Tewkesbury Abbey was originally a Benedictine monastery and is now a parish church. It was built in the early 12th C and remains, although in part, a significant example of Norman architecture. In the 14th C the abbey received an upgrade. This post looks at the extraordinary 14th C bosses in the nave that depict the Life of Christ – starting from the Nativity in the far west end of the nave and ending with Christ in Majesty at the far east end.
The chronicle of Tewkesbury describes the founding of the Benedictine abbey as:
‘Robert Fitz Hamon, who in the year 1102, ‘led by the Holy Spirit’ and at the instigation of ‘his good wife Sybil’ and of Gerold, the abbot of Cranborne, greatly enlarged the church of Tewkesbury and endowed it with further possessions; and finding that the place enjoyed a more agreeable site and a more fertile soil he transferred the whole community from Cranborne …’. [i]
The Normans began to direct Benedictine abbeys to be built in town centres, rather than secluded rurality (the Cistercians would do that – setting up in England in circa 1128). They became part of urban life and not just houses of monks praying and making manuscripts. They were involved in the functioning of society through giving of alms, medical support, hospitality to travellers and education. With secular patrons founding and endowing the abbeys and priories they could direct where they were built and the functions they would support.[ii]
In the 13th C a new order would arrive that directly focused on the spiritual, educational, and moral needs of the secular community. These were the Franciscans and the first Franciscan Friars arrived in Dover in 1224. They established friaries in key centres and became a powerful force in the political and intellectual life of England. They did not follow a monastic rule like the Benedictines. They went out into the community to spread the Christian message through preaching. They sought to imitate the life of Christ through poverty and were dependent on alms.[iii]
With the growth of influence of the universities the centres of education were no longer the monasteries. The Franciscans allied themselves with Oxford and Cambridge to become intellectual leaders. The Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292), possibly from Ilchester in Somerset, was a leading light in the intellectual world of the 13th C. St Francis of Assisi (c. 1181 to 1226) celebrated God in nature. Roger Bacon was transferring that approach into the study of natural philosophy.[iv]
A significant difference from the Benedictines was that St Francis wanted people to empathise with the humanity and suffering of Christ. A new iconography appeared with the Franciscans. The approach to the art of the Franciscans was to evoke emotion, expression, and naturalism. To bring the Life of Christ alive to people and for them to engage with the experience. St Francis developed the arrangement of the nativity scene in an experiential way – not just in paintings. At Christmas most churches still set the scene. He wanted to make Christ’s life tangible and human.
From the Benedictines point of view the friars were powerful competition. Their secular patrons must also have been concerned. Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a Benedictine monk and chronicler at St Alban’s Abbey was critical of them. In the 1230s he wrote about how the friars had moved into areas close to the established monasteries and set up preaching and teaching the locals.[v]
11 miles away from Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucester the Franciscan Friary (Greyfriars) had been founded in 1230. It is likely this mendicant order found their way to preaching in Tewkesbury.
In the 14th C (1320-50) at Tewkesbury Abbey the nave was upgraded, and a series of bosses depicting scenes from the Life of Christ were carved and painted. The stone used was Cotswold limestone. These extraordinary bosses depict the scenes with emotion, movement, naturalism, individual faces, expressions, and stances that bring the narrative to life. It appears that the Benedictines of the 14th C were demonstrating that they were in the business of competing with the Franciscans for guiding the souls of the secular community, by evoking the experience of the Life of Christ. An approach that St Francis had started.
Tewkesbury Abbey was dissolved at the Dissolution and made into a parish church. At the Reformation the bosses escaped the iconoclasts by their difficulty to access. They were limewashed over and subsequent centuries saw further limewashing. In the 19th C Sir George Gilbert Scott restored the Abbey (1874-9). Initially there was an attempt in 1877 to colour and gild the bosses (some colour had been found under the latest coat of distemper). A London firm was commissioned. However, the 2 bays of the nave bosses that were painted and gilded with blue, vermillion and gold were not thought right at the time.[vi]
Thomas Gambier Parry, an artist from nearby Highnam Court, was commissioned to restore the bosses. In 1878 he carefully scraped the distemper away and then painted them with a stone-coloured oil-based paint. He delineated the figures with dark brown lines. He painted the robes of Christ and Mary in white. He also detailed hair colour and applied gilding to pick out selected elements.[vii] He remarked on how the bosses were imperfect and carving in places left unfinished. He thought bright colours would obscure the designs and emphasise their incompleteness. His proposed scheme of colouring was designed to set off the carvings without highlighting the imperfections. The Restoration Committee would have liked him to repaint the bright colours of the crossing and choir vaults, but he did not feel able to do so.[viii] It does make me wonder if he didn’t just paint but ‘adjusted’ some of the carving.
