Medieval Art of Death and Resurrection

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‘Flames were in their eyes, and in their teeth whiteness, and in their whole body a noisome blackness appeared…’


The gilded green-man in Bay 2, east walk, Norwich Cathedral cloister. He is one of the most popular bosses in the cathedral. But who is he? What does he represent? Why is here among this particular set of bosses? Sally Mittuchx s research has shown him to be a lost soul on the journey to the afterlife.


F lames were in their eyes, and in their teeth whiteness, and in their whole body a noisome blackness appeared; their hands had claws, and their feet had claws; pestilent was their breath; and their speech not to be endured by human ears; and of exceeding great stature they were.’
Thus did Bishop Herbert de Losinga, founder of Norwich Cathedral, describe the devils of the medieval afterlife in an early 12th century sermon. The medieval thought-world that could conjure such images seems alien to most of us today. Much of it is poorly understood. Cathedrals were filled with images x sculpted stones, painted walls, wood carving x whose meaning would have been familiar to Herbert de Losinga’s congregation but for us remain mysterious. History of art lecturer Sally Mittuch has just unravelled one of the mysteries at Norwich Cathedral.
Like so many of the great Norman monuments, Norwich Cathedral was a controversial foundation. The seat of the bishop was moved from Thetford to Norwich in 1094, and an Anglo-Saxon suburb had to be cleared away before the foundation stone of the new Benedictine cathedral and monastery could be laid in 1096. Tension between townsmen and clerics remained a feature of life in medieval Norwich. On 11 August 1272 a dispute over rent collection in the Tombland marketplace erupted into riots. Most of the monastic buildings, including the cloister, were destroyed by fire. The cathedral was plundered of books, vestments, and gold and silver vessels and ornaments. Retribution followed: 30 townspeople were hanged, including women, the citizens were fined to pay for rebuilding, and the city was excommunicated (though it was not entirely one-sided, as the prior was imprisoned and lost his lands).
The great rebuilding of the cloister, thick with tracery and sculpted and painted bosses, was not completed until the 1430s (partly due to the plague). During this time the cathedral also saw many additions and refurbishments. The real glory of the period is the thousand or so sculpted and painted stone bosses decorating the vaulted roofs of not only the cloister but also the cathedral nave, presbytery and transepts. The Norwich Cathedral bosses represent the largest surviving collection of such gothic art from medieval Europe. Some are masterpieces of the English Decorated style. Their survival is a mystery. Norwich was strong for the Reformation and strong for Parliament, yet the bosses survived the iconoclasm of Thomas Cromwell’s Commissioners and Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides x even when the cathedral was used as a Civil War stables!


Left. The dark entry at the southern end of the east walk. Beyond the door, in a windowless chamber, corpses were laid out prior to burial. Here was a clue to the meaning of the sequence of bosses along the walk. Right. A view of the east walk looking across the cloister garth.

