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On a Painted Table or Reredos of the Fourteenth

Century, in the Cathedral Church of Norwich.



THE presbytery of the Cathedral Church of Norwich is flanked by two chapels of peculiar form, which are attached to the outside of the ambulatory that passes round the apse. The southern of these chapels is dedicated in honour of St. Luke, the northern is known as Jesus Chapel. Each has an upper story, which is entered from the lofty triforium gallery above the aisle vaults. The room above St. Luke's Chapel is the depository of the muniments and records of the Dean and Chapter; that over Jesus Chapel was formerly the plumbery, and has in the centre a large table for casting sheets of lead, but is now used as a sort of museum of sculptured fragments found in and about the church.

In one or other of these chambers was found, about fifty years ago, the beautiful reredos which the Dean and Chapter have so kindly lent for exhibition. It was turned face downwards, and used as a table, holes being cut in the four corners for the legs, after it had been reduced to a convenient size by the mutilation of one side (Plate I.) I have always been under the impression that the reredos was found in the plumbery, a supposition to which the splashes of red paint visible on the painted side seem to lend weight; but Dr. Bensly tells me he understands that the reredos was preserved in the treasury over St. Luke's Chapel, where its interesting character was noticed shortly before the Norwich meeting of the Archæological Institute in 1847, when it was rescued from oblivion. It is now preserved, in a glass case, in the ambulatory of the apse.

1 Read at the Annual General Meeting of the Norfolk and Norwich Archæological Society, 31st March, 1897. By the kindness of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich, and the Vicar and Church wardens of St. Michaelat-Plea, the paintings described in the paper were exhibited,

The reredos forms the subject of a valuable memoir by the late Mr. Albert Way, in the Norwich volume of the Archæological Institute, published in 1851; but it has been more recently described, from different points of view, by Mr. J. G. Waller, F.S.A., and myself, in two papers communicated to the Society of Antiquaries of London, and printed in its Proceedings. As I have little to add to what I have there stated, the present paper, so far as it refers to the result of my own examination of the reredos, is practically a repetition of it. Mr. Waller's paper is a plea for an Italian origin for the reredos, while Mr. Way's memoir deals chiefly with the subjects of the paintings, and the methods of decoration employed; it also includes a note by Mr. Digby Wyatt, who records his opinion that the reredos is Siennese work. Neither Mr. Way's nor Mr. Waller's paper does more than touch lightly upon what I may call the archæological features of the reredos, and as these are, in my humble opinion, of at least equal importance and interest, I will venture to lay before you the results of a careful examination of the picture from this point of view, which I was enabled to make when it was lent to the Society of Antiquaries, about eleven months ago.

1 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2nd S. xvi. 123– 139 and 164–173.

The object in question is what our medieval documents call in Latin a tabula, in English a table, from its being made of boards. Such an one is described in Rites of Durham as standing on the Jesus altar there against the wall behind it: “a moste curiouse and fine TABLE, with ij leves to open and clos againe, all of the hole Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, most richlye and curiously sett furth in most lyvelie coulours, all like the burninge gold, as he was tormented, and as he honge on the cross, which was a most lamentable sighte to beholde.”] There is no evidence that the Norwich reredos was a “table with leves," that is to say, a triptych ; on the contrary, its unpainted ends show that it was fitted into a recess in the wall or screen behind the altar on which it stood. Otherwise, it exactly resembles in character that formerly existing at Durham.

Such painted tables, or frontals as they were also called, were not uncommon in most of our large parish and other churches, but their destruction has been so wholesale, that but one or two English examples, besides that before us, are known to exist. In fact, the only other of equal importance with this at Norwich is the sad wreck of the once magnificent late thirteenth century table that formerly stood upon the high altar of the abbey church of Westminster.

In its present condition the Norwich table measures 8 feet 6} inches in length, by 2 feet 104 inches in height, but it was originally taller.

It consisted of two parts: (1) a series of oak boards, å inch thick, placed horizontally, and pinned together at their edges by wooden dowels; and (2) a moulded frame, also of oak, which was made separately, and

1 A Description or Breife Declaration of all the Ancient Monuments, Rites, and Customes belonginge or beinge roithin the Monastical Church of Durham before the Suppression. Written in 1593 (Surtees Society 15), 28.


afterwards pinned to the boarding with wooden pins. The boarding and

the frame were of the dimensions.

The frame was 68 inches wide and 14 inch thick at the outer edge, and had two sets of mouldings, all cut out of the solid. The inner series, by the aid of four mullions, was so arranged as to divide the tabula into five panels, each about 154 inches wide. These were enclosed by the outer series as by a frame. (See Plate I.)

After the whole had been made and put together by the joiner, it was handed over to the painter to be decorated. That this was the order of things is quite clear, for the loss of three of the four mullions shows that the panels must have been painted after the frame and mullions had been fixed in their places.

The background upon which the pictures are painted is now composed of four boards. Mr. Waller thinks there was a fifth, which was lost when the reredos was made into a table; and Mr. Way arrived at practically the same conclusion, for he says, “it seems probable that about 10 inches in breadth, at least, has been cut away from the upper part of the paintings." Mr. Way further expresses his opinion "that the compartments were rectangular, and that the missing portion of the frame was continued in a straight line parallel to the base.”

I have already pointed out that the boards forming the tabula proper were of the same dimensions as the frame affixed in front of them, and since the lowest board is partly covered by the depth of the frame, it will be seen that a fifth board, of about the same width as the others, would, when crossed by the upper margin of the frame, afford just sufficient space for the completion of the paintings.

A clue to the original dimensions of the reredos is to be

found by the study of what remains of the frame, and to the consideration of this we will now turn.

What may be called the inner frame, is composed of (1) a roll moulding or bead, which encloses each picture, and (2) a second bead, separated from the other by a flat chamfer, which divides the panels, and is carried all round them. It thus forms, as it were, a series of distinct frames, one for each picture. The beaded members are gilded, and the chamfers painted blue and red alternately, the red being relieved by small gold cinquefoiled flowers stencilled at regular intervals.

The outer margin of the frame has a flat band, 25 inches broad, with a moulded edge, 24 inches wide, composed of (1) a gilt bead, (2) an ogee chamfer painted red with gold flowers, and (3) a flat margin painted green with gold flowers. The flat band is ornamented in a very interesting and somewhat unusual fashion by a series of painted glass panels, evidently in imitation of enamel, with intermediate scrolls of leaf-work executed in gesso and gilded. These scrolls are done with more freedom than the beautiful diapered gesso backgrounds of the panels, but are by the same hand. The glass panels have not hitherto been properly described. Mr. Way describes the mouldings of the frame as “richly diapered, and ornamented with gilding, impressed work and portions of coloured glass, inserted at intervals; as also with armorial escutcheons, of which three only remain.” He has, however, obviously overlooked the identity of his “ portions of coloured glass ” with the armorial escutcheons, for it is evident that the glass decoration was heraldic throughout.

The panels are each 3inches long by 24 inches wide, and are not of coloured but ordinary clear white glass, painted on the back with armorial bearings, and affixed to the frame by some adhesive material. After they had


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