When Ruth Davis and her team cleaned and repaired Gambier Parry’s scheme in 1996, she noticed 2 different styles in the carving. The bosses in the 3 eastern bays of the nave show carving in higher relief that the 5 in the western bays.[ix] They have sharper drapery folds and higher relief. One possibility put forward is that the Victorian restoration may have included a reworking of the bosses in the east bays to sharpen them up. Christ in Majesty does look somewhat like a heavily bearded Victorian gentleman. However, there is some fine work in some of the bosses, particularly in the folds of the figures’ robes in the east bays. It has also been noticed that the bosses in the east bays are larger than the others in west bays.
Tewkesbury Abbey Ground Plan[x]
The original rood screen would have been between bay 2 and bay 3 (bay 1 ends at the current choir screen). Bay 3 contains the Crucifixion and the Resurrection – a transition point between the nave and the sacred space beyond the rood screen. It could therefore be that greater expenditure was made for finer work for the sacred space of the abbey. The subject matter for the parish nave is focused on the story of Christ’s life. The subject matter for the monks is of the transcendent nature of Christ, the Virgin, and the Apostles.
The bosses depict the narrative scenes of Christ’s life, which are often represented in similar ways in art of the period (or earlier). The bosses that surround the main depictions are either (a) angels playing musical instruments – an important primary source for music historians, (b) angels censing, (c) angels holding instruments of the passion, and (d) the Tetramorphic symbols of the 4 Evangelists. Working in unison they provide a unique pilgrimage down the nave of the Life of Christ.
Bosses in the 5 West Bays
|1||The Nativity||6||Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem|
|2||Christ’s Circumcision?||7||The Last Supper|
|3||The Journey of the Magi||8||The Betrayal|
|4||The Adoration of the Magi||9||The Flagellation|
|5||The Finding of Jesus in the Temple|
Bosses in the 3 East Bays – larger and with finer carving
|14||The Coronation of the Virgin|
|15||Christ in Majesty|
Comparison of a boss in an east bay with the boss at the far west end of the nave.
THE LIFE OF CHRIST IN ART IN THE EARLY 14th C
In the early 14th C Giotto painted the frescos at the Scrovegni Church in Padua. This chapel is adjacent to the Augustinian monastery. The Augustinians were another mendicant order, like the Franciscans. The frescos were completed by Giotto in 1305. Giotto’s scenes have a convincing sense of space and a capturing of the moment in a real way. There is naturalism and emotion. However, the bosses at Tewkesbury also show these tendencies. Below is the scene of the betrayal when Judas kisses Jesus to show the Romans whom they need to arrest.
Giotto’s Fresco of the Kiss of Judas (c. 1305) in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy[xi]
In the Tewkesbury Boss there is a sense of a scene with movement and expression. Jesus is surprised by the kiss of Judas. He is leaning slightly backwards, and his left hand is open in a possible ‘why’ expression. Judas has leaned in to kiss Jesus pointedly and holds firmly the arm of the Roman soldier behind Jesus – is he guiding the soldier’s arm to Jesus as being the one he should arrest or just holding it back for a second whilst he completes the kiss? We know who the Roman soldier is because of his helmet, sword, shield, and short tunic.
There is more drama. A figure on the right holds a lantern – with the darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, light is needed to illuminate the scene. To the left of the scene Peter, in an attempt to prevent the arrest of Jesus, cuts off the ear of the kneeling Malchus with his sword. Behind Peter 6 of the apostles are crowding in to witness the scene. Jesus is the central figure with the apostles to his right and the Romans to his left.
