A Medieval Alabaster from Layston

Medieval Alabaster Found at Layston, 1953The closure of St. Bartholomew’s, Layston, as a dangerous structure in 1951, brought to a head the problem of maintaining this redundant church, which, as our Transactions record, has suffered many alternations between repair and neglect in the past fifty years. By bequest of the late Mrs. A. E. P. Baker, £4,000 was available to meet the cost of restoration, but the solitary situation of the church, and the difficulty of providing for future maintenance (it having been supplanted for almost all parochial purposes by St. Peter’s chapel-of-ease in 1626) prohibited any return to full use as a parish church.

In 1952 the Parish Council sought advice from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who submitted a report recommending the conversion of the building to serve as a cemetery chapel. The Parish Council adopted this report, and a faculty was obtained for the work to be done. The conversion was carried out in 1953-54 under the direction of Douglas Martin, A.R.I.B.A.

The scheme hinged on the serious condition of the nave, which was imperilled by the threatened collapse of the decayed Victorian roof, endangering the walls. No loss of medieval work being involved, the entire removal of the roof was advised ; the nave to be left as an open court between the chancel—which would be restored and closed off as a cemetery chapel—and the tower, which would provide the main entrance through the western door. The work has been completed on this plan ; the chancel and the tower have been restored, while the walls of the roofless nave, protectively capped, enclose a greensward plat with flagstoned paths.

To prepare the nave walls for exposure to the weather the interior plaster, already falling from neglect, was wholly stripped and the flint rubble fabric limewashed after repair. In June, 1953, Mr. G. Handy, the builder, informed us that he had found fragments of a large alabaster crucifix hidden in the wall west of the northeast window of the nave. The pieces were placed with the carved face inwards, near the inner surface of the wall, mixed with the flint rubble in an area of walling that apparently had been rebuilt and rendered over. In Mr. Handy’s opinion, this was not done solely to conceal the crucifix, for the rebuilt area extended for two feet on each side of the window, as if the whole aperture had been renewed.

The reason for this rebuilding is not clear. The window, like all the windows in the nave, is in fifteenth-century style, and the whole nave is assumed to be of that date, there being no remains of earlier work. It is known that the mullions of this window have been twice renewed, the existing stone mullions being twentieth-century replacements of wooden frames in church-warden Gothic style, that at an unknown date replaced the original stone. Neither of these alterations can be connected with the concealment of the crucifix in the wall. A clue may be found in the sixteenth-century bequest of John Sawyer, who left money for building a buttress to the north wall of the nave, implying that the wall was then in need of support. Deterioration may have led to later reconstruction when the fifteenth-century window was reset and the now despised alabaster used to pack the wall.

Mr. Handy carefully preserved the alabaster fragments with others he had found, and with the consent of the Vicar of Layston, the Rev. H. S. Jackson, they were handed into the keeping of the Society.

When assembled the pieces composed the greater part of a large Crucifixion scene, approximately 40 inches high. The arms of the Cross have moulded terminals, the moulding being carried round three sides. The upper side of the beam is 2 inches wide, the lower side projects 1 inch from the back. The figure of Christ extends almost the full length of the Cross below the beam. The Cross is also moulded at the foot, and is raised on a base of rocks scattered with three skulls and two thighbones, indicating Golgotha, “ The place of a skull.”

On each side of the Rood, but on a smaller scale, is a standing figure. The middle part of each is missing, only the head and lower limbs remain. Neither head shows any trace of covering and the treatment of the hair differs, one having long waves, the other closely curled. Against the right cheek of the right-hand head is a broken projection, originally extended upward and downward, scored vertically like the remnant of a palm. Their garments fall in straight folds to the ground, without any trace of the transverse folds of a cloak. On the extreme left of the left-hand draperies a fine line indicates the vertical edge of an outer garment reaching to the ground. The figure on the right shows two bare feet, the figure on the left one pointed shoe.

There are considerable remains of colouring. The Cross is painted green, with a bold border of roundels on a gilded ground, which continues over the terminal mouldings. The green pigment extends over the upper side of the beam. The hair of the Christ is coloured light brown, and blood is shown flowing from the pierced feet. Each of the standing figures has gilded hair, their garments have gilded hems, and the edge of the over-garment is also gilt.

A photograph of the fragments was sent to Dr. W. L. Hildburgh for his views. In comment, he replied :—
“I have, indeed, been interested in the photograph. The principal object—I shall not refer again to the small fragments, which (except possibly the bottom one) seem to me to belong elsewhere—has several unusual features. The subject is a symbolic Crucifixion-scene, with the Cross between the standing figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John ; you may see two parallel alabaster renderings of the subject reproduced in Antiq. Journal, x (1930), pi. x. The representations of bones on the ground indicate that the place is Calvary ; and perhaps the skull directly under the foot of the Cross is meant for Adam’s, often so situated. It is difficult to be at all precise in dating a medieval English alabaster carving, especially a mutilated one, from a photograph, but I venture to judge your piece to have been made not far from 1400, and probably before 1420.

