Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Exeter Cathedral: Bishop Stapledon's Lost Reredos

The early 14th century reredos which stood behind the high altar at Exeter Cathedral must be counted as one of greatest lost masterpieces of medieval England. The photo above is a rather feeble attempt by me to reconstruct what it might've looked like c1400, after the Great East Window had been replaced by Robert Lyen and Robert Lesyngham at the end of the 14th century. The photo below right shows the Neville screen at Durham Cathedral which gets mentioned a little further on.

We know that the reredos was constructed in the early 1320s, the brainchild of Bishop Walter de Stapledon. In 1313 Stapledon invited Thomas of Witney to design a canopy for the bishop's throne to install in the cathedral's newly-completed choir. Presumably under Stapledon's direction, the resulting piece of woodwork became what is probably the largest piece of medieval furniture still in existence, towering nearly 60ft (18m) high and covered in intricate detail.

In 1316 Witney arrived from Winchester to take up the post of master mason at Exeter and drew up designs to complete the choir fittings. This included the creation of the sedilia (a stone structure with three seats near the high altar), the pulpitum (a massive stone screen between the choir and the nave) and the reredos behind the high altar. The throne canopy, sedilia and pulpitum still survive and according to Pevsner & Cherry "cannot be parallelled in any other English cathedral". There is no reason to doubt that the reredos was any less spectacular than the other fittings designed by Thomas of Witney for Bishop Stapledon. The photo below left shows part of the tomb of Hugh Despenser at Tewkesbury which might've drawn inspiration from the Exeter reredos.

Work started c.1316 and the reredos was largely complete by 1325. Such was its scale that it even had its own set of accounts which, when combined with the archaeological evidence, at least give some idea of what the reredos might've looked like.

The reredos consisted of a large stone screen which stood directly behind the high altar. It extended across the full width of the choir. The sedilia and the tomb of Bishop Stapledon stood at the ends of the reredos and the sedilia at least was probably conceived as part of the overall composition.

The reredos was at least as high as the sill of the east window and the tops of the pinnacles probably went up even further. The bottom of the screen was made of solid stone inset into which were three doors. These doors were lockable and led into a vestry immediately behind the altar. The upper parts of the screen were almost certainly open and contained canopied niches for statues.

According to Jon Cannon, the reredos "originally contained up to forty-eight separate statues arranged between three delicate tabernacles [i.e. decorated niches], and 12,800 sheets of gold foil were used in its decoration". The niches would've contained miniature stone vaults. There was certainly a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, St. Peter and St. Paul as well as a lily of metal foil. The statues probably represented apostles, prophets and angels all of would've been painted in bright colours.

Veronica Sekules has stated that: "At this date, between 1316 and 1325, such a grand structure, free-standing behind the altar and closing it off completely from the area behind, is exceptional and possibly unique. Very few comparable English 14th-century examples are known".

One of these examples is the Neville screen which stands behind the high altar at Durham Cathedral, described by Henry and Hulbert as "the nearest comparable screen" to the reredos at Exeter and upon which I based the reconstruction. The Neville screen was built c.1380 and so is around fifty years later than the Exeter reredos.

Given the differences in the date it's possible that the reredos not only influenced the open work pinnacle design of the Neville screen but was also the inspiration for other 14th century structures, such as the tomb of Edward II at Gloucester and the tomb of Hugh Despenser at Tewkesbury.

Apart from the canopy over the bishop's throne, the other structure which might give some insight into the appearance of the reredos is the sedilia at Exeter left, designed by Thomas of Witney at the same time as the reredos. "It is very likely that from the design of the sedilia we can to some extent extrapolate the design of the reredos" (Veronica Sekules). The sedilia ranks as one of the finest examples of its kind in the country.

The photo above right shows the rear of the sidilia as seen from the south choir aisle (it's difficult to get a good photo from the front as it's set back in one of the arcade arches and the area in front of the high altar is roped off). It is a structure of breathtaking beauty. The quality of the carving is superb and the forms achieved within the triangular arches alone are works of art in their own right. It is possibly a finer, more subtle, more delicate and inventive achievement even than Witney's slightly earlier throne canopy. Stapledon must've been delighted with it. If the vastly larger reredos was remotely similar, which is in all probability it was, it indicates the huge magnitude of the loss. And that was just the stone framework which was in turn adorned with nearly forty-eight carved and painted statues.

The sedilia has been much restored, particularly by George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s when he inserted around 1400 pieces of stone, and after some war damage in 1942. But its medieval form has survived largely intact and it is stunning, each seat crowned with a star-vaulted, seven-sided canopy on top of which is a three-sided ogee-arched canopy crowned with crocketed pinnacles.