The robes of the Tewkesbury boss are not unlike those in the Giotto fresco. There is naturalistic movement of the folds. I find the figures in the Giotto fresco, whilst exquisitely painted, a little static compared with the movement in the figures at Tewkesbury.
THE CHILDHOOD OF CHRIST
The first 5 bosses starting from the west end of the nave are scenes from childhood of the life of Christ.
The infant Jesus is swaddled in the manger. His head rests on a pillow. His right hand is raised in a blessing. He is depicted as a small man rather than a baby. A contented Mary is also asleep with her head on a pillow. Joseph stands at the foot of the manger protective of his family and resting on his staff. The ox and the ass peer through openings at the scene. A figure holding something like a white cloth is also asleep on the head of the crib. Maybe an angel or a shepherd?
The Circumcision of Christ
8 Days after the Birth (1st January)
This is probably the circumcision of Christ. Mary stands with Jesus in her arms and to her left is a man with a chalice. He is probably a priest. Behind him is a woman. A clean-shaven man stands behind Mary touching her head. Could it be Joseph? The Nativity scene shows a heavily bearded Joseph. However, in the Nativity scene Joseph was restored by Gambier Parry in 1878 – did he put in some heavy Victorian beards in his restoration? The faces are fleshier and cruder in this carving. Possibly this is what the other faces were more like before Gambier Parry worked on them?
The circumcision took place 8 days after his birth (1st January). It is also when a child is given their name in the Jewish faith. Jesus is slightly bent over. At least the central figure is not carrying the knife – often shown in art of this subject!
The Journey of the Magi
The three kings with their crowns are clustered together – one of them only has his profile visible. An angel is pushing them on their journey and before them is the star. There is movement in the scene. There is the suggestion of urgency and that the angel is rushing them toward Bethlehem.
The Adoration of the Magi
A seated Mary presents Jesus to the 3 Magi. Above Jesus’s head is a large wavy star. Mary is crowned in this scene. The kneeling king is not wearing a crown and is presenting his gift to Jesus. The 2 standing kings are pointing – one towards the star and one towards Jesus.
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple
Mary is seated on a bench and Jesus stands on a step. Mary is crowned and the folds of her gown drape over the back of the bench. Her hands gently hold those of Jesus as she looks directly into his eyes.
Jesus is aged 12 when he accompanied Mary, Joseph & others on their annual Passover pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Whilst travelling home Mary & Joseph realised that Jesus was not in the caravan of their group, and they returned to Jerusalem. They found him after 3 days talking to the elders in the Temple.
This boss depicts the concern and relief of Mary. Jesus is explaining why she didn’t need to worry as he was in his ‘Father’s house’.
Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
Christ rides a donkey towards the city gate. Behind him are the 12 Apostles, some of whom hold objects. Jesus appears to be raising his hand in blessing. The back legs of the donkey are not carved. But this doesn’t matter as the movement into the scene explains the narrative. This concept of ‘cropping’ an image was used by artists such as Giotto with the idea of more happening outside of the image.
The Triumphal Entry took place a few days before the Last Supper and marks the beginning of Christ’s Passion.
A figure reaches out holding something from the window above the gate passage in the city gate. The gate passage appears to be blocked by a mass of something – could this be the cloaks and palms of Christ’s Disciples and followers spread on the road, as written in the gospels?
The Last Supper
The central figure of Jesus raises his hand in blessing. There are 4 Apostles seated either side of him – even the two with what appears to be headdresses are Apostles. Above him are 2 censing angels.
The Apostles have their hands on the loaves of bread, including Judas who is kneeling at the front. Judas also holds a gold chalice (rather than the bag of 30 pieces of silver). St John has his head on the table in front of Christ. It appears that Christ is gently touching John’s head with his left hand. John sat next to Christ at the Last Supper as the disciple he loved most.
Maybe something was not right with the original composition or the Victorian restoration and two of the Apostles that are missing were changed into the censing angels (or omitted).
The central figure is Jesus, whom Judas leans across to kiss. Judas holds the arm of a Roman soldier perhaps to indicate that it is Jesus they need to arrest. To Jesus’s right are 7 Apostles. Peter holds a sword and is the act of cutting off the ear of a kneeling Malchus to try and stop the arrest.
