, which on a certain night – the author chose the Feast of the Epiphany on a reasonable hunch – aligns exactly with a hill across the way where a red brick arched roadside fountain closely resembles the city in the background of the Adoration.

When he went to the Spring he found the paving had all been broken and carted away, just recently. And in the shards of it, where it had been cast away, he found a corner of a slab carved with random but deliberate marks and in the centre counterpoised each, head to head, a seriffed capital Y Y. Plainly it was one of the broken Tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai and smashed. And what’s more, or what was final, it has been shown to be the same limestone they have on Mount Sinai.

The trouble with theories like this, is they make sense only when they deal with areas you don’t have knowledge of. So this detail about the limestone was interesting. I don’t have the geological expertise to know if he means Sinai limestone specifically, or the sort of limestone that Sinai is. Jurassic Blue Lias will take you all the way from Bidford to Lyme Regis, but they aren’t the same place. But it intrigued me. If it was right, I wouldn’t put it past Timothy Spall to have put it there. And carved it. Seriffed capitals, that dates it post 600BC, but is it carved by someone who sees letters as print-forms? According to one theory I’ve just read, Roman serifs began because letters were painted on first and the carvers followed the brushstrokes, which flared at the end. That makes sense. There is something very fluid and graphic about early Roman capitals. And something quite typographical about those Ys.

Anyway, his theory about the wall painting in the church at Burton Dassett doesn’t make sense. There are two full-length crowned male figures, to the left of a window splay, and a third equally crowned on the right. The Three Kings. Surely. The right-hand figure holds an incense-thingummie, so he must be Caspar. Or any of the three gifts, says Anne Marshall, retired Open University Lecturer who is compiling a complete catalogue of English Medieval Wall-Paintings. How very exciting. That is automatically my new favourite website.

Anne Marshall illustrates both paintings

Left-hand window splay

Right-hand window splay

The paintings have been dated 1375 – 1425. It’s not the realistic Court style of King Richard II. It’s more old-fashioned, looking back to his grandfather’s time, the last heyday of the really medieval. That sway-bodied pose is out of date by 1390. A painter could have been painting like this as late as 1425, but they’d have to be quite old or quite provincial. I think a rule of thumb is the bigger and more unified the cycle, the more expensive the job, the more likely it is that a patron would employ a modern painter. So on that alone I’d date Burton Dassett as early as possible. They’re a modernising version of Gothic idiom. The King facing us right-hand of the pair is on the way to the Wilton Diptych.

The three Kings remind the modern investigator of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The far-left figure, he says, is carrying a severed head, an attribute of St Michael. To me it looks like the body of the figure has disappeared below the neckline, where he paint is either covered by whitewash because it’s too fragile or lost. The curved black outline survives though, so does the smoothie-coloured pigment of his robe at the bottom. It is not a painting of anyone holding a severed head. Whatever it is that the third King is carrying is also an attribute of Gabriel. This, says the author, is the same code cracked by the visionary who will be played by Timothy Spall, so that he found the Tablets but not the Ark, that’s somewhere else or maybe lost. From my memory, there’s no actual proof of anyone seeing it after the reign of Solomon. But he found the Tablets.

There seems to be no evidence that anyone hid anything, or found anything, apart from the visionary. Those that hide can find. King Henry VII had a man brought before him who claimed to have The Sight – a ploughman who’d had a vision of Henry winning Bosworth. Henry told him he had lost a valuable ring. Did he know where he’d dropped it? Those who hide can find, the man said, a medieval proverb. He was right. The King had hidden it as a test.

If I were the author I’d prefer the Three Kings identification because it would also relate directly to the visionary’s window, which is why debating these things is tricky. Theories like this are a place where something can be two things or nothing at the same time, but it can never disprove the theory. I looked through the author’s extensive output – I very seriously admire anyone who can write a lot of books – and saw one that made me angry – suggesting Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. There was one interesting archival note. He says that at the same date Shakespeare was buying New Place he was too poor to pay a £1 debt in London; hence they were two separate people, a rich Stratford merchant, and a London spy. That is fascinating. I can easily imagine that Shakespeare in Stratford and Shakespeare in London was two different people. I can imagine he was probably a bit sharp in London. John Shakespeare was a bit of a rogue. He was pursued for debt more than once in Stratford. Court records of the period that I’ve seen, other parties, other cases, suggest that some defendants viewed the summons as the red bill and held out til then. Would Shakespeare then default on a debt in London to save every penny for building his empire in Stratford? I don’t know. I’d have to see the case and prove it was him. I can well imagine it. Because I have one fixed idea of Shakespeare, that he was a single person, and every aspect of his work and record feels as consistent, and as surprising as any real personality. I’d love to know the story behind it. I have no doubt it will be to Shakespeare’s credit.

I read a very positive thing about John Shakespeare recently. He was born a Catholic, and remained so in the reign of Elizabeth I. He was part of the Town Council who, following Government order, had the Fifteenth Century wall-paintings whitewashed over, including the famous Doom. This has always been taken badly, as terrible hypocrisy, or sadly as a sign of how desperately he wanted to toe the line. Someone has written that this was, of course, also a way of preserving the paintings, rather than let them be defaced. I’ll find who said that. So obvious, and a very beautiful idea. It sounds exactly right. The authorities were thoroughly happy with whitewashing because it was cheaper to pay for. Defacing took more man-hours.

So I shan’t be reading the Shakespeare book – part of his evidence is Dugdale’s sketch of WS’s tomb effigy, which shows Shakespeare not holding a pen. But an amateur’s drawing is not a photograph. Dugdale was an antiquary and a herald. He could draw arms and monuments but not figures. And for all I know the metal pen had been nicked from the statue’s hand. It’s happened since. Saying Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare is heresy. But I do like the sound of his book with the haunted newspaper office. That I’d love to read. Where Dad worked was said to be haunted and I could well imagine it there.

Graham Philips, author of the theory describes it here on his website. My apologies for any detail I’ve mistaken. I would be glad to stand corrected. http://www.grahamphillips.net/ark/ark10.html
The fascinating Victorian archaeologist was Jacob Cove Jones. It’s a brilliant story. I disagree with it whenever it chimes with a field I know, but as a new chapter of an ancient British legend it has a power and symmetry of its own.

Am I being hypocritical? I disbelieve that the ghosts in the newspaper office Mr Philips writes about were caused by a green stone belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, but I like ghost stories and it sounds a good one. A brilliant setting. I like legends, and if someone proved to me that Christ didn’t visit Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea I’d be annoyed and still believe it anyway. I’d like to find the source for Sir Walter and Bess Raleigh looking for the Ark at Herdwyke. Possibly. I’d have to see it written down. I like Burton Dassett Church. When I went there years ago it was completely empty of seats and felt completely medieval. Numinous. A place for legends. But I have to object when paintings are misinterpreted to prove them.

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