Church Monuments Society

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The history of church monuments is a fascinating story of enormous developments from very small beginnings. The earliest monuments were simply carved grave-slabs or coffin lids, some with a low relief effigy of the deceased, as in the twelfth-century cases of Bishops Roger and Jocelin de Bohun (died 1139 and 1184) in Salisbury Cathedral. Gradually effigies were carved in even greater relief, finishing up completely in the round and visually free of their slabs. Various materials were used, including wood and metal, but in the later medieval period most of the finest monuments were those made of alabaster. By that time, too, effigies were usually set upon rectangular tomb- chests, not actually containing the bodies of the deceased, but enriched with delightful carvings of foliage, heraldry or figures of weepers, angels and saints. Fine collections can be seen at Harewood (Yorkshire), Abergavenny (Monmouthshire), Tong (Shropshire) and elsewhere. The grandest monuments of the Middle Ages incorporated also an ornamental stone canopy, similarly richly ornamented, excellent examples of which occur at Tewkesbury Abbey (Gloucestershire). In the fifteenth century the representation of the deceased as a corpse in a shroud first appeared in England and, although never a common feature, endured in various forms into the seventeenth century. A good deal of painted and/or carved religious imagery adorned medieval monuments, but the vast bulk of this was destroyed during the Reformation in the sixteenth century or in the period of Puritan iconoclasm in the seventeenth.

Apart from the Reformation, by far the most influential effect on the design and character of monuments in the sixteenth century was due to the Renaissance. Although its progress in Britain was on the whole slow at first, Renaissance ornament began to be applied to late medieval monumental forms from the second decade of the sixteenth century, and in time the structures of monuments gradually adopted Renaissance elements, such as round coffered arches, classical entablatures and classical columns, and these had quite transformed the appearance of monuments by the middle of Elizabeth l's reign. At the same time increasing diversity in the depiction of effigies of the deceased saw the introduction of the reclining, kneeling, seated and standing postures alongside the older recumbent form, as well as demi-figures or half-effigies. These trends were greatly accelerated by the first wave of foreign influence on British designs when, in the later sixteenth century, important craftsmen and artists from the Netherlands settled in England, fleeing war and religious persecution in their homeland. Hundreds of their monuments survive from the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, especially in Westminster Abbey, Bisham (Berkshire) and Bottesford (Leicestershire). Also becoming increasingly common were monuments fixed to the walls and hanging free of any support from the floor.

A purer form of classicism took root in the course of the seventeenth century and developed eventually into the gloriously grandiose Baroque style of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when effigies, singly or in family groups, might be displayed in grand compositions in richly splendid settings. Impressive examples can be seen at Exton (Rutland), Bletchingley (Surrey), Knebworth (Hertfordshire) and Coxwold (Yorkshire). In the same period the representation of the deceased as a bust or in a relief medallion portrait also made their appearance. The eighteenth century saw a decline in the use of great monumental canopies and architectural backplates in favour of a new feature, the two dimensional pyramid, rising at the back of monuments and giving them a distinctive shape supremely characteristic of the eighteenth century. Some huge compositions of this kind were produced, of variously coloured marbles and containing several figures, including the magnificent piece for Lord Foley (died 1733) at Great Witley (Worcestershire). The period also saw the flowering of the Rococo style, that delightfully decorative, even playful, version of Baroque associated especially with France and Austria.

The inevitable reaction to both this extrovert grandeur and intricate detail came in the later eighteenth century with the rise of Neoclassicism, and in particular the switch in focus from ancient Rome to ancient Greece. The Greek revival, greatly enhanced in the early nineteenth century by the arrival of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, constituted the most significant and dominant aspect of church monuments in that period; it is evident in the great early nineteenth-century series of monuments to statesmen and military figures in St Paul's Cathedral and, almost ubiquitously, in the widespread popularity of relief-carvings of the deceased and other figures placed in white marble settings based on ancient Greek 'stele' tomb-stones. At the same time, the first stages of the Gothic Revival were quietly getting underway, without as yet challenging the ascendancy of Neoclassicism.

It was in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the high Victorian period, that Gothic influence and medievalism in general, exerted their greatest influence on the design and character of monuments. Not only were monuments designed with Gothic tomb-chests and canopies (thought usually not slavish copies of original medieval examples), as for Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (died 1873) in Winchester Cathedral, but there was also a renewed fashion for the completely recumbent effigy, which since the seventeenth century had been largely eclipsed by some of the alternative postures mentioned above. However, other styles and ways of depicting the deceased continued to flourish, and the Victorian period was an age of eclecticism rather than one exclusively dominated by the Gothic.

In due course other artistic movements, such as Art Nouveau, exerted an influence on the makers of monuments, but religious and social attitudes in the twentieth century, especially after the First World War, did not generally favour the erection of large monuments to individual, and the centuries-old habit (as it were) effectively died out.

This introductory survey has concentrated on monuments with effigies, but it is important to note that some monuments in the Middle Ages, and an increasing number from the sixteenth century onwards, did not include an effigy or representation of the deceased in any form. Some focused attention on long inscriptions, particularly wall tablets from the seventeenth century on, while others got their message across through symbolic or allegorical displays, including putti engaged in various activities, female personifications of the Virtues, allusions to the career of the deceased, and so on.

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