To Jesus’s left are the Romans with their helmets, weapons, and short tunics. A man on the Roman side holds a lantern as the event was in the dark in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Flagellation (Or Christ at the Column or Scourging at the Pillar)
Jesus stripped to the waist has been tied to a slender column. He now has a halo. His feet are also bare. Two men are in the action of whipping him with scourges (whips with several tails). Their angled heads and beards give a sense of menace. The column, the rope that ties his hands and the scourge are elements of Christ’s passion (Arma Christi).
The Flagellation by Duccio (1255-1319) – detail of a panel of an altar piece from Duccio’s Maesta painted 1308-11. (Tempera on wood).[xii] This image was produced in Siena 10 to 40 years earlier than when the bosses were produced at Tewkesbury. The themes and ideas of depiction are universal in the Christian world. The same idea is produced in Tewkesbury that was produced in Siena – a suffering Christ tied to the column, just a robe around his middle, a halo around his head and two Romans with scourges.
Supporting the Flagellation of Christ are 4 bosses of angels censing. All 4 of the angels are on bended knee, their faces raised upwards. Below is 1 of the angels.
Christus Patiens – Christ suffering
Christ’s arms are stretched from hanging on the cross and are arranged over the top of the boss. His legs are at an awkward angle. His nailed feet are bleeding as is the wound from the lance in his side. He has a beard and on his head is the crown of thorns and behind his head a halo. The two figures are the Virgin and St John the Evangelist (he holds a book). Earlier medieval art shows Christ on the cross looking triumphant: Christus Triumphans.
The censing angels that supported the Flagellation, continue past the Crucifixion and onto support the Resurrection. In effect the sensing angels support the Flagellation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
THE RESURRECTION, ASCENSION, PENTECOST, CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN & CHRIST IN MAJESTY
A bearded Christ with a halo behind stands upright. He has risen from the tomb and the shroud covers the lower part of his torso. There is a censing angel each side. Beneath his feet are 3 Roman soldiers with helmets, shields and swords. They guard the tomb. One looks upwards towards the risen Christ. Christ is much larger than his earthly incarnation in the previous bosses. He holds a staff in his left hand with a cross on top and a banner of a red cross. His right hand was originally held up in blessing but is broken.
4 bosses of censing angels surround the Resurrection. These angels are on bended knee. Below are 2 of them:
There are 2 other censing angels (besides the 4 surrounding the Flagellation) in western part of the nave – they are more upright.
The central figure is the Virgin with her hands in a prayer pose, surrounded by the 12 Apostles. On her left is St Peter with a large key. Other Apostles hold books. Two of the Apostles point upwards. The Apostle on the Virgin’s right pointing upwards and holding a book is probably St John. The poses of the figures relate to the wonder of the Ascension. Above them we only see Christ’s feet and the bottom of his robe. Christ is rising through what is likely to represent clouds.
A similar arrangement to the Ascension boss. The praying Virgin surrounded by the 12 Apostles. There is movement and tension in the stances and expressions of the Apostles. Some of the Apostles point upwards. One points to his book (Gospel?). The large dove, descending from Heaven and representing the Holy Ghost, swoops down upon them. By arranging the figures with a ‘S’-like or serpentine line (known later as the line of beauty when Hogarth wrote in 1753 his book, Analysis of Beauty) it gives movement and aesthetic appeal, which excites the attention of the viewer.
These two bosses have similarities in their composition, but the mason had ensured they are different. In The Ascension the faces are looking upwards. In Pentecost they are expressing agitation to each other in some cases. Only the Virgin is serene. The mason has worked in detail on their individual faces, expressions, stances, and the folds of their robes.
The Coronation of the Virgin
Both the Virgin and Christ wear crowns and are seated on a double-seated throne. Christ blesses the Virgin with his right hand and holds his left hand over a globe (the earthly world). The hair is stylised. There is an arm rest between them and both of their robes drape over the sides of the throne. The mason has thought about the knees and how robes drape over them. As both have ascended to Heaven, they are large figures of an equal size. The scene is not described in the Bible but was a favourite image of medieval art.
