Medieval Memorial Brasses as a Subject for Suggesting Non-Heterosexual Attributes:
Some Thoughts and Experiments
I became interested in medieval memorial group figurative brasses, especially of collections of the children of the main figure(s) brass(es) represented on a stone floor slab, on my numerous visits to Norfolk medieval churches (see, In Search of Medieval Inspiration, Parts 1-5, on this website). I discovered that these brasses fell into two distinct groups. Firstly, there seemed to be a collection of sons and a collection of daughters, separated into two distinct brasses (Fig. 1: the seven sons and one daughter of John and Elizabeth Humpton (d. 1521) found in Sculthorpe Church, Norfolk). Sometimes, age of offspring is acknowledged by increasing size of child, with the tallest nearest the centre of the stone and the smallest nearest the stone’s edge.
Secondly, there seemed to be a collection of sons and a collection of daughters, separated by gender but contained within a single brass (Fig. 2: Cley Church, Norfolk). Whilst they may exist, I have never come across a single medieval case where sons and daughters are mingled.
When husband and wife are being commemorated, the sons are often placed beneath the father and the daughters beneath the mother. I have found this configuration as late as 1641 in the form of John Penn (d. 1641) and family, from Penn, Buckinghamshire. Figure 2, however, seems to be an exception, for below Agnes Symonds (top left), who died in 1508, lies the couple’s four sons (left to right: William, Raufe, Aleyn, John), and below John Symonds (top right), who died in 1511, lies the couples four daughters (left to right: Cecily, Anne, Agnes, Rose). In all cases, both sons and daughters face inwards (and, often, upwards), copying the husband and wife who face one another (and who sometimes hold, rather strangely and conspicuously, their right hands together – e.g. Richard Torrington and wife (1356), Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire – making one of the partners cross their body with an arm). The overall composition is, therefore, one of a family unit.
Figure 3 (detail): The gender divide is clear in 15th century English brasses, as shown by the Humpton brass.
Figure 4: Where the sexes meet – John (left) and Cecily Symonds. Note that the names are upside down so as the reader is not obliged to turn their back to the altar.
Fig. 5 Fig. 6
Figure 5 is an example (but I adore the composition) of the six un-named sons of an unknown man, from Cley Church, Norfolk, dated c. 1450. I produced a lino cut of this (Fig. 6), but I adapted one of the heads – I gave long hair to the second figure from the left (his brothers have relatively short hair) and made his facial features a little less masculine by increasing lip size.
This is highlighted in the detail from a lino cut print (Fig. 7), which is, of course, a reversal. The queer element is thus hidden in plain sight, as it were.
I experimented with a number of colour backgrounds (e.g. Fig. 8) but I didn’t feel they added much to the overall effect that I wanted.
Figure 9 shows William and Katherine Yelverton’s (d. 1481) seven sons, to be found in Rougham Church, Norfolk. I noticed that whereas six sons look forward, one son (second son from the left) looks sideward between two brothers revealing (no doubt as a consequence of the angle, a much rounder, more feminine-like face – Fig. 10); the hair is also slightly longer despite the tip of the head. What does this mean? Is it purely artistic licence or does it signify a genuine difference of some description? I considered these group brasses to be an ideal medium for gender issues for, in my experience, such brasses often simply show, effectively, a replication of a single male or female figure, template-like, with the overall composition merely dependent on the number of sons or daughters the commemorated couple had. The very fact of the usual repeated likeness of figures makes alteration of one of them to represent non-heterosexual very tempting, although I would not apply this to named brasses, despite the passing of many centuries, out of respect, only to merely numerical references or to names of which only the surname is known.
However, all seven figures on the Yelverton sons’ brass are, noticeably, somewhat different and this added greatly to my intrigue; and I felt happier amplifying – at least as I interpreted them – an individual’s features for artistic purposes. Like the Cley church brass above (Fig. 5), the Yelverton sons’ brass is wonderfully composed and the flow of the gowns is particularly effective I feel.
As in the case of the Cley church brass, I wanted to keep as much of the original composition as possible and make minimal alterations to one individual to create my desired effect, with the deliberate intention of largely hiding attributes and features in the overall composition. Figure 11 is a watercolour of the brass where I have highlighted the individual of interest by painting ‘him’ a slightly lighter, paler shade than the others (especially as he contrasts with the two darker figures in the foreground), so that the viewer’s eye is drawn, somewhat surreptitiously, towards ‘him’. Then, the realization that this individual is looking rather curiously at the viewer and not in the direction of all his brothers, begs the question as to whether ‘he’ is something slightly different from his male siblings – it could be sexual, it could be anything, and that’s all the hint that was required in the Medieval period. I also, once again, made very minor alterations to the eye and lip size.