Archive | March, 2012

Red Mount, King’s Lynn: a Calvary in Norfolk?

20 Mar

The Norfolk town of King’s Lynn (formerly Bishop’s Lynn) is a lovely, atmospheric place to stroll around, with its rich medieval heritage – the town had a Hanseatic colony of Baltic traders, and the medieval wharves and lanes can still be seen. It was also the home of Margery Kempe, the fifteenth-century mystic and controversialist whose fascinating Book is one of the earliest examples of women’s literary culture in the English language.


The fifteenth-century Red Mount Chapel or ‘Chapel of Our Lady’, at King’s Lynn has often been overlooked or disregarded, but seems to me to be an aesthetic idea of Calvary. Building work started on it in 1482 and was finished by 1485, with the Chapel being dedicated to the Virgin. The building is octagonal, and as the pictures show, comprised over three levels: a spiral of rooms placed on top of each other. It is built on an artificial mound, just by the town’s wall, between two gates. It would have originally occupied a rural position, outside the town, and indeed it still stands in a green, tranquil space, in a park.

The Red Mount Chapel seems too to embody a Passion narrative: located on a mount outside the city walls (like Calvary), and polygonal (like the ‘round’ anastasis at Jerusalem), entered through the basement to a tomb, after which one ascended to a chapel of the Virgin. The polygonal form and the walled setting recall the two basic images of Jerusalem one sees in medieval depictions of Jerusalem. The location accords with the description of Calvary read out of the Gospels, a hill-cum-garden (John19:41) outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12), ‘the whole valley of dead bodies and of ashes, and all the country of death, even to the torrent Cedron, and the corner of the horse gate towards the east’ (Jeremias 31:40).

And what about the various niches, window shapes, turrets and other forms on the building’s exterior? Any suggestions about what they once held would be very welcome. The top storey was added at a later date, in the early sixteenth century – what might this mean? The interior of the chapel is now inaccessible, but my feeling is that worshippers entered at the base of the building and made their way up, an ascent both spiritual and physical.

Giacomo Verzilini: Representation, Replication and Refreshment

13 Mar

Verzilini's 'Acts of Faith' glassware at Yale University Art Gallery

I recently came across this vitrine at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. Whilst the glass dates from the tail-end of the period I study, it seemed to me a fascinating set of artefacts and relevant to this research project.

It’s a collection of beautiful glass vessels, of different colours, shapes and sizes. They were made by Giacomo Verzilini, a Venetian/Muranese glassblower who moved to London in the 1570s and set up a workshop at Crutched Friars in the City of London. Each of the glass vessels is not to be used for drinking; rather, each glass is a replica of glassware depicted in medieval and Renaissance paintings of Christ, the Last Supper and other biblical events which Verzilini had seen throughout Europe. As the Yale University Art Gallery display says, ‘this group of objects was made not as an exploration of form, but as an act of devotion’. It seems that Verzilini used his craftsmanship here for his own devotion, not for reasons of commerce or patronage. The glasses have become known as Verzilini’s ‘Acts of Faith’.

Verzilini was buried under a brass in Cudham, south-east of London (now in the London Borough of Bromley).

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of scholarly bibliography about this glassware – but it’s such an unfamiliar area to me, I may not be looking in the right places. But the glassware fascinated me, as an eloquent example of the way the biblical world was made material. The glassware suggests that, in Verzilini’s sacramental world, the copy and the original had a similar status, or rather, in this case, copies of copies of the original!

The status of the copy, the replica and the souvenir is really crucial to my research on representations (or re-presentations) of Jerusalem. The two books which have really helped me think about this have been Susan Stewart’s On Longing and Hillel Schwartz’s Culture of the Copy. Schwartz looks at the different technologies which allow ‘the copy to transcend the original’, in his eloquent book which probes our troubled relationship with ideas of authenticity and replication. In their replicas of the Holy Land and its artefacts, medieval and early modern people did not necessarily share our fetishisation of originality; instead, they felt the past through their artefacts and, through cognition and imagination, understood the proximity of the Holy Places to their lives.

Jerusalem in Wiltshire: ‘like a fortified mansion’

12 Mar

The Calvary complex stood to the left of the building.

Niklaus Pevsner, in his Buildings of Britain volume on the county of Wiltshire, described the Priory Church at Edington as being ‘so freely embattled that it looks like a fortified mansion’. Pevsner’s choice of words was apt, because in fifteenth-century Edington a complex was built to resemble Jerusalem: the heavenly mansion, so frequently depicted in medieval art as a fortified city with a crenellated wall.

