• 1 November 2014
  • 10:30 – 11:00 am
  • British Museum

Sedilia are the seats for the priest, deacon and subdeacon officiating at an altar, well known to visitors to English parish churches as a series of three niches built into the thickness of the wall by the altar, decorated with arches and columns, and sometimes extravagant canopies. Such sedilia are largely, but by no means entirely, confined to the medieval kingdom of England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This paper will investigate what this means for the idea of a medieval "national style" and the processes of invention behind it. Rather than seeing the form as diagnostic of an unalterable national character, I use formal comparisons to place what I have dubbed the ?classic? sedilia within identifiable historical contexts that shaped English architecture into its peculiar form, and also the decorative practices of distinctive regional styles.

The Norman Conquest provided an unavoidable legacy of enormous thick-walled buildings built in an extraordinarily short period of time. Beginning with Durham around 1100, a trend develops for extravagant linear surface ornament. Blind arcading grows to prominence as the "Englishman's favourite motif" and in some buildings, its lavish deployment at dado level must have led to its inevitable use as the seating for the officiating clergy. The imaginative jump was truncating these arcades to the minimum three arches, creating a distinctive feature which gained currency as a form in its own right.

The early popularity of the form of the "classic" sedilia in the parish churches of the thirteenth century seems not to be sponsored by powerful churchmen as a way of promoting the liturgy. Instead, following the work of the late Larry Hoey, it is an example of how cathedral-scale motifs were deployed appropriately, selectively and imaginatively by parish church architects. I will demonstrate how sedilia were popular as part of distinct regional styles influenced by the decorative repertoire of influential great churches, leading to an uneven distribution across England.

In the fourteenth century, sedilia become a site of display of the ornamental carving and ogival design so beloved by the English Decorated style. Once a simple, practical solution for mural seating, sedilia now become a site of display for the growing vocabulary of microarchitecture, and become an opportunity for great works of art, such as the sedilia at Heckington (Lincolnshire) and Hawton (Nottinghamshire). Greater churches and cathedrals begin to pay heed to the now ubiquitous tradition, and install new sets at their high altars as free-standing pieces of stone furniture with telescoping canopies, such as Exeter?s. It is this microarchitectural imagination that seems to have had most currency on the continent, and goes with the internationalism of the English Decorated Style that is currently receiving renewed appraisal.

The fifteenth century leads to a drop in the numbers of stone sedilia being built into new chancels. The issues this raises for invention in late medieval English art and architecture and dominance of the Perpendicular as a "national" style of architecture will be raised as an epilogue to this paper.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of James Alexander Cameron

    Dr James Alexander Cameron has studied at Manchester University and The Courtauld Institute of Art. He is a member of the council of the British Archaeological Association, and an editor of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture for Great Britain and Ireland. In 2017 he co-organized the conference Towards an Art History of the Parish Church, 1200–1399 with Meg Bernstein at The Courtauld Institute of Art, which was partly supported by the Paul Mellon Centre.