Albion, Art, Don and Wen, symbolism, TOLL

Death in Alabaster

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Before we left All Saints church in Bakewell, we had to take our companions into the south transept. I have mixed feelings on placing catering facilities in these venerable churches, vacillating between approval at seeing the life of the community brought into the body of a church that was, for centuries, its heart, and an inherent dislike of seeing such amenities imposed, often tastelessly, upon the ancient fabric of the building. In Bakewell, however, the south transept is kept completely separate from the main church and provides not only a small coffee shop and meeting place, but an area for community activities that has not destroyed the serenity of the church.

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We left the choir with its carved misericords and passed the aumbry, the recessed cupboard that now holds the Bible and records. The door was ajar, giving a glimpse of faded leather bindings that seemed also to open a timeless porthole to another time. Above the aumbry is the memorial to Sir Godfrey de Foljambe (1317–1376) and his wife, Avena. Thomas held the manor at Bakewell in later life and served for a time as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. This mural alabaster monument is a rare survival, with only one other known of its type.

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Now I have to be honest here. I am not a lover of the magnificent tombs of the great, good and not so good. They are a little too much for my taste, but I can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of those who made them and the insights that they provide into the small details of lives long laid to rest. In the Vernon Chapel of the south transept there are a number of such tombs. The two end walls are completely filled with the monuments of the Vernon and Manners families dating back to the 15th century.

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These monuments are ornate and detailed, showing both the adults and children, including the swaddled babes born to the families and lost in infancy. They are of great interest to those who love the period and to anyone seeking accurate depictions of historical dress.

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In the centre of the chapel lies the tomb of Sir George Vernon (d. 1567). The knight lies in splendid accoutrements between his first and second wives, but it is a tiny detail that pleases me the most… a small dog with flowers is curled within the folds of one of the ladies’ robes.

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Sir George was known as the ‘King of the Peak’ as the district is known, but is better remembered as the father of Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, who eloped with Sir John Manners, to marry against her father’s wishes, escaping from a crowded ballroom to meet her lover and ride away to be wed. The families were reconciled, however, and against the southern wall, Dorothy and her husband were also entombed in the family chapel.

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For me it is the simplest of the alabaster tombs that I find most appealing, that of Sir Thomas Wendesley, a knight killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Dressed in chainmail and armour, his helmet bears the coded inscription ‘IHC Nazaren’, which means “Have mercy on me, Jesus of Nazareth”. A richly decorated sword belt lies around his hips, and by this we found a red rose with a handwritten card commemorating the knight.

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What really interests me are the stained glass panels just propped up against the walls in what I can only call great danger of being broken as the chapel is also used as something of a storeroom. Without the light behind them it was almost impossible to make out the details… only the broad, leaded outlines of the figures were decipherable and attempts to photograph them with a view to perhaps being able to see better on the computer were thwarted by reflections. Until Steve had the bright idea of using the light on his mobile phone to illuminate the designs.

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One showed what seemed to be the wine harvest with figures carrying grapes and vines, another an almost domestic scene of a man offering what seemed to be fruits to the woman while she held out a robe… The third, which had looked like the witches scene from Macbeth in the shadows, revealed itself inch by inch as a scene with a torchbearer and three figures around an altar with a sacrificial lamb. The mystery was solved as far as the pictures… now we just have to work out the context.

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But the afternoon was advancing as we left the church. We had the Silent Eye meeting to reach in Stockport… the whole reason why we had all converged on the area from opposite ends of the country. But there was time for tea at Monsal Head, looking down over the deeply cleft valley… and the what would prove to be but the first ice cream of the weekend. There would be others… but all in the name of art, of course….

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