4. Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel digital model and the wall paintings

4.1 The significance, patronage and sources for the Stratford scheme

The international significance of English medieval ecclesiastical wall paintings has long been recognised by art historians (Park 2003a; 2003b). Major syntheses of the British material have demonstrated the quality and diversity of schemes in cathedrals, parish churches and chapels, as well as in secular contexts (Caiger-Smith 1963; Keyser 1883; Rickert 1954; Rosewell 2008; Rouse 1991; Tristram 1944; 1950; 1954). In recent years, greater emphasis has been placed on the architectural context of paintings and other forms of decorative art, such as stained glass and sculpture, in the construction of the 'integrated' character of Gothic art (Raguin et al. 1995). This has been accompanied by the application of new scientific approaches that have revealed the extent of polychromy within the medieval church (Boldrick 2002; Masinton 2010; Reynolds 2007). Recent innovations in web technologies have allowed the significance of painted schemes to be disseminated to a wider scholarly and public audience through online resources such as (created by Ann Marshall) and the Churches Conservation Trust.

Fifteenth-century painted schemes such as the Guild Chapel, Stratford-upon-Avon, are also of international historical and archaeological significance because they provide important evidence of the patronage of new social groups emerging in late medieval England - the lower gentry, merchants, artisans and professionals who would become the 'middling sort', or middle classes of early modern England. These groups emerged successfully from the crises of the 14th century and rose to positions of power, especially within the towns and cities of 15th-century England. Painted schemes dating to the 14th and 15th centuries were often associated with the partial or complete rebuilding of church naves and chapels by these new patrons of medieval art (Rosewell 2008, 25-29). The process of rebuilding and the appropriation of religious space by the laity through the construction of guild and private chantry chapels (see Graves 2000; Roffey 2007; 2008), and the patronage of other artistic media such as sculpture, glass, screens, reliquaries, vestments and altar cloths, as well as the wealth of objects associated with communion including crosses, chalices and pattens constitutes one of the most important shifts in patronage in the story of the medieval English church and medieval archaeology (Barron and Burgess 2010; Duffy 2006; Giles 2010; Marks 2009; Marks and Williamson 2003). In particular, it demonstrates the significance of architecture and material culture as the medium through which these new communities constructed a sense of identity, status and power within late medieval and early modern society. In this way, sites such as Stratford provide important parallels to the well-established international story of the role of mercantile patrons in the Italian and European Renaissance (Jardine 1998; O'Malley and Welch 2007; Welch 1997).

Hugh Clopton (1440-1496) was a typical example of this class of late medieval English mercantile patron. The younger son of John and Agnes Clopton, a manorial family based in the village of Clopton, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, he became apprenticed to the London mercer, John Roos in 1456/7 and a member of the Company of Mercers in 1463/4, in which he served as a warden. He began to hold civic office within the city, being elected Alderman for Dowgate Ward in 1485, Sheriff in 1486 and Mayor in 1491. Clopton described himself as a 'citizen, mercer and Alderman of London' in his will of 9 September 1496. Although unmarried, Hugh Clopton's will left substantial legacies for his family, metropolitan mercantile brethren, and a range of charitable causes, including sums to repair bridges and 'ways' and funding for poor householders and scholars within Stratford-upon-Avon, totalling £1700 and including nine properties in Stratford-upon-Avon, together with the manors of Little Wilmcote and Clopton (Dictionary of National Biography). His will also reflects his dual loyalties to London and Stratford, making provision for burial in both locations. If he died in London, or within 20 miles of the city, Clopton was to be buried within the chapel of St Katherine in the parish church of St Margaret's Lothbury, probably under a brass (I am grateful to Christian Steer of Royal Holloway, London, for sharing this hypothesis with me). If he died in Stratford-upon-Avon, he was to be buried within the chapel of 'our Lady between the altar of the same and the chapell of the Trinite next adjoynung thereunto ordeyned and tombed after the discration of myne executors' (TNA Prob/11/11; SCLA ER 1/121). This provision appears to have been advanced prior to his death, through the construction of a Perpendicular tomb bearing his coat of arms and those of the Mercers' company and the City of London at the north end of the nave aisle in Holy Trinity parish church (Horsler et al. 2010, 52).

