09.01.03, Reeve, Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral

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Richard W. Pfaff

The Medieval Review baj9928.0901.003


Reeve, Matthew M.. Thirteenth-Century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral: Art, Liturgy, and Reform.. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. xiii, 175. ISBN: 978184333314.

Reviewed by:
Richard W. Pfaff
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Salisbury is often presented as a kind of paradigm of all the medieval English cathedrals, the one easiest to offer to students as "representative" or even "typical." This is partly because the building has rare architectural coherence, having been constructed (save for the tower) inside of one long generation, c. 1220-6, and on a virgin site, without earlier connotations. Further, the chapter of clerics who moved there around 1225 from the earlier, unsatisfactory hilltop location at Old Sarum were an unusually well organized body and, burdened neither by monastic rule nor by the bones of a great saint, free to express themselves in details of decoration and worship pretty much as they pleased. And each detail, individually and collectively, is worthy of study both for what it says about that cathedral and what may be extrapolated about to illuminate medieval ecclesiastical history.

Matthew Reeve's ambitious monograph centers on his explication of one of the most notable decorative features at Salisbury: the program of the now largely effaced painting of the vaults over the choir, sanctuary, eastern transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The history of these paintings is in itself a fascinating story, one laid out by the same author (with O. Turner) in a useful paper in the Antiquaries Journal 85 (2005), 57-102. In brief, this cycle, which he maintains "undoubtedly ranked among the grandest displays of painting from thirteenth-century Europe," was "whitewashed at the end of the eighteenth century and then repainted at the end of the nineteenth, and the only parts of the original paintings now visible are the shadows of angels behind the whitewash of the eastern transept vaults" (2). Fortunately, however, before the paintings were whitewashed they were described carefully by the antiquarian Richard Gough, whose transcript of 1789 (now MS 2215 in Lambeth Palace Library) is reprinted in an appendix here. Further, sketches were made by Gough's draftsman, Jacob Schnebbelie, and these are reproduced in color on eight of the seventeen excellent color illustrations.

So far we are on solid, if faded, ground. From the careful reconstruction of what was in existence by roughly the middle of the thirteenth century, Reeves develops an ambitious argument that centers on the ideology of reform (his term) highly prominent in the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 and worked out in England by a notable band of churchmen ranging from Stephen Langton to (St) Edmund Rich. He maintains that much of the planning and decoration of Salisbury expresses this program, and ascribes conscious implementation of it to key figures there--above all, Richard Poore, dean 1197-1215 and bishop 1217-28.

As well as being intellectually challenging in its overall thesis, this monograph is full of large assertions that call for discussion at a length impossible, and inappropriate, in a review. Here it will be feasible to adduce only a few. A primary contention is that Salisbury "was a building conceived in specific circumstances: self-consciously designed as the flagship of and a vehicle for thirteenth-century church reform in England" (10). Related to this are what is presented as two "products of reform": "the composition of the cathedral liturgy, which was expanded, revised, and codified into what is now called the Use of Sarum in the second decade of the thirteenth century, contemporary with the planning out of the cathedral site," and "the expansion of legislation at Salisbury on pastoral care" (14).

Assessment of the first of these assertions depends initially on ascertaining who is, or are, supposed to have designed the new cathedral: something that we simply do not know. Reeves is sensibly cautious here, maintaining only that the general assumption is probably right, "that the original design was formed within the immediate circle of Richard Poore and his eruditi at Salisbury" (32). He offers much useful documentation of what can be known about the various building stages, and also stresses the likelihood of considerable continuity between the worship patterns--especially in matters like processions--followed at the new cathedral with those observed at Old Sarum. And he makes a convincing case for Salisbury as a "modern" building, free of allusions to buildings of antiquity. But that there is an overt sense in which this is a "reformed" building remains, as long as we have no hard knowledge about who actually designed it, a hypothetical rather than a demonstrated proposition.

Similarly, the notion that the Use of Sarum was confected as early as the second decade of the thirteenth century, while it may possibly be true, is incapable of being substantiated from the available evidence. Despite elaborate chains of inference, forged so long ago as to be almost rusty, the fact remains that the earliest manuscript of a Sarum ordinal that survives (BL Harley MS 1001) dates from roughly a hundred years later and comes from a Suffolk village. Any statement about Sarum Use in the time of Richard Poore has to be muffled in such caution as to be nearly inaudible; there are, almost certainly, no liturgical texts that witness to that Use as early as the 1210s.

Argument from the spate of episcopal legislation and of treatises bearing on pastoral care is much easier to support, key monuments being the statutes of Richard Poore as bishop and the Summa confessorum of Thomas of Cobham, subdean of Salisbury from about 1214 to 1233. The question here is one of relevance to the new cathedral. Although its canons were supported by prebendal estates most of which included at least one parish church, the degree of their direct involvement in pastoral care must in many cases have been slight. It is true that the thirteenth century predecessors of Trollope's Josiah Crawley were provided with unprecedentedly precise instructions as to their pastoral duties, but it was still they--the parochial vicars--and not the Dr Arabins of the rather distinguished cathedral chapter who performed them.