Edington Priory was built in the 1350s, possibly as a college for priests. It then became an Augustinian priory. The building as it stands today is much altered from its medieval form, but it’s still a fascinating site, which once embodied a vision of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, built according to the designs of William Wey, a scholar, author and pilgrim. Wey visited the Holy Land in the 1460s and then, in his retirement in Wiltshire, set about building a mnemonic recreation of the sites he had seen. Wey had undertaken two pilgrimages to Palestine and one to Santiago in northern Spain.

William Wey’s chapel was ‘made to the liknes of the sepulkyr of owre Lorde at Jerusalem’. A detailed inventory of the chapel’s furnishing and decoration survives in a manuscript in Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Bodley 565): it shows that the installation had numerous hangings and painted-cloths, showing bible scenes (‘owre Lorde with a spade in his hande’, ‘the tempyl of Jerusalem’), relics (in particular, stones from the Holy Land), and furniture for the liturgy (candles, candlesticks, an osculatory, dishes and chalices). There was also a ‘mappa Mundy’ world map, velvet and silk vestments, and various books, including a copy of Wey’s own Itineraries. More theatrically, Wey had several topics depicted ‘in bordys’ – that is planks or panelling: lengths show- ing the measurements of Christ’s sepulchre, the height and width of its door, Christ’s footprint. In the Chapter House there were models of the Church of Bethlehem, the Mount of Olivet and the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Moreover, there was ‘the sepulker of oure Lorde with too howses’, apparently next to the ‘clokke howse’.

The ‘stage-set’ built at Edington shows the importance of ‘virtual pilgrimage’, of imaginary experience, of simulation, and of remaking in medieval Christianity. It now powerfully provides another kind of prompt to the imagination: in the drizzle of the Wiltshire countryside, we need to imagine the artefacts which once animated this quiet rural corner, as the edge of Europe was re-thought as the centre of the world.

The Calvary buildings probably stood in what is now the cemetery, outside the north wall of the Church. One entered this Jerusalem through this door, now bricked-up: Image

You’ll notice the little motif over the door, a delicate Trinity to mark the divinity of the place. This motif, and similar ones, feature throughout the church’s decoration and may have marked some kind of ‘route’, an imaginative pilgrimage, around the building.

An excellent article by Pnina Arad, published in February 2012, sheds a great deal of new light on Wey and his installation. Arad, focussing on the art-historical background of the Edington chapel, shows how Wey’s project was connected to English Easter sepulchres and also indebted to a map of the Holy Land in a medieval manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 389). See further Pnina Arad, ‘Pilgrimage, Cartography, and Devotion: William Wey’s Map of the Holy Land’, Viator 43:1 (2012), 301-22, with appendices of Wey’s inventory of the Calvary chapel’s fittings and the relevant maps.

Hello world!

11 Mar

Thanks for visiting my new blog!

I am a medievalist, teaching and researching at Birkbeck College, University of London. I’ve recently edited and translated Sir John Mandeville’s fourteenth-century Book of Marvels and Travels and, growing out of this, I’ve started a new research project, funded by the AHRC Research Network award and then by a Philip Leverhulme Prize, on western European representations of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the period following the Crusades (i.e. 1291 – c. 1550).

The Latin Christian kingdom of Jerusalem was established by Crusaders in the Holy Land in the period 1096-9. Nobility, clergy, pilgrims, converts, and many others quickly established a state focussed on, and based around, the conquest of Jerusalem, building new castles, fortresses, cathedrals and cities. The Latin Kingdom was hugely important, but endured for only a short time: the last mainland Crusader town, the fortified city of Acre (Akko, Israel), was taken by the Mamluks in 1291. The Remembered Places project explores the European memory of the Crusades in the centuries which followed, thinking about the cultural consequences of the loss of the Latin Kingdom. As Jerusalem and the Holy Land once more came under Islamic control, European Christendom re-imagined its relationship to the holy sites, especially to Jerusalem, the ‘centre’ or ‘navel’ of the known world.

I’ll be using this blog informally to report on and discuss the many different versions of Jerusalem I come across in my research, and at the workshops and public lectures associated with the Remembered Places project. I’ll also be using it to get feedback on some my ideas and to share and store my photos of representations of Calvary, Jerusalem and other holy sites.

All photos on the site are taken by me, and can be used freely (though an acknowledgement to me, Anthony Bale, would be nice).