• 31 October 2014
  • 6:30 – 7:00 pm

The designers of medieval churches in East and West adopted from their pre-Christian ancestors the idea of inscribing the exteriors of their buildings with commemorative and pious texts. Such inscriptions worked in two ways, first to convey public information and second to beautify. Neither function was simple, because the setting carried unavoidable associations of piety, authority and eschatology. Although documented testimony to the interpretation of these inscriptions does not survive for the examples discussed in this paper, it is reasonable to think that these associations animated them in various ways for medieval readers (it would be strange to think that people experienced them in a contextual vacuum). Accordingly, the commemorative inscription conveyed not only the patron's name, deed and hope for intercession but also his or her special religious zeal and stake in a community which transcended its individual generations and defined itself according to its church. Pious inscriptions, varying in length from abbreviated sacred names to whole sentences, manifested the religious excitement of patrons, encouraged and admonished viewers to pray, and expressed symbolic and iconographic relationships between parts of or whole buildings and transcendent objects of worship. This last functional characteristic is easy to account for in late medieval English examples because it corresponds closely to the allegorization of Church architecture contained in the Rationale of Durandus of Mende, which infiltrated writing in the vernacular at a time when lay literacy and identification with books was rapidly increasing.

Due to widespread architectural renovation, evidence for external inscriptions in England is largely confined to the late middle ages. Such inscriptions survive from most parts of England, but the group found on churches in Norfolk and Suffolk is distinctive for its variety and legibility. Variety is strikingly attested by the pious inscriptions, which are frequently inflected by local interests and variously positioned to capture attention and convey specific messages. Legibility is largely a function of media: inscriptions projected themselves with special clarity in the combination of flint and freestone that was the favoured type of ornament for the region's church exteriors. Embedded within a black matrix of split flint, the pale letters stood out like words on a page. This clarity inevitably led to their aesthetic elaboration over and above that seen elsewhere in England.

The main aim of this paper is to assess how these pious inscriptions contribute to knowledge of contemporary ideas about Church architecture. With reference to a range of examples, emphasis is placed on the relationship between the content and location of inscriptions and their intended meanings for readers. As aspects of imaginative design couched within larger creative enterprises, and representatives of an ingenious manner of incorporating words into a distinctive, novel vocabulary of architectural ornament, the inscriptions lend themselves well to the key themes of the conference. Their language and appearance encouraged viewers to envisage the sorts of ideal attributes identified by Durandus, and by extension to perceive in the architecture the representation of sublime things. They are also relatable to evolving attitudes to literacy and growth in the laity's relationship to books.