“Your photograph suggests that the carving was intended not as the central panel of a reredos, but for standing as an individual devotional object. Its edge looks to have been finished, at the top of the Cross and along the beam, and along the side below the beam down to the bottom, and the extremities of the Cross to have been carved ; but perhaps I am wrong in this, and the piece originally was rectangular and was trimmed to its present form.

“The height, about 40 inches, of the carving suggests strongly that it was not the central panel of a reredos, but that it was intended for standing by itself against a fiat surface like, for example, some of the alabasters shown in the Cat. of the 1910 Alabaster Exhibition (Society of Antiquaries, 1913), pi. xxvii, xxix, xxx ; or in Antiq. Journal, iii, pi. vi ; id., iv, pi. lii; id., viii, pls. xxvii, xxviii; etc.

“If the object were (allowing for breakage) in fact originally in its present exceptional form, it is of peculiar interest ; I recall no close parallel for it.”

In a later communication Dr. Hildburgh added :—

“The piece would seem, from the photograph and your further description, to have been of the nature of a statuette, rather than that of a panel. There are comparable flat-backed English alabaster statuettes of, for example, the Virgin and Child, Our Lord’s Pity, the Holy Trinity, Trinity (or God the Father with the Crucified Son), of comparable size,but I do not recall any other of the Crucifixion.

“The waving hair of our Lady is quite usual ; and so are the curly locks (almost characteristic in the English alabaster carvings) of St. John. Her shoes are iconographically correct ; and so are his bare feet. He is holding the palm branch which often served as his emblem.

“Green is quite a usual colour for the Cross in medieval art, and appears in other alabaster depictions of the Crucifixion. Perhaps the light brown of Christ’s hair was an undercoat on which gold was laid; sometimes the hair was shown gilded. Possibly examination under a magnifying glass might reveal traces of gilding in the interstices.

“The twisted ‘ wreath’ represented, I think, the torse, not the Crown of Thorns. Occasionally in Passion-scenes, it is shown green ; but I suspect that that was because of some confusion in the minds of ignorant carvers. On one alabaster table of the ‘ Crowning with Thorns ‘ the Crown is clearly of twigs ; in another it looks like a torse.”

Thus the Layston Crucifixion is seen to be an unusual example of the English craft of alabaster carving ; not a table from one of the altar-pieces of subjects in series, that formed the bulk of the alabaster-men’s output, but belonging to the rarer class of separate devotional carvings, and among these it is distinguished by its size. Like other pieces of its period—that of the tables with embattled headings—it is superior in artistic quality to most of the productions of the English alabaster-men of the later periods ; the heads of the Virgin Mary and St. John have a grave beauty untouched by the later exaggeration, and the arrangements of the folds of drapery have an almost classical repose. Whereas a large proportion of the surviving alabaster carvings are of panel form, or confined within a rectangular frame, the Layston example has a free outline formed by the objects that compose the design, apart from the small area of flat ground that joins the standing figures to the Cross.

The means by which this remote country church became possessed of this fine work of art invite speculation. The curious ecclesiastical position of Layston is well known, as one of the four parishes that divide the small town of Buntingford between them, the others being Throcking, Wyddial, and Aspenden. Apart from the exiguous remains of a moated site adjoining the churchyard, no trace of habitation at Layston has been found, and no record of any village has survived. Notwithstanding the isolation of the church, its importance in the Middle Ages is beyond doubt ; it was the chief of the four parish churches of Buntingford, and to this day the incumbent of St. Peter’s chapel-of-ease in Buntingford is Vicar of Layston. This importance may be ascribed to ownership by the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Aldgate ; “ rich in lands and ornaments,” wrote Stow, “and passed all the priories in the city of London or shire of Middlesex.” The Priory’s lands in the neighbourhood of Layston were extensive, and the churches of Braughing, Berkesdon, and Wakeley were in their ownership, while their church of Alswick, half a mile away, was made dependent on Layston— significant of Layston’s superiority. St. Bartholomew’s enjoyed the patronage of the Priory from the twelfth century until the Dissolution, and the canons of Holy Trinity must be credited with the whole fabric of the church to-day, for no trace of any earlier work appears. The large and lofty thirteenth-century chancel, the spacious though aisleless fifteenth-century nave, the fifteenth-century tower of matching size, show no cheese¬paring tendency on the part of the Priory in their constructional work, and the Edwardine Inventory records that the church was handsomely provided with plate and vestments, even “ Juells “. The fifteenth-century traceried font, carved with sixteen shields of emblems of the Passion, is a notable work. As lords of the manor and patrons of the church during four centuries the Priory of Holy Trinity appear to have kept their church of Layston well furnished and maintained, and its possession of so splendid an ornament as the alabaster Crucifixion need occasion no surprise.

It should be added that the fragments on the left of the photograph (Plate 16) form no part of the Crucifixion. Three of them are portions of small alabaster figures, one with the remains of a bolt at the back for fixing ; at the top is a stone crocket, once richly coloured and gilt, and probably forming part of an ogee arch.

From an article in the 1952-1954 Vol XIII Part II edition of the East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions by G. E. Moodey and W. L. Hildburgh


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