The image screen at Exeter Cathedral is one of the city's greatest treasures. Its vast array of medieval sculpture is of national importance and it contains England's biggest facade of 14th century statuary. Its history and iconography are exceptionally complex so the following account is really little more than a summary!
here. The screen covers around a third of the cathedral's west front, took over a century to complete and went through at least one major modification.
The screen was an afterthought, added to the west front after the main construction work of the present cathedral was completed in the early 1340s. The screen's architect was almost certainly William Joy who had succeeded Thomas of Witney as the cathedral's master mason.
The construction of the screen can be divided into three convenient phases. The first lasted from around 1342 until 1348. The second probably occurred mostly in the 1370s. The final phase is less easy to date but c1460 seems most likely.
Phase I - c.1342 to 1348
William Joy designed the image screen in the early 1340s as two tiers of statues set within a series of ornate architectural canopies stretching across the entire face of the cathedral's west front.
The screen was also to contain the chantry chapel of John Grandisson, the bishop responsible for commissioning the screen in the first place. Three porches were also included in the design: a large central porch over the ceremonial entrance into the cathedral and two smaller porches over the aisle doors to either side, all of which were to be fitted with exterior sculpture.
Details about the exact progression of the screen are unknown. The stone framework was probably constructed first, likened by Jon Cannon to "a massive piece of stone furniture built against a pre-existing wall", and once this was completed the niches were presumably filled with statues as and when they were finished. The photo above right shows one of the better survivals among the demi-angels which form the lowest tier of the screen.
The mason responsible for the sculpture dating from c1342 to 1348 is anonymous. The statues were almost certainly the output of one master mason whose Westcountry workshop specialised in figure work. Stylistic similarities have been found between the mid 14th century image screen statues at Exeter and those on the slightly later Jesse Tree reredos at Christchurch Priory in Dorset. Other examples of his work do survive at Exeter, for example the Annunciation and Nativity scenes inside the south porch and the spandrels around the central porch.
The lowest tier of Joy's screen features twenty-five demi-angels i.e. half an angel depicted from the waist upwards. Many of the angels are depicted playing musical instruments as they emerge from crenellated pedestals like medieval chimney sweeps.
Sadly, given their position on the lowest level of the screen, the angels have suffered particularly badly and in most instances are little more than shapeless blobs of limestone. Many are missing heads and arms but in a number of cases the wings, set further back and with each feather exquisitely carved, have survived to show something of the original quality. They would all originally have been clothed in folded drapery.
Of the twenty-five angels presumably installed in the 1340s twenty-three still remain on the screen. One was replaced c1755 and another by John Kendall in the early 19th century. A third angel above left, beautifully carved by Simon Verity, replaced a weathered lump of stone in the 1980s. It gives a good indication of the once ethereal beauty of the medieval originals.
The photo right shows one of the superb figures carved at this time. Like some of the other second tier figures, the seated king has his legs crossed as a sign of dignity and authority, a motif which appears in contemporary statues on the west fronts of the cathedrals at Lichfield and Lincoln. According to Pevsner and Cherry, the "style of the Exeter figures is characteristic of c.1330-1350: stiffly tortuous attitudes, convoluted tubular folds of drapery, and rather long, solemn faces." It must be these figures which were disparagingly described in 'The Architect' in 1870 as being "afflicted with an energy quite too enormous to describe".
The photo below shows three more of the statues from the 1340s, including the second of the two knights. The head of the right-most king might be a replacement as the crown and features look remarkably well-preserved. Fine detail can still be seen on the knight's right leg.
The pedestals upon which the kings rest each spring from a central pillar rising behind the angels on the first tier. As it rises the pillar branches into three capitals, richly carved with foliage, the flat tops of which form the pedestals for the kings.
These carved kings bring us to the great catastrophe of the 14th century: the Black Death. In 1348 work on the image screen was abruptly halted and it seems that William Joy was one of the plague's victims. Of the twenty-five planned second tier figures perhaps only eleven or twelve had been completed when the Black Death came to Exeter.
Phase II - c.1348 to c.1380
Unfortunately the tomb of one of Exeter's most significant bishops was destroyed during the 16th century. In 1599 John Hooker recorded that Grandisson's tomb "was of late pulled up, the ashes scattered abroad, and the bones bestowed no man knoweth where." The chapel itself was also vandalised, the iconoclasts savaging the carved stone altar piece which today is little more than a mauled lump of limestone.
