I had wanted to visit Norwich Cathedral for a long time – the idea being to inspire trains of thought and imagination. A largely Norman, Caen stone built structure, with a medieval cloister, I went there full of expectation, for the city was one of the wealthiest in the land during the medieval period. I found the cathedral a remarkable place.
A modern bronze sculpture (presumably of Mary and Jesus) of unknown title, by an unknown sculptor, outside Norwich Cathedral
There are a large number of medieval bosses at Norwich – no other church has more than fifteen, whereas the cathedral has an astonishing seven hundred. They are certainly one of the cathedral’s greatest treasures, yet the majority are set too high (at sixty-nine feet) in the nave ceiling to see clearly. Nevertheless, it was believed that they were viewable to God and the cathedral, being built to honour Him, was for that very purpose. I found these bosses particularly interesting and relevant to my work because they depict biblical scenes not in ancient but contemporary dress, as it was felt that the word of God spanned the ages and went deeper than mere fashion. This idea is the basis for my work too – a theme based on human experience that transcends the centuries, but one which is rooted on earlier events.
The northern segment of the Cloister, abutting the south side of Norwich Cathedral (right)
Norwich Cathedral has the largest monastic cloister in England, which was begun in 1297 and finished in 1430, after the plague had devastated the city. The cloister bosses are far more accessible and I soon realised that not only were some depicting scenes rarely shown, but what they represented was relevant to my work. I took many photographs, especially of mystical beings, which I believe are interpretations from the Book of Revelations.
Fig. 3 Fig. 4
Some bosses pictured frightening devils (Figs. 3 & 4), whilst occasionally a minority group was
represented – Figure 5 shows a negro. Negroes were not ridiculed or looked down upon in medieval times; rather, they proved to be something of a curiosity.
Fig. 6 Fig. 7
Fig. 8 Fig. 9
It was apparent that a number of these bosses showed a figure that has become known as the Green Man, for his true name was lost at the end of the Middle Ages. The origins of this figure, though he first appeared in England in the 12th century, may be said to potentially lie in Roman, if not Celtic art. What the Green Man represents exactly, is similarly lost. He is certainly a fascinating and mysterious character, pictured surrounded by leaves (Figs. 6 & 7), mostly with flora issuing from his mouth (Figs. 8 – 10), but sometimes just growing out of his face (Fig. 11).
Fig. 10 Fig. 11
However, what I found particularly interesting, having acquired Jeremy Harte’s book, The Green Man (Pitkin: 2001), was that the figure can represent many different moods – from the wise, through the comedic, to the downright sinister (indeed, demonic). As Harte wrote: ‘Many of the early Green Men were copied from illuminated manuscripts. The interlaced patterns in these books portray a tangled and frightening world, where people are lost to vegetation and things no longer have clear forms, everything turning into something else. Their faces are flat and anonymous; character was introduced later on’ (p. 2). With the arrival of the Black Death, ‘new, horrific visions gain currency, such as the idea of tendrils sprouting out of his eyes’ (p. 10) and the image ‘suggests bodily decay rather than renewed life: the tendrils are like the worms that push out of a corpse’s eyes on medieval cadaver tombs’ (p. 10). The Green Man is an emblem of autumn not spring.
Deformity must have been far more commonplace in the medieval world when compared to our own and this is reflected in some Green Man portraits. Squints and lop-sidedness are sometimes found, for example.
Another feature of the Green Man is one of metamorphosis. ‘Medieval people were more worried than us about transformations, such as a man turning into leaves. Their environment was often insecure, so they liked things to fall into definite categories’ (p. 11). Woods were unsafe places inhabited by non-human creatures, such as forest fairies, who were far from being benevolent creatures, and demons, including walking trees.
I feel that the ideas that lie behind the Green Man could make a good avenue of enquiry for me.
Fig. 12 Fig. 13
As I wandered, I occasionally came across some wonderful reflected light caused by sunlight casting through medieval stained-glass windows upon the Norman limestone columns (Figs. 12 – 14). This light took my breath away, and it struck me that it could act as a wonderful metaphorical tool. Greatly inspired, indeed, elevated, I shall consider integrating this feature into future work – from a judiciously placed splash of unexpected colour, to a potential bathing in coloured light.
Fig. 15 Fig. 16
Figures 15 and 16, which I include for interest and as a contrast (outside a building rather than inside), are photographs I took at West Lexham Church, Norfolk, showing the reflection of part of the south porch on the church’s Saxon round tower, and at Isleham Priory Church, Suffolk, respectively. Whereas Figure 15 shows a reflected man-made architectural feature, Figure 16 shows a plant reflecting on the Norman west wall (and the reflection of a buttress to the right).
Overall, my trip to Norwich Cathedral was a resounding success, not only for the images and ideas that it generated but for the appreciation of how truly jaw-dropping it must have been for those largely village-based medieval people seeing it for the first time.