The bosses have been well studied, but the earliest, which appear in the 14 bays of the east walk of the cloister, rebuilt in 1297 to 1314, have always
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Norwich Cathedral
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Above The anti-clockwise leaf spiral in Bay 8. A symbol of death, it Above The clockwise leaf spiral in Bay 9. A symbol of life, rebirth marks the beginning of a journey towards the First Judgement and salvation, it marks the beginning of another journey, this which precedes along the east walk, ending at Bay 1 and the dark towards the Second Judgement, which precedes along the east
— -N Dark EntryChapter House -East walk of Norwich Cathedral cloister Priorx s Door – ——immediately after death. for possession of the soul. The First Judgement Clockwise from top left A flowering hawthorn, one of a number of foliate bosses which represent the dark forest through which the lost soul wanders A disturbing hybrid, part-ox, part-monk (or nun), that represents gluttony, one of four sins depicted on bosses in Bay 2. An aerial demon appears in Bay 1, where a struggle breaks out A portrait head placed over the dark entry. Is this the face of St Fursey himself, a charismatic Irish mystic of the 7th century AD, whose monastery was at Burgh Castle on the Norfolk coast? An archangel appears in Bay I to battle the aerial demon also depicted there and save the soul from being dragged down to hell. – —-Above Above door is depicted the Rim of judgement amid The Second Judgement The Passion figures heavily in the images of the second sequence, since these events presage the Apocalypse, the Second Coming, and the Second Judgement. Christ rescues Adam and Eve from the gaping mouth of Hell at the Second Judgement. Other saved souls follow behind. The priorx s door and the climax of the second sequence. Beyond lay the cathedral itself, symbolising Heaven, and over the Heaven, with Christ enthroned in final the saints.
Sally teaches history of art at City College in Norwich and is currently completing a PhD on Palaeolithic Venus sculptures. She has also taught photography and lays a lot of stress on getting out and exploring one’s surroundings with a camera. That was how she got to know about the bosses
x and became fascinated. ‘My camera,’explains Sally describing her technique, ‘was on a low boom tripod weighted with a car accumulator to avoid any vibrations through the long exposure. I always relied on natural light. A long exposure allows us to see through darkness, and gives the film enough time to react to light and colour. An accurate set of photos was essential to the research.
‘The breakthrough in cracking the code of the east walk,’ she continues, ‘came to me as I was standing beneath these mirror-image bosses in adjacent bays outside the chapter house, both showing leaf spirals, but growing in opposite directions. This indicates a clear division of two interrelated stories diverging from this point. The first sequence started outside the chapter house portal and unfolded its meaning towards the dark entry. The second started in the same place but headed in the opposite direction, ending at the prior’s door of the cathedral. This division was supported by the construction records, which showed that the east walk had been made in two stages, diverging from the chapter house.’
The first sequence began with an anti-clockwise leaf spiral. An anticlockwise direction is a widely used symbol of death. The second began with a clockwise spiral x a symbol of life, rebirth and salvation. The layout of the monastic complex offered further clues. The prior’s door gave access to the cathedral itself, which represented the heavenly Kingdom of God, the final destination of saved souls. At the opposite end of the walk was the dark entry. The portal here gave access to the mortuary, a lightless chamber where corpses were laid out on biers awaiting burial, most of them destined for the monks’ cemetery, some for the more prestigious garth, the open area enclosed by the cloister. The bosses, therefore, had to be an art of death and resurrection: medieval Norwich’s Book of the Dead.
Sally Mittuch hunted down medieval references to the soul’s journey into the afterlife. An important difference between medieval and modern belief is that medieval Christians made a sharp distinction between the First Judgement x a preliminary classification made at death x and the Second Judgement x when all souls were resurrected and their final fate determined for all eternity. The medieval view of these processes was informed by visions and near-death experiences.

x He also saw four fires in the air … the fires that would kindle and consume the world. One of them was falsehood … the next covetousness … the third discord … the fourth iniquity …x
The passage from Herbert de Losinga’s sermon above is taken from his recounting of the story of a wicked courtier who refused to repent. Even after a deathbed vision of Hell, he was too proud to relent, and the festering agony of his death was attributed to the devils who tortured him even as they waited to carry him off. ‘Two tormentors stand by me, one at my head, the other at my feet, bruising my limbs and inwards, each of them with coulters; when they come to my heart, I shall give up the ghost, and shall deliver up my unhappy soul to their power.’
Equally valuable are two accounts of the life of St Fursey, an Irish monk who established a monastery at Burgh Castle on the Norfolk coast in the mid 7th century AD. One account is in the Venerable Bede’s early 8th century Ecclesiastical History, the other in Jacobus de Voragine’s late 13th century The Golden Legend. Fursey was a charismatic mystic who had visions and attracted a wide popular following. His holiness was confirmed when his body failed to corrupt after death. According to Bede, in one of his trances he was lifted up by angels and granted a vision of the passage of the soul after death. ‘Casting his eyes downward, he saw & a dark and obscure valley underneath him. He also saw four fires in the air & the fires that would kindle and consume the world. One of them was falsehood & the next covetousness & the third discord & the fourth iniquity. & Then he saw one of the angels & go before and divide the flame of fire, whilst the other two, flying about on both sides, defended him from the danger of that fire. Then followed accusations of the wicked spirits against him, the defence of the good angels in his favour & ‘
A perilous battle between angels and demons for the possession of the soul seems to be the medieval concept. And it is this, says Sally Mittuch, that the east walk bosses depict. ‘According to medieval belief, at death the soul leaves the body and begins its journey into the afterworld. The soul travels deep into a forest, feeling more and more helpless. Eventually the soul sees a glimmer of light and heads toward it. Likewise, as the visitor moves along the east walk towards the dark entry, they find themselves under a canopy of tree-leaf bosses, arriving at a glimmering green-man boss.’
Here the battle for the soul erupts in fury. ‘First the soul was confronted with symbols of the sins committed in life. Three sin bosses confront the green-man. A pair of fighting wyverns

