03.02.23, Nichols, Early Art of Norfolk

Main Article Content

Kathleen Kamerick

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.023


Nichols, Ann Eljenholm. The Early Art of Norfolk: A Subject List of Extant and Lost Art Including Items Relevant to Early Drama. Early Drama, Art and Music Reference Series 7. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. vii, 390. ISBN: 1-58044-34-7.

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Kamerick
University of Iowa

Ann Eljenholm Nichols' inventory of medieval art in Norfolk is a fine addition to the Early Drama, Art, and Music Reference Series, which has also produced subject lists of art in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Chester, and Warwickshire. The EDAM project aims to encourage studies in iconography as it relates to drama, but Nichols' work will be of interest to any scholar interested in medieval religion as this subject list significantly enriches our understanding of the material aspect of the region's devotional life in the late Middle Ages.

Norfolk's early art and architecture have attracted attention since at least the seventeenth century. Barbara Green supplies brief biographies of several of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century antiquaries whose collections and notes still form important sources for historians of the region (286-88). Nichols builds on these earlier works and emphasizes her debt to those "antiquaries, artists, professional conservators, [and] enthusiasts" whose texts and drawings remain essential for many reasons, not least for recording artworks now gone (2-3). In addition, twentieth-century surveys of Norfolk's over six hundred medieval parish churches by H. Munro Cautley, Nikolaus Pevsner, and others, supply considerable information about extant artworks. Numerous studies have also elucidated the themes, styles, and patronage of the glass, wall paintings, painted rood screens, and other artworks in these churches.

Norfolk art has thus been well studied, but Nichols' book provides a more thorough documentation of the religious and sometimes secular images that were crafted in glass, wood, stone, and parchment than has been previously available. Nichols also argues that listing the artifacts by thematic content -- angels, devils, scenes from the life of Christ, apostles, saints, and so on -- should allow scholars to test whether there were "distinct regional styles and devotional preferences" (1). The Norfolk list, for example, proves that biblical scenes appeared more often in art than is commonly supposed (2); marks the interest in local holy figures like the seventh-century abbess Etheldreda; and indicates considerable belief in the sanctity of King Henry VI who appears in pilgrim badges, screens, wall paintings, and other images, one reputedly miraculous. These may reflect regional preferences, but most of the subjects in this list are consistent with major trends in late medieval piety, such as the numerous images of various Eucharistic symbols, including the chalice and host and the pelican in piety, or the images relating to Christ's Passion, such as the pieta, the Man of Sorrows, and the Arma Christi or Instruments of the Passion. Some themes are less expected: the corporal works of mercy are well represented and the worker is usually a woman (248); of the biblical scenes and figures, a surprising number and variety come from the Old Testament.

In addition, Nichols claims that subject lists can provide evidence for the "complex relationship between official feasts and popular devotion" (1). Painted glass and wood depicting the Visitation, for instance, suggest that this feast was popular in Norfolk before it was officially promulgated in England (1, 58). Further, a subject list provides standards for the often complex and frustrating job of subject identification. Saints who commonly appeared together in sets in a region, for instance, may establish patterns that allow a tentative identification of a particular figure (Appendix V discusses sets of saints).

The book is arranged in sixteen major subject categories. The first lists representations of God, angels, and devils; one chapter focuses on Old Testament scenes, and two on the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The life of Christ takes up four chapters, one each for his early life, his ministry, and the Passion, with the final chapter treating images of the Resurrection. Apostles, saints, and the Evangelists and Latin Doctors each receive a chapter, as do "Pastoralia" -- representations of the Creed, the Commandments, the virtues and the deadly sins, corporal works of mercy, and the sacraments. One chapter entitled "End Times" comprises images of resurrection, judgment, and the Apocalypse; another on mortality focuses on the more immediate concerns of death, and so includes several fourteenth-century examples of the well known theme of the Three Living and Three Dead. The "Miscellaneous" chapter catalogs secular subjects such as laborers, the Green Man, animals, scenes from literary works, and even images of men and women in a curious grouping called "degrees of undress" (268). The last chapter, "Unidentified Subjects," describes a number of images for which Nichols can made no certain claim, in the hope that readers may recognize them (280).

