In the porch of the exit (west end) of Exeter Cathedral are statues representing the Nativity. It is difficult to photograph as the space is confined and there are 2 scenes, one on top of the other.

The upper scene appears to be of Mary cradling Jesus, with the Adoration of the Magi. There are only 2 discernible figures of potential wisemen, one of whom is holding a jar – likely to be frankincense. The kneeling wiseman presents gold.

The subsequent vandalism of the figures makes it difficult to comprehend the scene. However, the statues underneath the Adoration are of the ox and ass in baskets, perhaps signifying woven mangers. Their noses are nearly touching. Most Nativity scenes have the ox and ass by the manger. However, if the image above them is the Adoration of the Magi, then the Nativity has moved forward to Epiphany (January 6th).

With space limited within the porch, the mason has been creative with his representation. It is difficult to date, and I am not an Art Historian. However, some elements point to possibly to the mid-14th C. Just visible is some lierne vaulting behind the ox and ass. This type of vaulting was introduced during the 14th C in the Decorated Gothic period of architecture. I can also see elements of Perpendicular Gothic architecture emerging – the spires and crockets on the slender columns that frame the ox and ass. Perpendicular was beginning to overlap with Decorated in the mid-14th C.

Exeter was rebuilt during the Decorated period, with the completion of the west end circa 1340.

There is an explosion of carved drapery in this scene of the Adoration of the Magi. The king standing on the right with the jar appears to be wearing an upper hose which became fashionable in the 16th C (think of Henry VIII’s fashion – without the cod piece). This makes things somewhat confusing – is the upper scene later that the lower? The arch mouldings behind suggest earlier that the 16th C. However, the statues are not necessarily contemporary and may have replaced earlier ones.

I presume that as the image of Mary is so badly damaged that the vandalism took place in the mid-16th C during the Reformation.

I find myself wondering about whether the images were painted and what scene may have been portrayed in the arch behind the statues. Perhaps the scene was part of the Epiphany liturgy with worshippers slowing walking past in procession. Being in the porch, parishioners could access the images when they needed without entering the cathedral. The image of St. Christopher in parish churches was usually painted on a wall opposite the church entrance so that people could say a quick prayer to him as they passed by.

It is certainly a unique scene of the Nativity and Adoration, placed in a unique position.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2020.