The Strange Case of Dame Mary May's tomb: The performative value of Reflectance Transformation Imaging and its use in deciphering the visual and biographical evidence of a late 17th-century portrait effigy

Jude Jones1 and Nicole Smith2

1. University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, Hampshire, SO17 1BF, UK. Email: J.F.Jones@soton.ac.uk
2. Centre for Digital Heritage, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK. Email: nicole.smith@york.ac.uk

Cite this as: Jones, J. and Smith, N. 2017 The Strange Case of Dame Mary May's tomb: The performative value of Reflectance Transformation Imaging and its use in deciphering the visual and biographical evidence of a late 17th-century portrait effigy, Internet Archaeology 44. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.44.9

Summary

Extent of the pock-marks on Mary May's effigy

In 1676 Dame Mary May commissioned her tomb from John Bushnell, a famous Restoration sculptor, and placed it next to her pew in the chancel of St Nicholas' parish church, Mid-Lavant, West Sussex, where she worshipped until her death in 1681. Tradition has it that after her death from smallpox her relatives obeyed her wishes that her effigy should be faithfully lifelike and caused its face to be stippled with pock-marks. In the course of the next two centuries the tomb was moved about the church and eventually hidden in the May vault below the chancel. Only in the 1980s was the tomb brought out and re-erected in the north aisle of the church.

Using Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI) to investigate the current state of the effigy, this article examines the controversy that has taken place since then concerning the nature of female effigial portrait sculpture and the reactions of 18th-19th century congregations to potentially disfigured sculpture. In addition, this article is a reflection on the theoretical implications of the process of the visual documentation of archaeological objects, which came out of a RTI digital image capture session of this tomb and its effigy. Both authors were present at the recording session, Smith is an expert in digital imaging for archaeology, and Jones is a specialist in early modern archaeology and the analysis of post-medieval parish churches and their monuments.

The article will explore the notion that digital documentation techniques can offer the possibility of a highly reflexive, personal and social engagement with archaeological objects. The article will emphasise the performative and collaborative dimension of imaging with RTI through a discussion of the ways in which RTI as an image-making process is inherently social in nature, requiring multiple participants. Finally, this article will consider responses of the tomb's past viewers to a gendered object that may, at the time, have been perceived as visually transgressive, with a particular reflection on how RTI can form part of future responses to Dame Mary May's 'lugubrious memorial'.

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