One survival in the chapel however is a spectacular, rectangular boss of a life-sized Christ. Although greatly retooled it is probably the work of the master mason responsible for the above-mentioned kings and angels. Unfortunately the chapel isn't generally open the public. The photo above right shows the exterior of the chapel. Apart from the mid 14th century statue to the left most of the stone work has been heavily restored.
Grandisson never lived to see his image screen completed. It's possible that as many as fifteen niches on the second tier of the image screen remained without statues at the time of the Black Death and the screen probably remained like this until the 1370s. And then suddenly there's what seems to be a flurry of activity. Between 1375 and 1376 there are records of payments being made to John Pratt, "ymaginator", for work at the front of the cathedral. Pratt's work almost certainly involved creating statues for the empty niches on the second tier.
The north porch was (re)constructed c1377 to the design of the cathedral's latest master mason, Robert Lesyngham. Lesyngham was also responsible for reconstructing the great east window in the 1380s and alternating/rebuilding the cloisters.
The north porch has a little fan-vaulted ceiling, a cutting edge architectural innovation at the time. The porch is probably the earliest surviving example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in Devon. On the exterior is an ogee arch above which, set into Perpendicular blind tracery, are four little niches left. The three surviving statues in the niches probably date to the 1370s and represent the four Cardinal Virtues conquering Vice. Justice, Fortitude and Prudence are still in situ, crushing little figures of Vice under their feet, but Temperance conquering Vice has disappeared completely.
The image right shows one of the statues which might've once stood in the gable above the cathedral's central door. It was carved in the 1340s at the same time as many of the kings on the second tier. Stylistically it is very similar, although this one is shown standing and not sitting. It has been tentatively identified as Melchisedech holding a covered chalice.
The image below is designed to give some indication of what the two-tier image screen might've looked like c.1380, before additions were made in the mid 15th century and when all the statues had been painted in bright colours (the hypothetical central gable isn't included in the reconstruction). Many of the kings once held metal sceptres. The polychromy is based on a reconstruction by Eddie Sinclair showing the screen's painted appearance at the end of the medieval period. During the conservation work in the 1980s microscopic particles of medieval paint were discovered attached to the stonework and from these it was possible to recreate the vibrancy of the screen's original appearance.
Phase III - c.1460It's a possibility that the initial scheme set out by William Joy and Bishop Grandisson in the 1340s was never fully completed and some of the niches of the two-tier image screen remained empty into the 15th century. Either way, the screen appeared to remain relatively static for approximately eighty years from the 1380s onwards until a third tier was added. The exact date of the addition is unknown but it's believed to have been c1460-c1470. The reason for the addition of the third tier is also unknown but it probably resulted in a desire to change the entire screen's iconography. The new tier contained a further thirty-five niches for thirty-five more statues.
The central group on the third tier originally consisted of the twelve apostles, in the middle of which and directly over the great west door was either the Virgin Mary/Christ or Christ/God. The figure representing the Virgin Mary/Christ was destroyed during the Reformation. It was mistakenly replaced in 1817 with a statue of Richard II! Either side of this central group are two of the Four Evangelists, St. Matthew and St. John on the north buttress and St. Luke and St. Mark on the south buttress. On the north and south flanks of the third tier are the prophets. Fifteen statues of the prophets survive from the mid 15th century. The image below shows a photo of the third tier statues on the image screen with labels showing how the figures are divided up. Click on it for a larger version!
Five of the twelve apostles are certainly identifiable. The photo above left shows a detail from the statue of St. Bartholomew holding his flayed skin (which rather gruesomely retains the inverted outline of his face). The three statues below depict from left to right: St. John holding a poisoned chalice and serpent; St. James the Great dressed as a pilgrim, holding a staff and with a scallop-shell on his hat; and possibly the medieval version of St James the Less holding a fuller's bow used in the manufacture of cloth.
Only some of the apostles have been identified with much certainty. Unfortunately the prophets are largely unidentifiable. They would've once had scrolls with their names on but these are long gone. As sculpture, the prophets are aesthetically similar to the apostles with sharply defined, angular robes. Many of the prophets are also wearing hats.
The photo right shows two more of the apostle figures. The statue on the right is possibly St. Matthew holding a moneybox. The figure on the left is unidentified.
Dismissed as "dead and lumpy" by an architect in 1870, the 15th century statues don't have the enormous vigour of the mid 14th century kings below but their glowering countenances do possess an intense 'Old Testament' gravitas
What were probably empty niches on the second tier were also filled at this time. Chief among these are four figures representing the Four Doctors of the Church: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory and Jerome. Two on each side of the screen, they stand in niches below the four evangelists whose gospels they explained.