Norwich Cathedral
(ferocious dragons) represent discord and bloodshed. A two-faced Janus figure represents fraud. A hybrid figure, part-ox, part-monk (or nun), represents gluttony. Then demons would appear and try to drag the soul off to Hell or Purgatory. Just in time the soul’s guardian angel, or other angels, would arrive to defend the soul, guiding it to Paradise if it was wholly good. Two bosses in the bay outside the dark entry show a flying demon next to an archangel.’
Hell was the destination of hopeless, unrepentant sinners. Purgatory was a realm for less serious sinners, and most people, including many monks, believed that this was where they would reside after death. Here, repenting for their sins, helped by the prayers of the living, souls would await the Second
Judgement, hoping to earn a passage to Heaven. Very few, it seems, expected to go to Paradise at the First Judgement.
Significantly, the final sculpture in the first sequence, positioned over the doorway leading into the dark entry, is a damaged portrait head that can now be identified as probably that of St Fursey himself x no doubt one of the few who could be assumed to have gone straight to Paradise.
‘To venture further into the afterworld,’ continues Sally, ‘it was necessary to return to the dividing point outside the chapter house, and resume the journey from the clockwise leaf spiral, this time heading towards the cathedral. The clockwise boss, depicting oak leaves, symbolising Salvation, begins the story that culminates in the Second Judgement. The visitor moves beneath bosses depicting the Passion of Christ x the Flagellation, Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Around them are more foliate bosses, more green-men, the four evangelists, and tales of Christian morality.
‘In the last two bays outside the cathedral the visitor is drawn back into the realm of the afterlife x we see a soul trapped in Hell, an image of Purgatory, one of Paradise, and finally, on the portal leading into the cathedral, a representation of the Second Judgement.
‘The Second Judgement would, it was believed, take place after the Apocalypse (shown in the south walk), the Second Coming, and the Resurrection. Souls would be rejoined with their physical bodies and judged. Souls which had repented in Purgatory, together with those waiting in Paradise, would ascend to Heaven; the unrepentant would descend to join those already in Hell.’
Norwich Cathedral allows a rare first-hand experience of the artistry of 14th English craftsman x rare because so much work of this period has since been destroyed. The cathedral’s bosses are artistic treasures. But they offer something more. They represent an archaeology of the 14th century mind: rich with symbolic meaning, they are able, once understood, to carry us deep into the thought-world of medieval Christendom.

– -Sally hopes that the right publisher for her work on the SAVING THE NORWICH BOSSES The survival of the Norwich Cathedral bosses is a mystery. As well as Thomas Cromwell’s Commissioners and Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides, they have also survived the incendiary bombing of cathedral and city during the Second World War. But they now face another threat: rising damp. After dealing with many other repairs and restorations within the cathedral complex, the Dean and Chapter and the Friends of Norwich Cathedral are now tackling the problem of rising damp in the cloister. But potential costs are high. Help is needed. ‘The bosses should be regarded as a World Heritage Site,’ argues Sally Mittuch. ‘They are the finest collection of their kind in Europe, and they have the power to connect us directly with the minds of their medieval creators. We become more fully human once we are aware of our impending death. The bosses are a monument to that.’ bosses of the east walk will raise their profile and help secure the funds necessary for the restoration and securing of the Norwich cloister well into the future. Below A boss from Bay 11 that tells a local story about a Norfolk washerwoman and a thief. The imaginativeness and vitality of the art is apparent, and it is easy to understand why English sculpters were in high demand on the Continent in the 14th century.
Source: Sally Mittuch, Head of History of Art, City College Norwich [email protected]


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