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Longthorpe tower

June 5, 2011 14 comments
The Wheel of the Senses

The Wheel of the Senses

In many ways, this place is remarkable mainly for being ordinary. A small late C13 tower, attached to a small late C13 hall, not far from a small late C13 church, surrounded by the housing of suburban Peterborough, but of course originally a seperate village in the greater holding of Peterborough abbey. There were two manors here, both occupied by lesser knights holding their lands by grace of the abbey, and this hall-and-tower would have constituted the main family/admin base of one of them: this kind of thing must have once been replicated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times across the country. What’s unique is what survives inside the tower, and was only discovered in the second half of the twentieth century: the complete painting scheme for what must have been this gentry family’s private quarters.  It’s a single room, with a cross vault and lancet windows on three sides: as ever, one is reminded what a stylistic continuum existed between churches and secular buildings, even if the built forms are very different the same overall architectural language populated the landscape.

If this was ever ‘ordinary’, its reminder of the extraordinary — rich, subtle, highly personalised — visual culture in which these people lived. The first wall, that facing south, is comparitively unexceptional, if ‘spending much of one’s time surrounded by customised, colourful, live-size religious images painted on your walls’ can be described as unexceptional. The seven ages of man over the window, and a nativity below, and below that, running in and out of the sides of the windows, several disciples and an Ecclesia. Some nice birds: bitterns, for example: local, fen-edge wildfowl. The Ecclesia breaks the sequence a little; the nativity fits over the window in a rather unusual way; but the basic pattern is standard. The next wall, the east one, gets more interesting. In the window embrasure, a prince meets three deliciously gaunt skeletons, a familiar reminder of the fate that befalls even the most grand of us. Also a standard scene. If you want stark reminders of mortality and the meaninglessness of worldy status painted on your ‘living room’ wall, that is. But set into the window embasure is a little niche with a seat — nothing very grand, just a scoop out of the wall with a ledge in it — and on here is a teaching scene: a young man receiving instruction. We’ll come back to this.

On the main flat wall facing the room, the space’s piece de resistance (and, as far as one can tell, its best-painted scene): a delightful image in which a sober-looking man stands in front of an enormous wheel on the spokes of which are a series of animals. This is a diagram of the kind medieval people often used for teaching, understanding, exposition, thinking. The grand, elegant figure is Reason. The animals are a monkey (Taste), a vulture (Smell), a spider (Touch); a boar (Hearing); and a cock (Sight): not obvious choices to modern eyes, but to anyone who lives with creatures as intimately as these people did — knowing how rapidly a hunted boar will run, or how extraordinary is a spider’s reaction to the slightest intervention in its web — the choices are at once witty and spot-on.Perhaps even monkeys were more common than we realise, as pets or street attractions.  The theme is: our senses are — the Buddhist language is strikingly appropriate — a wheel of suffering, making us no better than the animals. It is our reason that sets us apart. There are other scenes, too, but too battered to be identifiable. The next wall, the north one, is harder to decode, and rather a case apart: there are no sacred scenes, and the dado area contains a fictive tapestry or tile pattern, but the main area contains substantial amounts of heraldry, some of it royal, as well as a couple of Royal figures on thrones; and over the door beneath one of them is what appears to be a BX: the beast the poos on those that attack it. This whole zone addresses the worldly, the secular and the chivalric in a way that the rest of the room does not; it may be no coincidence that it lead to the great hall. It’s also been suggested that it contains implicit political criticisms, either of the benighted Edward II or his youngest son, the ‘turncoat’ Edward of Kent. Which raises the possibility that no one expected this paint scheme to last very long before it was replaced; and adds to our list of things that we might not choose to live with: giant wall-sized permanent political satires, for example; armorial displays; pooing fantastical beasts: none of these have featured much on the ‘makeover your home’ programmes that dominate the daytime TV schedule. Just as a footnote, the theme of pooing over doors may just have had wider legs (or perhaps bottom): there is a pooing king over the door to the slype (another Significant Entrance) at Norwich cathedral. One to watch.

