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Oak sculptures in St Mary’s Guildhall

April 20, 2023
Author: Abigail Brown, Volunteer Blogger.

Have you seen the remarkable oak sculptures displayed in a cabinet in the Treasury at St Mary’s Guildhall? Four of these sculptures – God the Father, the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and St Katherine – represented the patronal saints of Coventry’s Trinity Guild, whose guildhall they now rest in. They appear alongside St Michael slaying a dragon, and a winged man and an eagle, symbolizing the Evangelists St Matthew and St John.

The Coventry sculptures are surprisingly intact, having survived the iconoclasm of the sixteenth-century Reformation and the bombing of Coventry in World War Two. They are rare survivals of late medieval wood sculpture, yet little has been written about them. They were formerly fixed to the ceiling of the Old Council Chamber, the room adjacent to the Treasury, as seen in a nineteenth-century watercolour now in Birmingham Reference Library. The Old Council Chamber room was constructed between 1392 and the early 1430s, but there is no record of when the sculptures were first installed there. The earliest reference to them is in a letter by Thomas Sharp to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1793. Their flat backs and flat bases suggest that they were designed to be displayed in an upright position, perhaps as part of a church screen. The figures were removed from the ceiling of the Old Council Chamber in 1978 for cleaning and re-displayed upright in the Treasury where they remain to this day.

Anyone familiar with medieval sculpture will recognise the strong resemblance of these sculptures to medieval alabaster sculpture. Many alabaster panels included God the Father as part of a Trinity, the most popular subject recorded in Francis Cheetham’s V&A inventory, English Medieval Alabasters. The representations of God have the same wide forehead, bulbous eyes, coiled hair, forked beard, large crown, orant hands and long fingers. A flat-based alabaster figure of a Virgin and Child in the Museum in Schnütgen in Germany dated to the mid-fifteenth century has the same exquisite features, large crown, sloping shoulders and cascading drapery as the Coventry Virgin. The inside of her mantle is painted red, and the crown, sceptre and hair are gilded. The Coventry Virgin was probably painted and gilded in the same way although no traces of paint remain visible to the naked eye.

Alabaster was mined in Derbyshire and the centre of alabaster carving was Nottingham, although there were ‘alabasterers’ in Coventry too, at least one recorded as a member of Trinity Guild. These wonderful oak sculptures were probably carved by craftsmen from the Midlands with knowledge of alabaster carving, although they are more refined than other surviving local examples in alabaster – rather naïve representations of St Denis and St Lawrence excavated from the grounds of St Anne’s Charterhouse and now on display at the Parish Church of the Most Holy Sacrament and St Osburg.

These oak sculptures are an enigma – the question of who made them, where they were originally intended for and how they came to be in St Mary’s Guildhall remains.

Sources

Cheetham, Francis, English Medieval Alabasters with a Catalogue of the Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Woodbridge, 2005)

Lancaster, Joan, Research Papers of Joan Lancaster, Notes, Coventry Archives Ref. PA1434/12

Lancaster, Joan, St Mary’s Hall, p. 63

Sharp, Thomas (published anonymously), The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. LXIII, Part 2, 1793

Sharp and Fretton, Illustrative Papers, p. ix.

Footnotes

[1] Thomas Sharp (published anonymously), The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. LXIII, Part 2, 1793, p. 1163, identified as Sharp in Sharp and Fretton, Illustrative Papers, p. ix.

[1] Joan Lancaster, St Mary’s Hall, p. 63; for date of cleaning, see Research Papers of Joan Lancaster, Notes, Coventry Archives Ref. PA1434/12.

[1] Francis Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters with a Catalogue of the Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Woodbridge, 2005).

Abigail Brown studied medieval art at the Victoria and Albert Museum and The Courtauld Institute of Art and wrote her MA dissertation on the Coventry sculptures.

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