The Medieval Rood Screen and
A Welsh Treasure
|The simple interior of St Anno, dominated by its spectacular rood screen and, below, the church's modest exterior|
The church of St Anno stands beside the River Ithon, one mile north-west of Llanbister in Radnorshire. From the outside it seems unlikely that it might contain anything ‘worth bicycling 12 miles against the wind to see’, in Betjeman’s memorable phrase. And yet, inside stands one of the great treasures of Welsh church craftsmanship: a late medieval rood screen and rood loft of c1500, trimmed with some of the finest carved decoration to survive anywhere in Wales. The screenwork is made more interesting still for having seen the inside of not one but two churches.
During the later Middle Ages (c1300-1500) almost every church in England and Wales was furnished with a rood screen. In the 15th century most rood screens were surmounted by a gallery known as a rood loft. Both fittings take their name from the rood – the carved figure of Christ on the Cross, customarily located over the screen and loft at the east end of the nave.
The rood (from the Saxon word rod or rode, meaning a cross) ranged in height from a few inches tall to life-sized or larger, and was generally flanked by the figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Prior to the Reformation this form of religious sculpture enjoyed near-universal currency in the churches of England and Wales. However, of the thousands of rood-figures that graced our churches during the Middle Ages, just four mutilated Christ figures (together with a single Mary figure) now survive, and none in situ. From being among the most abundant of church fittings, medieval rood-figures now count among the very rarest.
THE ROOD SCREEN
Located beneath the rood, the rood screen formed a partition between the nave and the chancel beyond. In churches with a chancel arch, the rood screen usually stood under the arch or against its western side. In through-churches with no chancel arch (which are abundant in Wales, and of which Llananno is an example) the rood screen would extend across the full width of the nave from north wall to south. In larger churches with side aisles that extended east of the nave to flank the chancel (such as those found in East Anglia and the south-west) the rood screen would extend north and south of the nave to span the aisles as well.
The rood screen had several functions. Its primary role was to demarcate spaces of lesser and greater holiness (a liturgical division stipulated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215). The already potent sense of mystery associated with this part of the church was further intensified at key points in the religious calendar, such as during Easter week, when a shroud (or ‘rood-cloth’) was draped over the rood; or during Lent, when a Lenten veil would be hung before the high altar. More prosaically, the rood screen formed a legal demarcation between the nave, which was the responsibility of the parishioners, and the chancel, which was reserved for the clergy.
|Detail of the fine timber carving on the rood loft at Llananno, with bands of medieval foliage trails above and below canopied niches: the statues (Christ in the centre flanked by prophets to the left and apostles to the right) were added in 1880 following the restoration of the screen.|
The vast majority of surviving rood screens date from the 15th century. By this period their usage was near-universal in English and Welsh churches. However, the survival of a handful of 14th- and even 13th-century examples confirms the fitting’s use in earlier centuries. An exceptionally complete 13th-century screen survives at Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire, almost certainly coeval with the chancel here and thus of c1260.
Approximately 1,000 substantially or partially complete medieval rood screens survive in England and Wales. Prior to the Reformation the figure was nearer to 10,000. Patterns of survival vary, but most counties (with the exceptions of Northumberland and Cumbria) have something to show. For England, just two areas might be described as rich in medieval screenwork: Devon and Somerset in the south-west, and Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire in East Anglia. In the south-west, Devon is pre-eminent, with almost 200 churches retaining medieval screenwork. On the other side of the country, Norfolk has more than 200 churches containing medieval screenwork, while Suffolk and Lincolnshire have roughly 100 apiece.
More than half of the medieval screenwork to survive in England is thus concentrated in just five counties. The southern Welsh borderland region is also rich in medieval screenwork, with more than 50 churches containing substantial remains.
THE ROOD LOFT
The rood loft probably came into widespread use later than the rood screen. The loft formed a gallery over the rood screen, and was generally accessed via a mural stairwell built into the wall at the east end of the nave. Like the rood screen it surmounted, the rood loft has several constructional variants. In churches with a chancel arch, the gallery generally extends only to the west of the screen; but in through-churches without a chancel arch, it tends to extend both to the west and the east of the screen.
The primary function of the rood loft has long been debated. Of the possible main uses, two remain the most compelling. Firstly, that the gallery was used to access the rood-figures, for instance to veil the rood at key points in the religious calendar or to light the accompanying candles and lamps. And secondly, that it was used as an elevated platform from which the sung word or the spoken word (in the form of the Gospel) might be delivered.
