Friday, 4 February 2011

English Medieval Church Decoration as seen by Owen Jones

Illustration: Early English, Wells Cathedral, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

The original medieval English ecclesiastical style was championed by many critics, artists and designers throughout the nineteenth century as being intrinsically novel, unique and a characteristic of a nation. It was often associated with the ordinary and everyday cultural history of England specifically, and therefore could in some ways be seen to be somewhat introspective at least in contrast to the internationally focused Britain and its expanding Empire. In some respects, the concentration on medieval England was in direct opposition to the aristocratic penchant for the classical. To many, classical architecture and decoration was becoming increasingly identified with that of the intransigence and reactionary attitudes of the landed classes. The new and often unlanded architectural critics and scholars often identified themselves with the intrinsically English medieval period and this could be seen as a movement away from the traditional deference paid to the aristocratic. Many of the middle class scholars and critics were also professional architects, which was in stark contrast with the largely amateur scholars and critics of the aristocracy. These amateurs had traditionally portrayed English medieval styles as crude and lacking in merit compared to that of the largely international classical styling.

Illustration: Warmington Church, Northamptonshire, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

Although publications dealing with domestic English architecture were popular in the eighteenth century, it was the nineteenth that really saw the subject of English architecture and medieval specifically, become an intensely discussed and analyzed subject. During a thirty-year period that entailed the beginning of the 1840s to the end of the 1860s, publications from both professional and amateur consistently and regularly appeared. Some were in the form of simple guides to specific churches or cathedrals, others took the role of historical explanations of periods or geographical areas, while others were more specific and analytical of both subject matter and style and as stated, a number of the more specific titles were produced by professional working architects.

Illustration: Stone Church, Kent, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

While a number of publications concentrated on the larger and more obvious cathedral complexes of England, many more focused on the much smaller town and village medieval churches that had lain largely forgotten and neglected over the centuries. It was these village churches that many critics saw as representing both the unadulterated and perhaps even uncontaminated styling that was seen as representational of domestic medieval architecture. However, there was also a feeling that the ideal of the medieval village church could be seen as an epitome of the character of ordinary English cultural life during the medieval period, representing in some respects at least the life of the ordinary man. It was often thought that these examples of medieval churches and communities that surrounded them had no pretensions, affectations or any form of external influence, particularly that of the industrial revolution and its blind enforcement of the compartmentalising of humanity as a resource rather than as a set of unique individuals.

Illustration: Decorated, Wells Cathedral, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

Although obviously more complex than this simplified argument against the coralling of labour, there was still merit in this common nineteenth century criticism of the industrial age. The medieval reflection was often used as a counter to the contemporary world and was offered as both a critique and simply as a convenient and decorative style across most disciplines from fine art, through architecture, to furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass and metalwork.

Owen Jones 1856 publication The Grammar of Ornament contained a large medieval section that included decoration and ornament found within manuscripts, miniatures, stained glass, and ceramic tiles. Also included were some examples of architectural ornamentation all of which had an English derivation. Although three of the illustrations shown in this article were derived from the Cathedral of Wells, two more were from the church of St Mary the Virgin in the small village of Warmington in Northamptonshire, while another was derived from St Mary the Virgin church in the equally small village of Stone in Kent. 

Illustration: Warmington Church, Northamptonshire, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

All six of the illustrations appear in this article and all have their own charm and uniqueness. It seems somewhat immaterial whether they derived from a large cathedral or small village church as all have merit and character. Jones was intrigued by the use of foliage for the ornamentation which he saw as being more in character with local customs and environment, rather than the use of acanthus leaves for example which although widespread both geographically and over time, was more closely associated with the classical tradition of the Mediterranean than that of Northern or Western Europe.

Although Jones produced these examples in black and white, he was aware that all medieval churches had been highly coloured at the time, losing much of their dynamism during the Reformation when many had their highly painted walls whitewashed and were stripped of intricate and delicately painted wooden decoration. He was dubious concerning the Victorian penchant for reproducing medieval style churches, which he saw as a hollow and vain attempt to match the vigour and unique style penned during this period. As he stated himself:

'Whitewashed walls, with stained glass and encaustic tiles, cannot alone sustain the effect which was arrived at when every moulding had its colour best adapted to develop its form, and when, from the floor to the roof, not an inch of space but had its appropriate ornament; an effect which must have been glorious beyond conception.'

Understanding this, the foliage work illustrations shown by Jones must have been all the more impressive at one of the large cathedrals. However, in the small villages around England, these medieval extravaganzas of decoration and ornament, highly coloured and often locally produced, must have been extraordinary examples, set as they were in often largely rural farming environments. They were both the culmination and focal point for the communities that had created them, and are perhaps one of England's most poignant vandalised treasures.

Illustration: Wells Cathedral, from Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, 1856.

Reference links:
Grammar of Ornament: A Monumental Work of Art
English Medieval Architecture
Early Medieval Architecture (Oxford History of Art)
Medieval Architecture in Western Europe: From A.D. 300 to 1500 Includes CD
Medieval Architecture (Oxford History of Art)
The English Medieval Hospital
Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches
Medieval Architecture: Its Origins and Development, with Lists of Monuments and Bibliographies, Volume 1
Early English Art and Architecture: Archaeology and Society (Art/architecture)
A History of the Gothic Revival: An Attempt to Show How the Taste for Medieval Architecture Which Lingered in England During the Two Last Centuries Has Since Been Encouraged and Developed
Lectures on the rise and development of medieval architecture
Tales Told in Church Stones - Symbolism and Legend in Medieval Architecture and Handicrafts

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