• 30 October 2014
  • 11:00 – 11:45 am
  • British Museum

Underneath a pair of cenotaphs in Poet's Corner, traces of brightly coloured Gothic polychromy were found during a refurbishment of the south transept of Westminster Abbey in 1934. Two years later, the removal of these sepulchral monuments revealed a well-preserved pair of Gothic wall paintings showing Christopher Carrying the Christ Child and Doubting Thomas. Since their rediscovery, art historians have celebrated the remarkable survival of these murals as examples of the "Westminster Court Style." In addition to multiple studies of their style and possible workshop, conservators recently examined the technical construction of these large format oil paintings, which measure over fifteen feet in height. However, the unusual iconography of the south transept murals requires further investigation. The composition of both paintings is unique in its emphasis of the physical contact shared between Christ and His saint. Moreover, the location of divine contact upon each saint?s body corresponds with a specific corporeal relic enshrined in the abbey. The arm of Saint Thomas, which Christ forcefully inserts into His bleeding wound in the Doubting Thomas mural, was given to the abbey by saint-king, Edward the Confessor (r. 1043-1066, canonized 1161). A jeweled ring with an inscription from Saint John's account of the Incredulity was added to the Apostle's reliquary under the orders of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272). The same Plantagenet king also donated portions of Saint Christopher's head relic to Westminster, which the Divine Child tenderly embraces in the Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child image. In light of the potential connection between relic and image at Westminster, this paper will offer an elucidation of the devotional context of the Gothic murals in the south transept and it will argue that the paintings performed an imaginative and site-specific cult function

I will compare the inventive iconography in the Gothic paintings at Westminster and with another ground-breaking case study. In 1980, an expansive series of Gothic wall paintings were uncovered in the choir of Angers cathedral. Preserved in excellent condition underneath a wooden screen, the murals remain essentially unknown and unpublished.  Despite their remarkable survival, gigantic scale, and historical importance, no scholar has yet attempted the necessary fieldwork to survey these Gothic paintings. Using scanning technology, I have produced the first comprehensive study of the rediscovered Angers paintings. Surrounding the high altar, the murals fill sixty square meters of wall space in the cathedral apse. The imagery represents the legendary 'Life of Saint Maurille,' who was the first bishop of Angers and whose holy remains are enshrined on site beneath the high altar. The Saint Maurille murals constitute the largest and best-preserved Gothic paintings in Anjou. In this comparison of the patronage of cult murals that display elements of the so-called "Westminster Court Style," I will reveal how the design and production of large-scale images constitutes an experimental practice in the cultivation of faith through sight and touch via image and relic.

About the speaker

  • Emily Davenport Guerry is Junior Research Fellow in History of Art at Merton College, University of Oxford.