Documentary evidence exists for both uses, and for others besides. The occasional presence of a piscina (a stone basin for washing the communion vessels) in wall fabric at rood loft height confirms that rood lofts were also used to house subsidiary altars (typically dedicated to the Holy Cross). Muniment chests, used to store important documents such as charters and title deeds, were sometimes secured in rood lofts. In what can be understood as later appropriations of an existing and convenient elevated space, organs were also occasionally located in rood lofts, as were pews for prominent or wealthy parishioners.
Today just 24 substantially complete medieval rood lofts survive in Britain (13 of them in Wales), the majority dating from c1500. Physical evidence for rood lofts of an earlier date is sparse. However, the remains at Llanelieu in Breconshire belong to the 14th century, and those at Pixley in Herefordshire may even predate these.
|Recent drawings by MAV Gill of the rood screen and rood loft at Llananno (including soffit panels below), showing in red the parts that are
One other fitting associated with the rood screen and rood loft should be described here: the screen-tympanum. This typically comprised a boarded or plastered partition which extended up from the easternmost parapet of the rood loft, to fill in either the chancel archway above loft height in a divided church; or the space between the top of the loft and the nave ceiling in an undivided church. As well as more fully compartmentalising the nave and chancel, this also gave a solid background – as opposed to the glare of the east window – against which the rood-figures might be viewed. The backdrop formed by the tympanum was often painted with a depiction of the Last Judgement and Resurrection, together referred to as ‘the Doom’ (one of the finest surviving examples is at Wenhaston in Suffolk).
The current church of St Anno was built in 1877 by the Liverpool architect David Walker, essentially as a like-for-like replacement for a dilapidated pre-existing medieval church on the site. Walker’s own plans and elevations provide a snapshot of this earlier structure. They depict an archetypal small rural Welsh church with nave and chancel in one and no side aisles (similar to Rhulen St David in Radnorshire and possibly of a similar date: c1300).
|David Walker’s own drawing of the rood screen and rood loft at Llananno as it stood in the old church, prior to its reconstruction in 1877|
The undisputed wonder of the rebuild was the decision to recover the medieval screenwork from the old church and re-erect it in the new church. In Llananno’s case, the retention of the screenwork during a straight restoration of the existing church would have been cause enough for celebration. Its retention during the construction of an entirely new church, affording the perfect opportunity to do away with the fittings altogether, is close to miraculous. During the 19th century, other Radnorshire screens were not so fortunate. Writing in 1949, Fred Crossley and Maurice Ridgway noted that in Radnorshire ‘of 30 or more screens existing at the commencement of the 19th century, less than half remain even in fragmentary form.’
Much of the credit for the saving of Llananno’s screenwork must be taken by Walker. His appreciation for medieval screenwork is conveyed in a series of illustrated articles published between 1870 and 1874. His concern for Llananno’s screenwork is made explicit in the final paragraph of the last of these articles (published just three years before the architect began work at Llananno):
It is to be deplored that this ancient church – an edifice possessing such interesting relics of the art wood-work of the period – should be permitted to fall into irretrievable ruin, and that its present sad state of neglect and decay should render imminent the destruction of the fine example of ecclesiastical woodwork it contains.
It wasn’t only the old church that was in poor condition: the rood screen and rood loft too had suffered – as evidenced by Walker’s own drawing of the fittings as they appeared in the old church. This shows the screen missing a couple of tracery heads at either end and some of the carved trail from its head-beam, the loft coving missing several carved panels at the right-hand end, and the niche-work of the loft parapet as damaged and incomplete.
Despite Walker’s initial desire to leave the screenwork in situ during the rebuild (‘most carefully stayed and shored and enclosed with overlap jointed slabs to secure it from the actions of the weather during the progress of the rebuilding of the church’) – the evidence strongly points to the screen and loft having been dismantled and set aside while the new church was built. Walker’s restoration of the screen and loft not only entailed repair and speculative reinstatement of missing components, it also involved slightly lengthening both fittings in order to take account of the new nave being ten inches wider than the old one.
|The east (chancel) side of the Llananno screen, showing a boldly carved leaf trail on the bressumer and a more intricate trail on the head beam which Crossley and Ridgway described as ‘probably the finest rendering of the water plant as a decorative motif in existence’||The larger trail on Llananno’s west side bressumer issues from the mouth of a wyvern, a dragon with the wings and legs of a bird, and a tail in the form of a serpent|
While the screenwork at Llananno as we see it today is an amalgam of old and new, enough of each of the structural and decorative components had survived for Walker to extrapolate with reason the appearance of what had been lost. The changes witnessed by the rood loft were more comprehensive and dramatic than those witnessed by the rood screen below. The work included an apparent alteration to the pitch of the loft coving and the addition of carved figures to the loft front. If Walker’s drawing is to be trusted, then the pitch of the loft coving was made shallower when the screenwork was restored, essentially by setting the bressumer of the loft lower in relation to the head-beam of the screen (The photo, above right, thus shows less of the soffit). The traditional pitch, accepting the curvature of the soffit, would have been closer to 45 degrees.