Another basic contention of this book, that Salisbury's architecture and decorative imagery form a kind of Gesamtwerk, may, while certainly plausible, say more about our ideas concerning congruity than about anything demonstrably medieval. It may not be an exaggeration to summarize the building as "a positive and brilliant reflection of the modernist vision of the reformed church" (49), but it seems something of a stretch to claim that the largely biblical imagery of the vault painting in the eastern arm is a decorative expression of this vision. The subjects seem quite conventional: Old Testament worthies, mostly prophets, over the three bays of the choir; Christ and the twelve apostles over the presbytery (in the diagram that forms ill. 1, "St Simon and Judas" should be "St Simon and St Jude," always paired); the Labors of the Months over the three bays of retrochoir / Trinity Chapel; and a variety of imagery, mostly having to do with angels, over the eastern transepts. Though Reeeve demonstrates convincingly that "the entirety of the polychromy was executed in the 1230s and 1240s as an integral component of the cathedral church" (67), the complementary assertion that "the likelihood that the cycle was part of the original conception of the building before 1220 suggests the original authorship of Richard Poore and his intimate circle of clerics" (72) seems questionable, implying as it does a kind of "iconography sub-committee" of the Chapter drawing up, in the troubled and busy second decade of the century, a program of imagery to be implemented eventually.

Overall, the matter of originality bulks large, and its handling here is troubling. In a key sentence, Reeve states that "it was a feature of the intelligence that lay behind the composition of the liturgical imagery as Salisbury that the angels could reference a specific, and very pregnant, moment in the liturgy of the Mass" (96). That moment is identified as the section in the Canon of the Mass which asks that the consecrated elements "be borne by the hands of the holy angels to thy altar on high," words adduced as "a feature [sic] of the Mass of Sarum Use" (97). But they are, far from being distinctive to Sarum, part of the so-called Gregorian Canon, the standard form of prayer of consecration used at most churches in western Europe from at least the ninth century on. No more distinctive is the votive Mass De angelis, often celebrated on Mondays, in a rota of votives that probably goes back to Alcuin. As well as not being particular to either Salisbury or the thirteenth century it was not, as is also stated here, peculiar to Advent; the rubric after this votive in the printed Sarum missals of the late middle ages concerns the next Mass, not the previous one.

That one section epitomizes the book's marked shakiness with respect to detail. The reference given there, to Dickinson's edition of those Sarum missals, should be to columns 738*-41*, not to "pp. 738-41" (the columnation and double-numeration of that edition have tripped up more than one student). Further, Dickinson's edition is cited inaccurately in note 80 in respect of author's name, title, and place of publication alike; and--further still--one wonders why it was used at all: J.W. Legg's of 1916 is based on three manuscripts, the oldest of which is close to being contemporary with the program of decoration Reeve discusses.

This is not the only section where, disagreeable as it is to have to point out, vigilance is necessary. Landmines for the unwary lurk from the introductory pages (pp. 2-3: Richard Poore was dean, not archdeacon, of Salisbury before becoming bishop [a boner repeated on p. 20 but rectified later], and Conrad was prior, not archbishop, of Canterbury; Beverley was a secular minster, not a monastery) to the appendices of transcriptions of the texts that accompanied the paintings, where the Latin is impossible in at least ten places. Other problems with Latin are encountered on pp. 89, 92, 97, 111, 119, and 120. There were not 106 canons of Salisbury (85), but roughly half that number, for each of whom there was in theory a vicar hence the misleading count. BL Add. MS 34807 is not a "fifteenth-cent Use of Sarum MS" (24, n. 46); it is rather a composite manuscript of miscellaneous tracts, including seven leaves of the pseudo-Ambrosian Liber de gradibus virtutum which, the rubric states, legitur ante primam in ecclesia Sarum, but is unrelated to liturgy there. In the Bibliography four authors would be untraceable as given (Baltzer, not Baltzar; F[rancis].H., not H. Dickinson; Heironimus, not Hieronimus [under Henry of Avranches]; Oakeshott, not Oakshott), and there are many smaller errors in citation (e.g., W.H. Bliss's Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers is not part of the Rolls Series).

These errors are all the more a pity because the book is in many respects valuable as well as readable and attractively produced. It is certainly the case that, as Reeves states disarmingly, "there is something in it to interest and upset everybody" (11). If this review has suggested a preponderance of the latter reaction, it should not be taken to suggest that the former is not equally possible.

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Richard W. Pfaff

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill