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The Easter Sepulchre

By CMS in Heritage

We’ve had a few threads on Twitter looking at Easter Sepulchres used as tombs and tombs used as Easter Sepulchres. This was sparked partly by Andrew Ziminski (@natchjourneyman)’s tweet of a photo of the Easter Sepulchre at South Pool in Devon with the effigy of a sixteenth-century rector Thomas Bryant tucked into it – https://twitter.com/natchjourneyman/status/1248346484715786240. Bryant was recorded as rector in 1536 but his date of death is not known. So was this an early bit of iconoclasm? From the photo, Bryant seems to be wearing cassock and surplice rather than the chasuble he would have worn to celebrate Mass: effigies of medieval clergy usually show them vested for Mass, so this could possibly indicate Reformed ideas. On the other hand, the effigy has been chopped about to fit it into the niche. The feet have been cut off and the inscription is truncated. It is possible that the effigy was placed in the niche much later – it’s the sort of thing the Victorians did quite happily.

We went on to discuss other examples at St Neot, and I think the very famous ones at Heckington and Hawton also cropped up. @lukecoring tweeted a photo of an example at St John the Baptist in Winchester (https://twitter.com/lukecoring/status/1248977721344118784) and @JamesODavies had a photo of a very Renaissance example at St Mary’s, Tarrent Hinton (https://twitter.com/JamesODavies/status/1248856456163741696).

It has been argued, though, that not all of these are really Easter sepulchres. The ritual of the Easter sepulchre was one of the most powerful and dramatic parts of the Holy Week liturgy. Eamon Duffy describes it in detail in The Stripping of the Altars: clergy and people creeping barefoot and on their knees to kiss the foot of a cross which was then wrapped in a linen shroud with a consecrated host and ‘buried’ in the Easter Sepulchre. Parishioners watched over it as they would have done over the body of a dead neighbour. On Easter Sunday the cross was solemnly raised and processed round the church while the bells rang and the choir sang ‘Christus Resurgens’.

The implication of all this is that the Easter Sepulchre was a portable structure, probably made of timber. Indeed, it could just be the parish bier covered with a painted cloth, though some were elaborately carved and gilded. Very few survive, possibly because timber was so easy to destroy or to reuse. There is one example at Cowthorpe in Yorkshire (photo by Cameron Newham at https://twitter.com/cbnewham/status/718799332082892804) and another at Coity in south Wales (photo on p 63 of Kroesen’s The Sepulchrum Domini Through the Ages, online at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=w5O9PqvBjn0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false). A more intriguing possibility is a chest in the mountaintop church of Bedwelltyin the Gwent valleys. This has panels on one end with the Arma Christi, the Five Wounds and the Instruments of the Passion.

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The Bedwellty chest

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Panel of the Five Wounds on the Bedwellty chest

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The Instruments of the Passion on the Bedwellty chest

It doesn’t now look suitable for use as an Easter sepulchre – but could it have been remade out of something like a simplified version of the Coity chest? It would be quite typical of the Welsh response to the Reformation to hide something as intensely Catholic as the Easter Sepulchre in plain sight.

Duffy is clear that the Easter sepulchre was usually made of timber. His illustrations, though, are of stone structures: Heckington, the Clopton tomb at Long Melford and the Sackville monument at Westhampnett, both tombs adorned with carvings of the Crucifixion story and designed as Easter sepulchres.

Or were they? Veronica Sekules has argued convincingly (in Medieval Art and Architecture at Lincoln Cathedral, British Archaeological Association Conference Transaction Series, Volume 8, 1986) that elaborate structures like those at Heckington and Hawton are not Easter sepulchres (it’s hard to see how you could get a cross of any size into the small aperture at Heckington) but ‘Tombs of Christ’ . If the consecrated Host was actually, in its substance, the body of Christ, placing it in a shrine decorated with imagery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection made it a powerful focus for devotion. Christopher Herbert’s Leicester Ph D thesis ‘English Easter sepulchres: the history of an idea’ (downloadable at https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/English_Easter_sepulchres_The_history_of_an_idea_/10189217) goes further in pointing out the difficulty of using many of these structures in the Easter liturgy. Both Sekules’ and Herbert’s arguments are summarised by James Cameron in his article on the Easter sepulchre at https://stainedglassattitudes.wordpress.com/tag/easter-sepulchres/ . He points out that, while many people in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries asked for tombs with Crucifixion imagery so that they could be used for the Easter Sepulchre, the tombs themselves are not Easter Sepulchres: they are places where the Easter Sepulchre could be placed. Typically, they had a flat brass rather than a three-dimensional effigy carving: again, it is difficult to see how an effigy tomb could be used for the Easter sepulchre.

And yet … Sally Badham tweeted at https://twitter.com/SallyBadham/status/1248419682823991306 about the will of Joan Norton (d. 1535) of Faversham, Kent. She wanted a tomb ‘to be used as a sepulchre place’. The indent of the lost brass from her tomb shows her kneeling before an image of Christ rising from his grave. This could just about be read as a tomb where the Sepulchre could be placed – but it does sound as though she was blurring the distinction, and it may have been blurred in other people’s minds as well.  There are also some ambiguous references in wills asking for burial ‘in sacra sepultura ecclesie …’ – are they just asking for holy burial or are they specifically asking for burial in the Holy Sepulchre? And there is a slightly clearer reference in the will of Ieuan ap Jankyn of Llangeinor in the Glamorgan valleys, who asked in 1537 ‘to be buryed in the holy sepulture at the entering in of the porche of the saide churche of Llankyner’. However we may distinguish between the Easter Sepulchre itself and its designated resting place, members of the late medieval congregation seem to have had their own ideas.


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