In 1880, soon after completion of the new church, the 25 canopied niches of the loft parapet were filled with figures carved by Gerald Boulton of Cheltenham. The set comprises 12 patriarchs, kings and prophets to the north, Christ in the centre, and the 12 apostles to the south. Although carved figures seem the most likely candidates for the original loft front (given the depth of the canopies), it is not certain that such figures were ever deployed here. It is possible that the niches contained painted figures (as at Strensham in Worcestershire). The planking also lacks the peg-holes found, for example, at Llanfilo in Breconshire (although this may simply be because all of the backing woodwork at Llananno was replaced by Walker during the restoration). While we cannot know how any such figures might have looked, the new figures admirably capture the spirit of late-medieval gothic woodcarving, and are quite at home on the loft front.
THE ‘NEWTOWN’ SCHOOL
The screenwork at Llananno is closely related to that found in several other borderland churches, a fact first comprehensively articulated by Fred Crossley and Maurice Ridgway in a series of papers published in Archaeologia Cambrensis (the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Society) between 1943 and 1962. The pair identified ten examples, ranging from Llananno in the south up to Daresbury in Cheshire, 90 miles to the north – referring to the putative workshop as the Newtown or Montgomeryshire School (on the basis of its possible location). Two examples in Montgomeryshire provide the most compelling relatives to the work at Llananno: the screen and loft at Llanwnnog and the spectacular remains from Newtown (now in Llanllwchaiarn church just outside Newtown).
|Detail of tracery heads and soffit panels at Llananno (top), Llanwnnog (middle)
and Newtown (bottom, retaining old colour)
All three share highly distinctive carved decoration of spectacular quality, much of it unusually arrayed. Firstly, there are the tracery heads. In the vast majority of medieval rood screens, the tracery heads are of uniform design from bay to bay. However, at Llananno and in other Newtown screens, the design of the heads varies from bay to bay. This restless pattern-making is carried up over the loft coving above and comprises a treatment of the rood loft found in no other Welsh or English medieval screenwork. The carved motifs found here are mostly non-figurative and recognisably gothic, be they Decorated or Perpendicular in origin. They include a variety of cusped, foiled and geometric forms.
Arguably more compelling still are the carved trails occupying each of the principal beams of the screen and loft. Such trails remain one of the wonders of Welsh screenwork in particular, for they are generally figurative in nature, their various plant-forms not only decorative but invested with symbolism. Three distinct plant-forms appear at Llananno: the vine (the wider of the bressumer trails), the pomegranate (the narrower of the bressumer trails) and the water-plant (the rood-beam to the west and the head-beam of the rood screen to the east).
The vine is the most common plant-form in carved trails. Vines and grapes symbolise the Eucharistic wine (the blood of Christ) and Christ himself: ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’ (John 16:5). The pomegranate, meanwhile, was used as a decorative motif on the hem of holy vestments: a reference to Exodus 28:33 (‘upon the hem of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet’). However, for church screenwork it has additional significance. It was the badge of Katherine of Aragon, whose ill-fated marriage to Prince Arthur in 1501 is commemorated on a number of screens and lofts in Wales (including at Aberconwy, erected by Arthur’s friend Sir Richard Pole). The water-plant is particularly characteristic of Newtown work. Frustratingly, however, its symbolism remains obscure.
Each bressumer trail at Llananno issues from the mouth of a wyvern (a dragon with the wings and legs of a bird, and a tail in the form of a serpent). Such dragons symbolise evil generally and Satan specifically (for example, in Revelation 12:9: ‘And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan’). The tail in the form of a serpent also recalls the amphisbaena, the fabled two-headed serpent of the ancients able to move in either direction and thus symbolising inconstancy.
Despite the success of Walker’s restoration of the screenwork at Llananno, it is important to acknowledge not only what endures here but also what can no longer be seen. For while there survives one of very few medieval rood screens still to be surmounted by its original rood loft, the furnishings are missing several key features – the most visually arresting of which is an original colour scheme dominated by reds, greens, blues and gold.
The loss of original colour from Llananno’s screenwork (to say nothing of other surfaces in medieval churches) places a great burden on the imagination of the visitor. Although colour has, on occasion, been re-applied elsewhere (for example, to part of the screen at Usk in Monmouthshire) this was not done at Llananno. Instead, the onlooker must imagine away the uniform ‘wooden-ness’ of the fittings and see instead the encrusted surfaces bright with colour and gilding. This is no easy task, but one that is infinitely preferable to standing in the hollow casket of a church stripped bare of such riches. Were it not for David Walker’s intervention, the imagination would have to work a great deal harder.