Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.32, Heslop, et al., eds., Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia

13.09.32, Heslop, et al., eds., Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia

Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia began, as the book's acknowledgements reveal, as a collaborative project called "Icon: 2000 Years of Art and Belief in Norfolk." Most of these essays are, in fact, about the English county of Norfolk (only two focus on Suffolk; a few briefly invoke Ely or neighboring Cambridgeshire), but, although the first essay after the introduction is entitled "But Where Is Norfolk?," if you have to ask this question, this book was not written with you in mind. This is a big, bold book preaching to the choir, speaking with conviction to those who already know and love Norfolk on the subject of the extraordinary richness and mesmerizing contradictions over very long time of the devotional life of the ancient kingdom of the East Angles. "The volume is," as the introductory essay "On Faith, Objects and Locality" describes it, "a set of ideas, thought and suggestions about why the relationship between the sacred, the artefactual and the worked landscape is so compelling and so enduring in our region" (4). That clear sense of "our region" reverberates throughout. Despite, for example, the book's avowed purpose to map a local social and political geography of material devotional culture ranging from pre-Roman votive carvings to Victorian churches to 21st century Buddhist meditation paintings, nowhere in its pages was it deemed necessary to offer either definition or actual map situating East Anglia for readers. Nor, despite the editors' disclaimers about the book not being "within the conventional constraints of academic discourses" (18), does it anywhere offer a contributors list that would make clearer to outlanders in just what ways these unidentified contributors of Norfolk-speak (who include senior academics and museum curators as well as independent scholars and enthusiastic local historians) are eschewing "the disinterested and largely disembodied voice associated with conventional scholarship" (18). In fact, this book is, as the best scholarship both professional and amateur usually is, an entirely invested and embodied volume, showing in twenty well-informed, readable, and lively essays, the power and the people of place.

These richly illustrated essays bridge many disciplines including archaeology, history and art history, folklore, and environmental studies and they are often essays in lively and productive debate with each other: The essays by Carole Hill and Chris King, for example, offer two different readings of the implications of late-medieval changes made by the Norwich civic authorities to festival street processions of the city (111-116; 181). Tim Pestell reads the apostasy of the East Anglian King Raedwald (d. c. 620) as "a symbolic rejection of his baptismal sponsor Aethelberht of Kent's overlordship, illustrating the intimate link that frequently existed between political and religious life in Anglo Saxon England" (69), while Francesca Vanke reads Raedwald's "pluralism" as "the earliest known example of this tradition of tolerance" in East Anglia (207). David King considers the profusion of angels in the stained glass of late-medieval Norfolk churches to have been motivated primarily by "the desire and an obligation to induce praise and acclamation of God," a motive that he maintains is "sometimes neglected and maybe taken for granted" by art historians (131). In their introductory essay Sandy Heslop and Margit Thofner, however, suggest that angels are so prominent in Norfolk churches because they invoke St. Gregory's famous sixth century pun about the English (non angli sed angeli) "and may well have appealed especially to East Anglians, implying that they would join the ranks of their heavenly alter egos on the Day of Judgment" (11).

Yet agreement and recurrent themes emerge over these pages and two millennia: What Adrian Marsden calls "the businesslike" and "the very contractual nature of Roman religion" (52) echo in Matthew Champion's pragmatic reading of the implications of painted cult images of St. Etheldreda at the church of St. Mary the Virgin Lakenheath being eclipsed after the Black Death by images of the more useful plague saint St. Edmund (101-104). And nearly all the essays consider the complex and "nuanced" (a word frequently invoked in these pages) ways that East Anglians appropriated, transformed, and renewed the material devotional objects and spaces of the past: Nicola Whyte, for example, offers an especially insightful essay examining the way that medieval wayside crosses on the East Anglian landscape continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to mark "road junctions, administrative jurisdictions and property boundaries" in "the fluid land market, augmented by the break-up and redistribution of monastic estates" (174). This "ongoing process of the renewal of meaning beyond the time of their original creation" (174) is also theme of Chris King's essay "Landscapes of Faith and Politics in Early-Modern Norwich," an essay that argues that the "process of destruction and rebuilding" after the Reformation "articulated new ideas concerning the nature of sacred space, which became a focus for ongoing religious and political conflicts throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (179).

The book is beautifully produced (it includes seventeen stunning color photographs as well as more than a hundred photographs in black and white) although some readers will quibble that, in a book as wide-ranging in chronology as this one, there was need for a more inclusive index--and, certainly, given its theme, need for a more useful index of topography. The few essays about East Anglian contemporary devotion and religious arts, it might be objected, seem rather an afterthought, not as provocative or insightful as those essays illuminated by the power of the East Anglian past. But without exception, these twenty essays celebrate and are engaged with the mystery of things in place. Indeed, what may bind this remarkable book most of all is the worshipful reverence accorded here to all manner of small things and to the Gods of them--the late-medieval scratched ship graffito on a church pier in a Norfolk maritime parish becomes for John Peake a votive image numinous with meaning, a personal "devotional path...a direct and permanent intervention with the fabric of the church" (161) and a sandal of Mercury incised on a Roman brooch found in a fen (62) or a small fabric heart hidden in a hex jug (244-245) likewise for their fascinated explicators as fully telling in the material language of East Anglian belief as the soaring architecture of a vast cathedral. This book is--as well as is about--East Anglian devotion.