Stapledon's largesse didn't end with just providing significant funds for the reredos. He also funded a silver altar table which was in place in front of the reredos by 1327. When John Leland visited Exeter in the late 1530s he reported that "Bishop Stapledon made also the riche fronte of stonework at the high altar in the Cathedral church of Exeter and also made the riche silver table in the middle of it".

During the Reformation this retable was allegedly hidden within the walls of the Chancellor's House in the Cathedral Close. True or not, the retable doesn't exist today and presumably ended its days melted down and in the coffers of the Tudor court. The Reformation also saw the reredos stripped of all its idolatrous images. Only one small fragment of the statues might still survive, a figure of a king which was perhaps relocated inside the tomb of Bishop Stapledon. Stapledon was beheaded by a mob close to St. Paul's in London in 1326, his body was later returned to Exeter by Isabella of France.

A second fragment above right could've been relocated to the north wall of St Andrew's Chapel. The masonry consists of three gable arches with ogee arches underneath. The design is very similar to the arches at the back of the sedilia. It's possible that these are just a few of the niche canopies from Stapledon's reredos but the fragment could equally have come from the reredos in the Lady Chapel or elsewhere in the cathedral.

Otherwise the great reredos is only present by its absence. The photo left shows one of the arches in the north arcade of the choir, or presbytery. High up on the arch are some scars in the masonry which remain to indicate the minimum height of Stapledon's reredos. Comparison with the chairs on the floor illustrate just how enormous it was.

The back of the stone framework appears to have survived the Reformation up to the height of the east window. It was plastered over in 1638 and painted with a trompe l'oiel perspective. In 1818 the painting and remains of the reredos were demolished. A report in the 'Exeter Flying Post' of that year announced that "on Monday the Cathedral was shut up for the commencing of the new works, of taking down the altar screen, supposed to have been erected in the early part of the seventeenth century, on the scite of the more antient altar of the age of Bishop Stapledon. The screen, now to be removed, is a plain surface, painted in a style of mixed Gothic and Grecian". The report clearly believed that the Stapledon reredos couldn't have been as high as the remaining masonry suggested but hindsight has shown otherwise. The painting and the remaining part of the screen was demolished and that was the end of Bishop Stapledon's reredos.

The reconstruction of the reredos above is highly conjectural and is probably wrong on pretty much everything! I only managed to fit on about half the total complement of statues. It's really just designed to try and convey something of the screen's former magnificence and show how it must've dominated the choir. If anything it was even larger than depicted in the reconstruction. The only thing that is perhaps fairly accurately demonstrated is how the reredos worked in conjunction with the east window to create a vast expanse of iconography at the eastern end of the cathedral. When the reredos was completed the entire east wall would've been filled with colour images, whether in stone or glass. The same view below shows what a devastating impact the Reformation had on English medieval art.



Anonymous said...

Mate, you're doing Exeter a public service with all your updates. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Have you considered possible connections to the design of the reredos at Ottery St Mary? The sedilia there are certainly reminiscent of Exeter, and the the now-lost pulpitum is thought to have resembled Exeter's.

Is there a fund-raising effort afoot to re-build this treasure? I'm sure it could be done with at least reasonable accuracy.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your reconstruction very much! It shows how it would resonate with east window glazing. There was also a screen like this at Peterborough that survived until the Civil War, so we do have an image of it (but not a brilliant one).

Unknown said...

Very beautiful!


Unknown said...

My favorite part about demolition is the wrecking ball. It is interesting how I have never seen it used though. I think it is more nostalgic than popular.


Chad said...

Is everything OK? I see you haven't posted for almost a year, both here and on another forum I know you visit. You're terribly missed, and I hope all is well.

Giovana said...

I love cathedrals like this one. They are amazing to see and I feel like I never get enough time in them. It's very sad that remains of the reredos were demolished. You blog about demolition is very interestin g. http://www.prattcoexcavating.com/demolitions.html

Mike said...

I just wanted to say thank you so much for writing this blog. I have read the whole lot cover to cover and wish there was more! You have switched me on to loads of further reading which I’m looking forward to getting into. One road in Exeter that seems to have very little written about it and next to no old pictures is Northernhay Street (where I live). I guess 100 years ago it was just another street (so why photograph it when there are so many other more beautiful sites around Exeter) whereas now it’s become one of the few streets left in Exeter lined with old buildings. I am going to try to do some digging to find out what I can. Thanks again.

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