Surrounding the Coronation of the Virgin are bosses depicting the Tetramorphic symbols of the 4 Evangelists. The association is not recorded in the Gospels, but the beasts are mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation. There is no direct link to the Evangelists. However, in the early medieval period the idea grew and was developed by the Benedictine monk, Rabanus Marus (c. 780 to 856). Incidentally he studied under Alcuin, that wonderful scholar from York who worked at the Carolingian court.
The symbols are part of expressing the Life of Christ. Below are the 4 Tetramorphic symbols in the Abbey that surround the boss of the Coronation of the Virgin.
Christ in Majesty (Maiestas Domini)
Christ is seated in Heaven and holding his hands up. The stigmata are not present but probably would have been when carved and painted originally. Beneath his feet is a globe (representing the earthly world). His robe is spread out across the boss with a great emphasis on folds – the mason who carved this is really demonstrating his expertise in naturalistic folds, especially around the knees. I suspect the Victorian restoration gave his beard a less medieval look and a more contemporary one. His hair is stylised and I would expect a beard to have a more distinctive wave. His chest should also have been bare – but the Victorians gave him an undershirt.
Detail of Christ in Majesty
Christ in Majesty – This shows the decoration around each boss. The wave lines of a star come out across the ribs of the vault.
The Angel bosses supporting Christ in Majesty hold symbols of the Passion. Below are 2 of them:
Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888)[xiii] – Restored the bosses in 1878.
The bosses are an extraordinary survival from over 670 years ago. They would have been high up in the vault and the detail not exactly visible from the ground. However, they are detailed in the story, and I wonder if the monks at the time they were created saw them before they were put in place. They would then have the information for didactic instruction. This could be passed on to successive generations of monks. Maybe cartoons of the images were kept. The Life of Christ could be followed down the nave for educational and contemplative experiences.
[i] ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priories of Cranbourne and Horton’, in A History of the County of Dorset: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 70-73. British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/dorset/vol2/pp70-73> [accessed 25 September 2021].
[ii] Chisholm, Mary, ‘The Benedictines from Italy to England – From Order in Rurality to Urban Powerhouse’, Exploring Building History (2021) https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/the-benedictines-from-italy-to-england-from-order-in-rurality-to-urban-powerhouse/ [accessed 25 September 2021]
[iii] McAleavy, Tony, Life in a Medieval Abbey (English Heritage), p.54.
[iv] McAleavy, p. 55.
[v] McAleavy, p. 54.
[vi] Anthea Jones, Tewkesbury Abbey: The Victorian Restoration Controversy (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2012) p. 25.
[vii] Richard, K. Morris, Tewkesbury Abbey: The Nave Roof Bosses (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2008), p. 10.
[viii] Jones, p. 25.
[ix] Morris, pp. 10-11
[x] ‘Tewkesbury Abbey and its Associations (With plates and a plan)’, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:8_of_%27(Tewkesbury_Abbey_and_its_Associations._(With_plates_and_a_plan.))%27_(11247576836).jpg[accessed 24 September 2021].
[xi] ‘Giotto – Scrovegni – 31 – Kiss of Judas’, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-31-_-_Kiss_of_Judas.jpg [accessed 24 September 2021].
[xii] ‘Duccio di Buoninsegna – Flagellation’ Wikimedia Commons, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Flagellation_-_WGA06807.jpg> [accessed 24 September 2021].
[xiii] ‘Thomas Gambier Parry2’, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Gambier_Parry2.jpg[accessed 24 September 2021].
Chisholm, Mary, ‘The Benedictines from Italy to England – From Order in Rurality to Urban Powerhouse’, Exploring Building History (2021) https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/the-benedictines-from-italy-to-england-from-order-in-rurality-to-urban-powerhouse/ [accessed 25 September 2021]
‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priories of Cranbourne and Horton’, in A History of the County of Dorset: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 70-73. British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/dorset/vol2/pp70-73> [accessed 25 September 2021]
Jones, Anthea, Tewkesbury Abbey: The Victorian Restoration Controversy (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2012)
McAleavy, Tony, Life in a Medieval Abbey (English Heritage)
Morris, Richard, K., Tewkesbury Abbey: The Nave Roof Bosses (Much Wenlock, R.J.L. Smith & Associates for the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 2008)