The massive amount of detailed information in this catalog is, for the most part, quite accessible. Themes are subdivided, with items in each category arranged first by century, and then listed alphabetically by media. The Introduction explains standards for inclusion and includes a useful Guide for Users that warns of difficulties in dating and identifications, problems in dealing with items that have been moved from their original locations, and -- a consistent theme in the book -- the complexities in interpreting images that have undergone restoration. Nichols provides brief introductions to many important themes in early Norfolk art. She not only describes the typical elements found in the "Crucifix Trinity," for example, but also comments that this was the "principal image at the Cathedral" (21), which likely accounts for its popularity in Norfolk. Summaries of the lives and cults of saints, especially local and obscure saints like Walstan of Bawburgh and William of Norwich, explain the presence and details of their images. Subjects that were especially popular receive more extended discussion; for example, Nichols lists Holy Trinity guilds to demonstrate "the centrality of the Trinity in parish worship" (25), and in her introduction to the "Devotional Images" of the Virgin Mary (108) describes where images of the Virgin were placed in churches, quotes documentary evidence of devotion to them, and cites relevant scholarly studies.

Individual entries are concise and informative, acknowledge uncertainties of identification or dating, and sometimes include quotations from contemporary documents or from antiquarian sources that may provide the only description of a destroyed image. Bequests from wills and other contemporary evidence of patronage are frequently included to give an immediate sense of the place many artworks held in late medieval devotional life. The entry for the famous cult image of Our Lady of Walsingham, burned by reformers in 1538, includes Erasmus's description of it and the reported value of offerings to it in the early sixteenth century.

Damage to artworks is noted, as well as movement from their original locations, and placement in churches that may prevent one seeing them clearly. Throughout the book, Nichols carefully describes restoration work and comments on its reliability. In many instances restoration has made it impossible to discern an artwork's original color (5, 300), accompanying text (14) or details, such as facial expressions in bosses (300). Painted glass is rarely found in its original location (11, 315). Panel screens have been rearranged (306). In addition, the fragmentary remains of certain subjects complicates the interpretation of iconography (310).

Two glossaries of specialized terms and of costume, as well as eight appendices, supplement the subject list. These include several line drawings of distinctive dress items. The appendices take up numerous difficulties in identification and interpretation, and outline work that remains to be done. Appendix I treats the representations of angels, detailing their costume and musical instruments. The second and third appendices focus on the famous bosses of Norwich Cathedral, with diagrams of their placement and Nichols' own identifications and interpretations of certain disputed sequences. Several of the appendices explore how particular themes are treated in various media: Appendix III compares Apocalypse images in the Norwich Cathedral cloister roof bosses with those found in two manuscripts; Appendix IV examines the pairing of prophets and apostles in manuscripts, screens, and glass; Appendix VII compares the listing of the Joys and Sorrows of the Virgin in medieval poems with those found in parish church windows. Appendix V focuses on sets of saints that appear in glass, such as the very common Virgin Martyrs who so often appear together in late medieval art, but also details more distinctively regional groupings. Nichols discusses evidence for the dating and patronage of rood screens, a common feature of Norfolk parish churches, in Appendix VI. Finally, the last appendix looks at the appearance of the Te Deum verses and the heavenly estates they address, which appeared in painted glass, wood, and other media.

The forty-three black-and-white photographs are well chosen for displaying a range of themes and media; the only disappointment is that there are not more, and that none are in color. Nichols cites good reproductions printed elsewhere, in particular the wonderful color photographs of the Norwich cathedral bosses in Stories in Stone by Martial Rose and Julia Hedgecoe (298). Overall, however, this subject list is rich with tables, drawings, and diagrams that clarify the location, appearance, and identification of the images. Ease in referencing themes and places is enhanced by the clear layout and typography, as well as by the Index of Places, which cites artwork in each parish by medium. Nichols' work is a model for such subject lists, and we can hope that volumes on Suffolk and other counties will be quickly forthcoming in this series.

Article Details

Author Biography

Kathleen Kamerick

University of Iowa