Monday, 15 May 2017

Monumental


I've been in Derbyshire again, staying with my cousin, walking and church-crawling. On Saturday we made it all the way to Leicestershire (northern tip thereof) to visit a church I've had in my sights for a while - St Mary's, Bottesford.
 As Pevsner says, this is a church visited more for its monuments than its architecture (and, at present, for its nesting peregrine falcons - there's a live video feed inside the bell tower from the nest high up under the spire). As Pevsner also says, the interior is, after the impressive exterior (tallest spire in Leicestershire, etc), 'dull', or at least bare and uneventful. All the action is concentrated in the chancel, which is so packed with grand monuments that the altar has had to be moved westward to become visible and usable.
 The monuments are to the Earls of Rutland - an unbroken sequence from the 1st to the 8th - and their clear purpose is to project the grandeur of the illustrious dynasty. The best of them are, as one would expect, those that date from the Golden Age of English monumental sculpture (from the late 16th century through the first few decades of the 17th).
 The 2nd Earl's monument is an overblown affair, the effigies of the Earl and his wife dwarfed by the marble table under which they lie and its bulbous, heavily decorated legs. The top of the table carries three small kneeling figures and a tall upright slab emblazoned with appropriate armorial bearings. Standing in the middle of the chancel, this is, to put it mildly, a 'statement' tomb.
 Things improve with the next four Earls, whose monuments benefit from the superior taste and workmanship of the Golden Age. Those of the 3rd and 4th Earl are from the Southwark workshop of the great Dutchman Gerard Johnson (Gheerart Janssen) and that of the 5th is by his son, Nicholas Johnson. They are good work, but have none of the emotional charge of the very best of the period (as represented by Epiphanius Evesham and Nicholas Stone). The most affecting and perhaps most artistically successful figures are often the kneelers, as with this exquisitely carved young lady.



 On the tomb of the 6th Earl - a very grand affair, at the centre of which lies the Earl between his first and second wives, the middle step of an effigial staircase - kneel these figures [below] representing two sons killed in infancy 'by wicked practice and sorcerye'. A woman and her two daughters were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, the mother subsequently choking to death on a piece of bread she offered to eat to prove her innocence, and the two daughters being executed in 1618.


 All of which seems a million miles from the world view represented by the monuments to the 7th and 8th Earls, which were erected just 50 years later. They are from the studio of the famous Grinling Gibbons (best known for his prodigious wood carvings) and are both resolutely in the Baroque classical style. Now, rather than lying on straw mats with their hands clasped in prayer, the Earls stand in a fanciful version of Roman dress and strike appropriately imposing, more than a little camp, poses. The 8th Earl and his wife stand on either side of a rather ugly urn, on which the Earl rests an out-turned indicative hand, while his lady holds one hand to her bosom, and with the other lifts her stola to expose a well-turned leg. The effect is awkward, a little clumsy, and massively self-conscious.
 The Golden Age is truly over.

5 comments:

  1. Bottesford's monumentation is quite extraordinary. Now that you've experienced Grinling Gibbons in one provincial church, perhaps you and your cousin might make your way over to Rutland some time. Some mighty monuments await your delectation, including a truly whopper Gibbons in St Peter and St Paul Church, Exton. The village itself is a chocolate tin England come to life. I hope I can look forward to your 'review' of the church and village some time.

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  2. Thanks Mary - it's on my list.

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