So the ‘heraldic’/’current’ wall faces the most ‘typical’/’religious’ one; and we might expect something both religious and unusual to face the (ritually significant?) east one. The scheme does not disappoint — indeed the west wall is perhaps the most interesting of all. The seasons of the months fly over the top of the arch. In the main scene a cowled, bearded, barefoot figure stands in a wilderness, signified by the presence of rabbits, crows, and a bare tree (the rabbits look as if they might have been painted by a six-year-old). All this is code for ‘hermit’. On the right are two secular figures, one engaged in some well-observed basket making — another local craft.  It’s been acutely pointed out that this must be St Anthony, who encountered a pair of angels in the wilderness; and that this means the angels are depicted having adopted ‘ordinary human’ form, a possibility known to medieval people but rarely demonstrated to have been shown in art. Though given this makes them incognito, one does wonder how many other ‘ordinary humans’ in medieval images might in fact be angels, and moreover how many ‘ordinary humans’ medieval people might have thought were angels, sacred beings undercover.  Anyway, it’s very interesting, this depiction of angels as ordinary people: too unusual to be able to generalise about, but that is part of the point. They might suggest — only suggest, given that we don’t have anything to compare this with — that this scheme, never in the top rank of works or for the top flight of patrons, was nevertheless customised to some extent, rather than bought in ‘as standard’; or perhaps too that certain ideas,  like ‘angels might be among us and look like us’, might appeal to this secular audience.  Underneath this scene are the two largest figures in the room, and (again) one appears to be a teacher and the other a student: the teacher wears a Doctor’s cap. And there is another little ledge in the window here, featuring another teaching scene.

So what was it all for? The family would have spent most of their daily life inthe Great Hall, repairing here for quieter or more enclosed moments. There’s a clear teaching theme in the paintings, as well: one wonders if education was expected to be at least part of the function of this room (and not an unimportant one), and we know informal schools were not at all rare. More likely, we can perhaps imagine the family spending time in here away from the fray, but with an inner circle: a couple of servants and/or clerks very much part of their daily innermost lives. Perhaps the kids are sitting with men like this in the window embrasures, working at some basic grammar, while the grown ups get on with whatever lower gentry types got on with when it was time to relax.

Which suggests again that there’s a customised, one-off element to this: either because of the room’s function, or because of this particular family or lord’s interests at this particular moment in time (which is most likely to have been the 1320s: my Favourite Decade for Art in the World).  In some ways this shouldn’t suprise us: in a world in which all images were handpainted, the cost difference between a one-off and something ‘off the shelf’ may not have been very great. And here, we do have a context: the approximately contemporary, and regionally relevant, Luttrell psalter, also by a small-to-middling lordly patron, also artistically distinctive, also highly personalised. It’s even possible we can draw parallels as to how such a scheme might have been created, cooked up in the case of the Luttrell psalter between the lord (or lady??) and his in-house mendicant monks. We know from the (much later) Paston letters how intimate the relationship between a family and its ‘personal religious’ might be, and how conducive mendicant culture was to thinking in ways that focused on an individual’s personal ‘story’, if the result had the right moral ending. So the patron and his advisor/s become to a large extent the artists, and the painters merely illustrators of themes that they might have cooked up over many satisfying and contemplative winters’ evenings in just such a room as this. Indeed the kinds of conversation in which such artworks were developed is a lost dimension of these people’s lives, creative, intellectual, self-analytical, and of course spiritual. Literate, too: there are words everywhere here, long inscriptions that would have informed and instructed, though few are legible.  And maybe, just maybe, the spritual advisor/intimate in this case is not a mendicant but a university-educated priest, perhaps from Cambridge or even (the date makes this work, but only for a few years) Stamford, hence the presence of a large teaching doctor in one of the west wall scenes. What is the theme? South wall: the Church, the pre-ordained cyle of time, circling around the nativity. North wall: a curious combination of appropriate fuedal respect and rejection of such worldly glories, en route to the hall. East and West walls: rejection of other worldly pleasures, or rather rising above them, like the hermit, like Reason, with the suggestion that if we do we might daily commune by angels (or, if we don’t, it will be noted by angel-spies). Everywhere: education, education, education. Which presumably helps us do this. The theme is repeated three times, knocking Tony Blair into a cocked hat. And everywhere, too the religious is wrapped up in the real, the worldly, the every day: these angels-in-mufti are a world away from the gloried beings who would have been imaged in the nearby church.

One more thing. We don’t have anything on this scale from any other time in the medieval period to compare this with. So such things may have been commonplace at all times, or this may be a lucky chance survival — though I suppose statistically the former is more likely. But once again, the Luttrell psalter forms a context-of-sorts, and together they may arm us to make a specific suggestion about the first half of the C14. This Decorated era is well known for its spirit of restless experiment and customised effect in church architecture: these two works suggest that that spirit might have been much more widespread, and even more interesting and varied, seeking deeply personal and complexly imagistic inspiration from the ordinary lordly home as much as from the hallowed confines of the Great Church.

Education, bitterns, saints

Education, bitterns, saints