Sunday, 8 January 2017


Sunday included a feature about a 14th Century alabaster statue of the Virgin and Child - a rare survivor of the tsunami of iconoclasm that struck England in the wake of the Reformation, when most religious images were either destroyed or lost. The British Museum acquired it last month and Ed Stourton talked to curator Lloyd de Beer about it. It does look a very lovely thing.

The statue, made in the Midlands around 1350, shows the standing Virgin crowned as the Queen of Heaven, holding a flowering branch in one hand and the Christ-Child in the other. Christ is holding a golden orb. The material is translucent white English alabaster - the statue being one of the earliest examples of English uses of that material. Though it's all a bit brown-looking looking now (due to having been lacquered at some stage), traces of the original paint emerged during restoration.  

Such statues were still allowed under Henry VIII. It was only statues of Thomas Beckett (I think I can guess why Henry wouldn't reckon much to him!) and the Mass of St Gregory (wonder why? Something 'mass'-related?) and the like that were destroyed. Under Edward VI, however, all religious imagery was banned and the iconoclasts smashed pretty much everything - either destroying it completely or leaving it as rubble. It's because they were so thorough that so few such statues now exist.

How did this statue survive? The British Museum isn't sure. The Midlands artisans who made it did sell a lot directly to the continent at the time, so it could have gone straight there, or it could have been sold to continent at the time of the Reformation. It went via Belgium to France. It somehow survived the French Revolution, despite being removed from a church there. It was re-donated to a church in Belgium in the 19th Century. 


  1. A timely reminder that a small minority of extreme ideologues have previously taken over our country and made it a less lovely place. It can happen very quickly.

  2. The 'Mass of St Gregory' was the Roman rite, used in Rome and many other parts of Europe: it was the rite which was codified and standardised by St Pius V after the Council of Trent later in the century. At that time in England the normal Mass (other than the rites of some specific religious orders like the Dominicans) was the Sarum rite. There isn't a huge amount of difference between them - no theological difference at all, just some variation in the prayers and ritual - but the connection with Rome was the thing that Henry wanted to avoid.

    1. That explains it! Thank you, Sue.

  3. If I might add something to Sue's comment:

    I am familiar as a traditional Catholic layman with the traditional Roman rite of Mass. I understand that the Sarum rite was very similar. (Some people say "Sarum use" instead of "rite", because the differences with the Roman rite, from which it derived, were so small.) It died out in England, as Sue says, after Bad King Henry's time; suppressed by Edward VI, it was revived by Mary and I think in practice replaced by the Roman rite under Elizabeth I following the Roman rite's promulgation worldwide by St Pius V in 1570.

    But I'm getting off the point I wanted to make, which is as follows.

    In the Victoria & Albert Museum there is currently an exhibition of mediaeval English embroidery, mostly sacred vestments. There are also some other, related, items on display, chosen, I think, because they illustrate similar artwork to that depicted in embroidery in the main theme of the exhibition. One of these items is a Sarum Missal (manuscript, naturally), shown open at the central part of the Mass, the Canon "Te igitur clementissime Pater..." I know that prayer a little, and although my Latin is poor and I find mediaeval script hard to follow, I thought it would be fun to try to read it. At the bottom of the page it reaches the point where the priest is to pray "una cum famulo tuo Papa nostro..." ("together with thy servant our Pope..."). But as I read it it seemed that something was odd. Looking more carefully, "Papa" had been scratched out and the conveniently similarly short word "Rege" ("King") written, in a different and slightly less skilled hand, in its place.

    That was, for me, the most interesting thing in the exhibition. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to feature in the exhibition catalogue.

  4. I should also add that the statue is beautiful, and that Nottinghamshire was famous for its alabaster work. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    Also, that you are right about Henry's hatred for St. Thomas' cult. But it wasn't just St. Thomas; shrines all over the England were supressed. I think St. Thomas' at Canterbury was the best known; second, I think, was Our Lady at Walsingham, to which Henry himself had made pilgrimage only a few years before making pillage, including destruction of a famous statue.

    1. Thank you, Simon. That's highly illuminating.

      Radio 4's Christmas Day edition of 'Sunday' featured another Sarum Missal (from 1515) from which every mention of 'Papa' had been scribbled out. Fr Anthony Howe, Chaplain to the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court, said that "every missal that was used in England at the time that survives will have the Pope's name crossed out throughout". His explanation was that Henry was trying to make himself 'the English pope'.

      In a recent episode of Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' Melvyn Bragg said, in passing, that he thinks that what Henry VIII and Edward VI and their iconoclasts did to the cultural fabric of England was so awful that he finds it almost too painful to think about because it makes him so angry. I knew exactly how he felt. Iconoclasm is a very ugly thing.