Dramatic Images: the Roof Bosses of Norwich Cathedral in relation to the Drama of the Middle Ages

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The cathedral has been both a source of pride and dissension for Norwich people. Grafted on to an Anglo-Saxon town by Norman invaders it dominated life in the growing city, which could lead to conflict as well as co-operation. Despite the cathedrals contribution to the economic, educational and artistic history of Norwich a town and gown attitude persisted for generations.

The building and its environs have survived fire, hurricanes, riots and revolutions to become the much-loved institution of today. Losinga was guilty of the sin of simony holding more than one office at a time and the pope was cracking down on the offence. As a penance Losinga vowed to build churches throughout his diocese. By he had moved the centre of his see from Thetford to Norwich, by now the chief town in Norfolk. He made good his vow by building a huge cathedral and monastery by the River Wensum.

An existing church and several buildings were demolished, and the church took over a large chunk of land previously held by English inhabitants. Having torn down houses and levelled the ground, Losinga built in an excellent position Stone was brought in by sea and river from Normandy and Barnack in Northamptonshire, the other material being local flint. Material was landed at nearby Pulls Ferry. Consecrated in , it was complete within 40 years.

Built in Romanesque style, it has long been regarded as one of the finest cathedrals in the country, its dramatic flying buttresses much admired by architectural historians. Bishop Losinga instituted a cathedral school, forerunner of the current Norwich School, and was keen on founding a library; two institutions that thrive to this day. The attitude of the citizens is hard to measure. The new cathedral, along with the Norman castle, dramatically changed the topography of their city.

Cathedral Stones Tell Their Simple, Sacred Stories

At least some of the Benedictine monks brought in to the monastery by Losinga were local men, but the institution was inward-looking. In addition, its many privileges and land holdings were resented. But if the roof carvings cannot be seen, to whom are their stories being told? Why was such craftsmanship expended on them, and such planning given to their content and narrative? Rose writes: "The most lofty work is as carefully carved and skillfully finished as any at a lower level.

The best he offers by way of an answer to this mystery is to propose that this care and skill reflect "not just a feeling of self-respect on the part of the sculptor, but a belief that his work was an essential part of the whole building of the church which was for the worship and praise of God.

And yet, as shown in the book's selection of close-up color photographs the highly effective work of Julia Hedgecoe , these painted carvings are highly communicative and dramatic. They convey feeling and thought as well as describing, in the cramped space of a few inches, events of sacred and profound moment.


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Rose points to one happy outcome of their remoteness in the cathedral: They may well have been saved from the wholesale demolition of images in ecclesiastical buildings during the Protestant Reformation beginning in the s and later. THE paint work of these wonderful carvings is inseparably part of them. Rose talks about the expressiveness of the color in some of the carvings. Yet he also makes it clear that "we can have little assurance that the colors seen today match those originally employed in the Middle Ages. But successive repaintings, some rather overusing gold leaf, may have distorted the paint work.

Nevertheless, as Noah's Ark and Moses in the Bulrushes show, the color we see today is inescapably part of the delight of these carvings. Rose's final chapter discusses connections between medieval drama performed by the guilds on feast days - the "mystery plays" that told Bible stories with a mixture of solemnity and high comedy - and the carved roof bosses in the cathedral.

The same craftsmen who worked on the fabric of the building would have made the costumes and props for the outdoor performances, and would also have performed them. The way the carvings show the heart of an event with striking directness surely depicts ordinary people of the time acting in plays. Given the vast number of bosses in Norwich Cathedral 1, of them , this book, which is much reduced from its original intention, reproduces and discusses only a fraction.

Norwich Cathedral - Norfolk history - Eastern Daily Press

In all cases, if there was a demand for a saint to have a written biography, then the chances are that there would be demand for that biography to be visualised in some way. When it came to turning a vita into a new narrative image cycle, our implied artist might simply adapt or copy similar scenes from the story of some unrelated saint.

They might select which episodes in the story to depict according to which episodes were most familiar from earlier cycles, or even from popular drama. Yet another mode of authorship appears when we turn to secular narratives. The medieval romances were far better known to contemporary audiences through their appearance in oral and visual media than as fixed texts.

As James Rushing pointed out in his analysis of Ywain imagery:. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, Ywain was not a prisoner of the texts, in which relatively few people encountered him. He experienced many more adventures in the lands beyond them, in the realm of orality and in the realm of images.

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Even within a relatively coherent corpus such as Arthurian romance, characters, events and stories were eminently reusable and interchangeable, drawn as required from a rich stock of standard models. This can then lead to a tendency to interpret visual features according to what one is expecting to see, based on that particular text, rather than what is actually there.

The implied texts we see visualised in medieval narrative art are best thought of as exercises in mythopoeic bricolage. The past excesses of over-interpretation which, for example, led M. It is the textual equivalent of the road-signs with which I opened this chapter. These distinctions terminology notwithstanding are familiar ones to art historians. Defamiliarisation of the visual text was not only achieved through reference to obscure theological topics. Even more dramatic effects of re-engagement could be achieved through the use of deliberate paradoxes within what was otherwise a straightforward narrative image cycle.

This is however a major subject in its own right and one that will be explored at length below, in chapter 6.

Middle Age Architecture: How the great cathedrals were built - Documentary

Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough. In the Historia naturalis , Pliny tells how the two greatest painters of their day, Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus, competed to see who could paint the most convincing image.

The story goes that when Zeuxis pulled back the curtains concealing his work, the painting thus revealed was so convincing that the birds flew down and tried to peck at the fictive fruit. Yet when the time came for Parrhasius to unveil his own work, it transpired that the curtains concealing his painting were themselves just a painted fiction. Zeuxis conceded defeat, confessing that while he had succeeded in deceiving the birds, Parrhasius had deceived even him.

The significance of this story is not of course what it tells us about the relative abilities of semi-mythical Greek painters but the fact that for Pliny and for the Renaissance authors who mimicked him , the sine qua non of the artist was to reproduce the visual appearance of the experienced world as convincingly as possible. Since Pliny, there have been a great many attempts to codify a semiotics of art - to explain how art means. It is therefore in a different class of relationships than we find in the Saussurean model of linguistic systems, where with the occasional onomatopoeic exception the relation between signifier and signified is based on convention, not on resemblance.

This is not the place to review those protracted arguments which, for all their intellectual interest, pay no heed to the peculiarities of medieval image systems. This then is the semiotic model to which I will attempt to adhere through the rest of this thesis. Herman, M. Jahn and M. Ryan, Eds. For the reader unfamiliar with the arcana of computer programming, a more accessible account is M. Minsky, The Society of Mind , London Schank and R. Schank, Tell me a story: Narrative and Intelligence , Evanston , p.

Herman, Narrative Theory and the cognitive sciences , Stanford Barthes, 'The Death of the Author', p.

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Foucault, 'What is an Author? Hariri, London []. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction , Chicago Fish, Is there a Text in this Class? Gadamer, Truth and Method , tr. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall, London [], p. Crowley and K. Olsen , Evanston []. See A. Gell, Art and agency: an anthropological theory , Oxford