All of the 15th century additions would also have been painted. The image below, again based on Eddie Sinclair's reconstruction, shows how the completed image screen might've looked c1500. It would've been a spectacular sight as the sun set in the west. Very little of the medieval paint survives. The red colour visible in some of the photos above is the remnant of red paint applied widely across the screen in the 17th century.
Major Restoration - 1805 to 1985
The statuary has decayed dramatically over the last two hundred years. A combination of a build-up of soot from coal fires and aggressive cleaning in the 20th century has resulted in a significant loss of detail. I think it was Edith Prideaux who, at the beginning of the 20th century, described going to the west front the morning after the city's annual bonfire had been lit next to the cathedral and seeing pieces of stone work which had flaked off through the intense heat.
The screen underwent significant restoration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The crenellations and angels at the tops of the north and south sides of the screen were completely replaced between 1805 and 1829 by John Kendall (these have since been replaced again). Kendall also placed the statues of King Athelstan and Edward the Confessor on the buttresses above the screen, gave three of the Four Doctors new heads and refaced the bottom 3ft of the screen.
Twelve of the elaborate canopies above the central figures were replaced in 1838 along with the open parapet at the top of the central section.
In 1865 a statue of William the Conqueror by E. B. Stephens left replaced a mid 14th century statue on the second tier which had allegedly been destroyed when someone tried climbing the screen in the early 19th century. He also added what could've been a second statue of James the Less to the third tier. A large number of the remaining medieval canopies were replaced in a major restoration between 1899 and 1913, much to the fury of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.
Relatively little of the medieval exterior stone work now survives on the image screen, the main exceptions being the decorated porches and the statues, which have fortunately remained relatively untouched. It is surprising that only one statue, depicting the Virgin Mary/Christ, is known to have been destroyed during the Reformation, although it's possible that a statue on the second tier was also destroyed at this time. (Only the lower part of this statue still survives. Holding an orb, it could've shown either St. Radegund or a king.) The image below is an animated stereoscopic view of the image screen dating to c1865.
It's possible that on the 14th century version of the image screen the kings on the second tier were the twenty-four elders mentioned as gathering around the throne of God in the Book of Revelation: "And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold". These elders were perhaps intended to be representatives of the Church. There are twenty-five niches on the second tier, one of which might've been for a statue of St. Radegund, leaving space for the twenty-four elders. But this interpretation is muddied by the presence of what were perhaps four demi-kings and two knights, although the knights might've served some allegorical function.
Another possibility is that the screen was designed by Bishop Grandisson in the 1340s as an architectural and iconographical counterweight to the enormous reredos installed behind the cathedral's high altar by Bishop Stapledon and largely completed by 1325. The reredos contained fifty-four painted statues in niches within a stone screen and would've been similar in appearance to the image screen on the west front. The reredos was largely destroyed during the Reformation. Perhaps Grandisson intended his image screen to show a progression from the worldly authority of medieval kingship, which was itself believed to be derived from God, to the heavenly authority depicted on the reredos.
Without the key figures which probably occupied the gable above the central doorway the intended meaning of the 14th century kings will perhaps remain unknown. The photo above right shows the full three tiers of the image screen with mid 14th century angels and kings on the bottom two tiers and mid 15th century apostles at the top. The photo below left shows two of the prophets from c.1460.
It's not even known for certain that the iconography was complete at the end of the 14th century. It's possible that this only happened when the third tier was added in the 15th century. Or perhaps this addition scrapped Grandisson's 14th century meaning and recycled the iconography of the kings/elders for some entirely different purpose, the possible twenty-four elders reinterpreted as the ancestors of the Virgin Mary.
And it doesn't help that no-one is sure if the 15th century statue on the third tier destroyed during the Reformation depicted the Virgin Mary or Christ. If the latter then the screen might've depicted Christ in Majesty, surrounded by apostles and prophets. As Avril Henry states, "it's not impossible that the [15th century] central group formed a 'Trinity', the missing figure being Christ, while the surviving one (which is bearded) is the Father, the Dove of the Spirit having appeared somewhere in the group". If the missing statue was the Virgin Mary then the screen could've shown the Coronation of the Virgin, which seems to be a widely-accepted theory.
It's a puzzle, but the statues at least survive even if their precise meaning is obscure. They are inspected regularly as part of a conservation programme and are treated with a lime-based coating to prevent further significant deterioration. It's easy to take the image screen for granted when you live in the city for many years, but it really is a spectacular addition to the cathedral. The image below shows the statues on the image screen highlighted in four colours: red = c.1342-c1348; purple = c.1370-c.1380; green = c.1460-c.1480; yellow = post-medieval replacements.