After the settlement of debts and modest provisions for his funeral and subsequent orisons, placebos, diriges, monthly 'myndes' and trentalls, Clopton's first major bequest was for the rebuilding of the Guild Chapel:

'And where as of late I have bargayned wth oon Dowland, and diverse other masons for the beldyng and setting up of the Chapell of the holy Trinitie withyn the Towne of Stratford Upon Avon aforesaid And the Towre of a Steple to the same I will that the saide masons sufficiently and ably doo and fynysshe the same with good and true werkmanshipp And they truly to performe the same making the saide werkes aswise of length and brede and hyght such as by the advise of myne executors'

The executors of Hugh Clopton's will included his friend and apprentice, the Stratford mercer Thomas Hannys. Hannys was apprenticed to Hugh Clopton and in his own will, proved in 1503, left money for another ambitious scheme of rebuilding — this time of the Guild's almshouses complex (TNA Prob/11/13; Macdonald 2007, 26-7 and appendix 2). Although Clopton's bequest appears to refer primarily to the fabric of the chapel, the will goes on to refer to 'covering and roofing of the same Chapell with glaising and all other fornysshmentes thereunto necessary'. This rather general bequest is typical of the level of detail found in probate bequests related to late medieval Gothic decorative schemes. Nevertheless rare survivals such as the drawings that informed the design of the Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary's Warwick (Monckton 2004), or indeed, the 'platt' referred to in Thomas Hannys' will (Macdonald 2007, 26), reveal the detailed design process behind such acts of patronage. The lack of surviving detail in Clopton's will therefore places greater significance on the role of the digital model as a research tool through which the design and meaning of the original scheme can be assessed.

Ecclesiastical wall paintings dating to the 14th and 15th centuries have sometimes been considered to lack the iconographic 'coherence' of earlier schemes and to be rather heterogeneous, combining images of popular saints with Biblical narratives such as the Life of the Virgin or Passion of Christ, shorthand moral schema, such as the Corporal Acts of Mercy and Seven Deadly Sins, and depictions of The Last Judgement. Such subject matter reflects an explosion in contemporary devotional texts associated with the cult of the saints and the belief in Purgatory during this period and their impact on an increasingly literate laity engaging with both images and texts in their devotional practice (Buchanan 2007; Gill 2002; Giles 2007; Graves 2007; Marks 2004, 157-85; 2009; Rosewell 2008, 185). Traditionally, late-medieval wall paintings were thought of as the 'poor man's bible'. However, more recent scholarship has suggested that this term is unhelpful, given the extent of literacy among the late-medieval laity, and the fact that such schemes were often paid for by prosperous peasants, artisans and merchants. Schemes such as Stratford provided patrons such as Clopton and his guild brethren with an opportunity to promote particular religious beliefs and devotional practices while making a powerful statement about their own status and identity.

Although previous scholarship has acknowledged the potential international significance of the Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel scheme (Davidson 1988; Rosewell 2008), this has hitherto been frustrated by the apparent destruction of several of the paintings in the 19th century, the adverse effects of early 20th-century conservation treatments, and the concealment of other paintings by later 20th-century architectural alterations. The creation of the digital model therefore allows the true archaeological significance as one of the most remarkable schemes of mercantile and guild patronage in late medieval England to be revealed for the first time, and sheds important light on the sources for, and meaning of, this kind of scheme for its late medieval patrons.

