• 31 October 2014
  • 12:00 – 12:30 pm
  • British Museum

This paper sets out to explore the process of invention and imagination in British medieval art and architecture by studying the commissions of an exceptionally prolific and influential fourteenth-century patron, whose building projects are among the most original works of art commissioned at his time. During his thirty-seven year long tenure of the see of Winchester, William of Wykeham (c. 1324-1404) financed and saw through the foundation of two academic colleges in Oxford and Winchester, the rebuilding of several episcopal palaces and the complete refurbishment of the nave of his cathedral.

While the innovatory quality of the building complex of New College, Oxford, has long been recognized, the wealth of ideas that characterised other projects of the bishop has been less well understood. The paper will make use of Wykeham's rich patronage and the written sources (such as college statutes and his chantry provision) that provide an insight into his motivations to investigate why and how a patron and his building team developed new ideas and sought unusual architectural solutions.

The paper will focus on the unique design of Wykeham's chantry chapel in Winchester cathedral, which is the result of bold architectural experimentation. Situated between the piers of the fifth bay of the nave, the chapel is framed by lateral screens surmounted by a triple arcade on mullions stretching right across the height of the nave piers. As Wykeham was also supporting the Perpendicular remodelling of the nave, the construction-works underway allowed to neatly fit the chapel into architecture of the church. However, the chapel was not conceived as an unassuming insertion, but as a disruptive force within the rhythm of the nave, which necessitated serious modification of the nave-fabric. As I would like to show, close examination of the upper part of the structure suggests that concerted efforts were made to implement the chapel's distinctive design even after parts of the remodelling of the nave had already been accomplished. The paper will analyse the function, planning and the unusual design of the chapel to understand how the patron and his architect exploited opportunities that arose from the rebuilding of the nave to create an exceptional memorial space for the bishop.

Showing the multifacetedness of Wykeham's patronage the presentation will then briefly look at his commissions of stained glass for his college chapels of Winchester and Oxford. I would like to read them in a new way and argue that the college-founder showed great imagination by decorating his college chapels with the well-established iconography of the tree of Jesse, whose imagery of a flourishing vineyard and a virgo lactans closely related to the metaphoric language that described knowledge acquisition and intellectual growth in the foundation documents of Wykeham's colleges and the medieval English university in general.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Veronica Decker

    Veronika Decker received her PhD in Art History at the University of Vienna with a thesis on the art patronage of William of Wykeham. She has been teaching on Gothic art and architecture at the University of Vienna and is currently a postdoctoral investigator in a research project on the visual representation of rulership in cities of the Habsburg Empire from Ferdinand I to Joseph I (1526–1711) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her book William of Wykeham als Collegegründer und Bauherr: Architektur und Glasmalerei zur Zeit Richards II was published by Solivagus-Verlag in 2017.