Review – Twelfth-century Sculptural Sculptural Finds at Canterbury Cathedral

5 mins read

Carolyn Marino Malone
Oxbow Books, £55
ISBN 978-1789252309
Review Mark Samuel

As a mere ‘worked stone specialist’, it was with some trepidation that I took on the task of reviewing a book dealing with matters striking at the very heart of Romanesque art scholarship. The Medieval Academy of America saw the establishment of a largely female tradition of American scholarship, of which this book’s author, Professor Malone, is a part. Much of the Canterbury collection has already been studied by eminent figures; Deborah Kahn gave a crisp art-historical underpinning in her 1991 work on the Romanesque sculpture of the Cathedral, which any reader should have at hand. Malone, however, took her baton from Jean Bony, an acolyte of G Zarnecki, the ‘godfather’ of the English Romanesque. Other players include the staff of the Cathedral as well as the ubiquitous Tim Tatton-Brown and his successor at Canterbury Archaeology Trust, Paul Bennett. The Cathedral Works department helped to explore various ad-hoc ‘collections’ scattered around Canterbury in Portacabins or under office desks. Their generosity with their time and muscles is apparent.

Malone gives a new date of 1173 for the stones, positing a series of architectural screens on the three sides of the crossing of Canterbury Cathedral. She carries the argument forward from Kahn in reconstructing a screen in the north transept to marshal a growing army of pilgrims after the murder of Becket. As well as a catalogue raisonné, Malone presents ‘an account of the discovery of these finds… [that] offers material… that has been unavailable to previous studies.’ Kahn’s lost screen at Ely Cathedral plays an important role but an opportunity seems missed due to various shortcomings of a technical nature: for example, drawings should be used as a presentation of the evidence; here they are a fait accompli, with little back-up of hard evidence. The absence of numbering of the stones in the fuzzy elevations hinders any kind of cross-referencing.

The text, too, presents problems: the Mosan style is pinpointed as a key influence in the quatrefoils, but here the ignorant reviewer looked to the index in vain to find ‘Mosan’ (the index seems very short given the nature of the text and voluminous notes). The key points are fascinating and could do with drawing out. Much of her reasoning is based on an assumption that the screens were built much sooner after Becket’s murder than is generally appreciated. The absence of any direct reference to Becket in the iconography is, however, a weakness in her arguments. The themes of prophecy and the theology of redemption that she identifies could reasonably be expected in any Continental choir screen. Another group of roundels is identified as the ‘Church’s Other’ [the reviewer’s italics]; they castigate non-believers, meaning pagans, Jews, and wild beasts (the distinction was unclear to medieval theologians!). The portrayals of Jews certainly deserve to be better known, given an increased interest in the history of British Jewry.

Speaking as a technician, the work could have benefited from ‘forensic’ study: little or no mention is made of building stone (but Purbeck marble is described as suitable for external use!). Several scientific techniques have long been available (such as neutron activation analysis) that would allow the sorting of the material on more objective grounds, and source the northern French quarries employed. How much structural and design information resides in the unexamined ‘featureless’ blocks – how many are there? Laser scanning techniques (or plain old-fashioned measured drawings) would allow a much more satisfactory reconstruction, if reconstruction is to be attempted. The craft aspect, as reflected in tooling marks, is also ignored. Much, one feels, remains to be done.

The sculptural finds dramatically illustrate the seamless nature of European art and society in Romanesque times; a society joined, not separated, by the Channel. Malone states that ‘everyone hopes that one day these finds will be reunited in a structure worthy of their quality.’ In France, such extraordinary discoveries would now be housed, fully reconstructed, and surrounded by the full son et lumière of present-day ‘heritage interpretation’. In England, their future seems less certain.

This review appeared in CA 363. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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