Sources for the scheme

The images within the Guild Chapel at Stratford-upon-Avon reflected the civic pietism of Hugh Clopton, and placed particular emphasis on the devotional focus of the Holy Cross Guild itself. The overarching message, expressed in images including The Doom, The Dance of Death and the allegorical paintings in the nave , was one of the inevitability of Death and Judgement, and of the need to prepare for this by following the Ars Moriendi (Duffy 1992, 301-37), guidance on preparing for a good death. Such themes were, of course, part of the raison d'être of medieval guilds such as the Holy Cross. However, the rebuilding and decoration of the Guild Chapel was a powerful and enduring statement about Clopton and his Guild's achievement of these ends.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, as elsewhere in England, Clopton and his guild brethren would have drawn on a rich seam of devotional texts available in manuscript and, increasingly, in printed form, as possible sources of inspiration for the images in the chapel. These included William Caxton's printed version of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea, or The Golden Legend, the popular medieval anthology of saints' lives (Blake 1969;de Voragine, transl. by Ryan 1993; Kleinberg 2008; O'Mara 1992). The Golden Legend was a well-established source for the medieval visual arts prior to the late 15th century. However, its translation into English and publication in printed form by William Caxton in 1483 (British Library C.11.d.8) increased its circulation dramatically (Hodnett 1973, 3). Caxton's inclusion of woodcuts of the saints within The Golden Legend, made it, and subsequent editions of 1493, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, a possible source for several of the Stratford scenes, including The Legend of the Cross, the Life of Adam and the depictions of St George and St Thomas à Becket. However, the woodcuts that accompanied these texts were often crude and simplistic. They lack the iconographic complexity and visual sophistication of the wall paintings themselves and thus it is likely that it was the narrative descriptions within these sources which informed the design of the Stratford scenes. Nevertheless, the imagery and composition of scenes such as the Dance of Death may have been influenced by a set of more sophisticated, usually imported, woodcuts and block books that were probably in circulation at the time, but which no longer survive (Miriam Gill, pers. comm.).

Other relevant poetic texts which informed the scheme included poems such as The Cursor Mundi (Davidson 1988, 35-6; Morris 1969) and The Northern Passion (Heuser and Foster 1930), and John Lydgate's Danse of Maccabre (Oosterwijk 2004). It is also likely that the paintings were influenced by sources such as John Mirk's Festial, a popular vernacular collection of sermons (Ford 2006; Powell 1991; 2009-2011) and The Lay Folks Catechism (Hudson 1985; 1988; Morey 2005; Powell 1994; Swanson 1991), as well as the rich dramatic tradition of Mystery Plays and early drama that thrived within the region (Davidson 2000; Davidson and Alexander 1985).

We do not know the names of the artists who executed the Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel paintings. Indeed, it is rare to find documentary references to individual painters or their guilds outside London (Binski 1991). However, a local exception is Coventry, where there is surviving documentary evidence of the existence of a community of painters in the 15th century (Gill 2011, 206). Surveys of medieval art within the county have emphasised the richness of this local tradition and there are certainly important parallels between some of the Stratford images such as The Doom and St George and other local representations of these popular images, which are further discussed below (Davidson and Alexander 1985). It is also likely that some of the Stratford images, for example The Dance of Death, drew on specific metropolitan models such as the Dance of Death in St Paul's cloister (Appleford 2008; Oosterwijk 2010).

Given the apparent destruction of the chancel images and the extensive restoration and loss of other paintings, it is difficult to be certain of the precise date or sequence of the Stratford paintings. Robert Wheler (1806, 97) and E.W. Tristram (V&A National Art Library 86.22.121) were convinced that the paintings were created in two different media. The paintings in the chancel were described by the early antiquarians as 'frescoes', although it is unlikely that any were 'frescoes' in the technical sense of the term. Rather, it seems that some of the paintings were painted onto plaster, while others, such as the Doom, appear to have been painted directly onto the wall surface (although even these must have been painted over some kind of sealant). These differences in media were thought by Fisher to reflect a difference in the date of the paintings. However, Wilfrid Puddephat (SCLA DR 63/13 (i)) was equally adamant that the paintings were of the same date (the 1490s) and executed by the same hand, as evidenced by the similarities in the depictions of details of armour, headdress and musical instruments in the chancel and the nave, and by the similarity suggested by Fisher's own drawings (for the use of this approach as an aid to dating paintings, see Park 2003a).


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