• 1 November 2014
  • 11:00 – 11:30 am
  • British Museum

What can we learn from objects with unusual or unparalleled imagery? My research investigates 'double tombs': monuments that depict the effigies of husband and wife side-­by-­side. In early fourteenth-­century England, this type of memorial was highly unusual and surviving examples are characterised by experimentation and variety of designs. My paper will focus on two monuments with startling and unusual imagery, considering what these sculptures might reveal about the processes of artistic production and patronage in medieval England. I will first discuss a low-­-relief tomb slab in Bredon (Worcestershire), featuring the heads of a man and woman resting on the arms of a cross, a pair of doves rising upwards from the crucified Christ to the disembodied heads. This will be considered alongside a monument at the former collegiate church of St Martin in Lowthorpe (Yorkshire), which shows a tree growing from the recumbent bodies of a man and woman, each of its thirteen branches sprouting a miniature human head. Such novel imagery on fairly modest memorials, apparently made by local workshops, seems to invert traditional art-­-historical models of innovation emanating from the royal courts.

The designs at Bredon and Lowthorpe are related to Christian iconography (a Throne of Mercy Trinity in the case of Bredon, and a Tree of Jesse for Lowthorpe), the sacred images re-­interpreted and adapted in ways that seem to imply a sophisticated understanding of their theological significance. The imagery of the monuments may also have been inspired by contemporary texts: the Trinity was a popular metaphor for marriage in pastoral literature, while married couples were likened to a flowering tree in theological treatises. It is not enough, however, simply to point out possible visual and literary parallels: we must also consider how (and in what form) these models were accessed and the respective roles of patron and artist in designing the monument.

In the case of Lowthorpe, there is also evidence to suggest the involvement of a clerical advisor (John de Hotham, bishop of Ely), further complicating our model of artistic production. One could argue that the monuments at Bredon and Lowthorpe were failed artistic experiments: neither appears to have captured the imagination of contemporaries and their unusual designs were not copied. It is in this failure, however, that we are presented with an opportunity to examine the processes of invention and imagination in fourteenth-­century England.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Jessica Barker

    Jessica Barker is a specialist in medieval art, with a particular emphasis on sculpture. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was subsequently Henry Moore Postdoctoral Fellow. She joined the Courtauld in 2018, after two years as a lecturer in the department of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia.

    Jessica’s research addresses questions of the macabre, gender, concealment and the body. Her monograph, Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture explores the intersection of love and death in funerary art from fourteenth and fifteenth-century England. She has published widely on death and commemoration, with articles in journals including Art History, British Art Studies, Gesta, and The Sculpture Journal. For her next project, Jessica is thinking about practices of care and conservation in the Middle Ages, in particular how attitudes to the material integrity of sculpture might relate to new philosophies regarding the integrity of the self.

    Jessica is one of the conveners of the Sculptural Processes Group, a network for art historians, curators, conservators and artists interested in processes of making across all periods and geographies.