4.10 The nave west wall: 'Erthe Upon erthe' poem and allegorical painting (south side: lower compartment)


'Erthe Upon erthe' is a poem that survives in more than seventeen manuscripts in medieval English verse (Mooney 2000, 184; Murray 1911; Reeves 1894). Variations of the stanza appear in diverse funerary contexts, including an inscription on a tomb in Melrose Abbey, Northumberland, a four-line epitaph in Edmonton church in London, and a brass inscription on a marble slab dedicated to Christopher Finch and his wife, Anna, recorded by the 16th-century antiquarian, John Weever (1767, 74), which appears to have been 15th-century in date.

Below 'Erth Upon Erth' is a related scene depicting a angel standing over a shrouded corpse in a grave, flanked by two figures, accompanied by a second, eight-line verse text. Fisher and Wheler were more equivocal about the iconography of this scene (Figure 16). Wheler (1806, 98) suggested that the angel was 'probably St Michael', surrounded by 'seven stanzas in old English being an allegory of mortality'. The stanzas are an eight-line reminder of the suffering for sins which follows death. They also survive as a tombstone inscription in Diss (Norfolk), Saffron Walden (Essex) and Faversham (Kent), as well as in more than nine medieval manuscripts (Mooney 2000, 186; Brown and Robbins 1943; 1965, 4129). However, Gill (pers. comm.) has also suggested that this second poem can be identified specifically as 'Whoo so hym be thought' (see a discussion of MS Bodley 29; Newhauser 1995).

Both of these images continue the 'memento mori' theme of The Doom and The Dance of Death, and once again, encourage their viewers to reflect on the transitory nature of life and to seek to follow the advice of the Ars Moriendi (Duffy 1992, 301-37). But both poems are also important because they are rare examples of a wall painting whose lyrics are found in contemporary sermon literature. 'Erthe upon Erthe' is found in John of Grimestone's 'preaching book' of c. 1372, whilst 'Whoo so hym be thought' was a 13th-century poem also used by preachers to encourage the recollection of death against the temptations of life (Gill 2002, 167).

The model and the paintings

Figure 27  Figure 28

Figure 27: Photograph of allegorical painting, south side of the west wall of the nave, Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel, Wilfrid Puddephat (© Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, DR399/1/1/4/GC J56, reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).
Figure 28: Reconstruction of allegorical painting, south side of the west wall of the nave, Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel, Wilfrid Puddephat (© Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, DR399/1/1/4/GC G56, reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

This scene again seemed well preserved when it was recorded in 1804, and is still one of the best-preserved paintings in the chapel today. It is dominated by a centrally placed, winged, feather-covered angel, surrounded by a scroll containing seven stanzas of the poem, 'Erthe out of erthe'. The model highlights differences between the transcription of the poem by Fisher (1838) and by Wheler (1806), which Puddephat appears to have incorporated and 'corrected' in his drawing of the painting made when it was re-exposed in February 1956 (Figs 27-28) (see his notes in SCLA DR624/29). Wheler uses a full stop to highlight abbreviations, whereas Fisher shows them as superscripts. The detail of the text, highlighting these differences, is given below (after Davidson 1988, 48-9 but with some minor amendments):

Erth oute of erth ys wondurly wroght
Erth hath gotyn uppon erth a dygnyte of noght (Fisher has gotyu)
Erth ypon erth hath sett all hys thowt
How erth apon erth may be hey browght

Erth upon erth wold be a kyng
But how that erth got to erth he thyngkys nothyng (Fisher has nothing)
When erth byddys erth hys rentys whom bryng
Then schall erth apon erth have hard ptyng

Erth apon erth wynnys castellys and towrys
Then seth erth unto erth thys ys all owrys
When erth apon erth hath bylde his bowrys
Then schall erth for erth suffur many hard schowrys

Erth goth apon erth as man apon mowld
Lyke as erth apon erth never goo schold
Erth goth apon erth as glesteryng gold
And yet schall erth unto erth rather then he wold

Why that erth loveth erth wondur me thynke
Or why that erth wold for erth other swett or swynke
When erth apon erth ys broght wt.yn the brynke
Then schall erth upon erth have a fowll stynke

Lo erth upon erth consedur thow may
How erth comyth to erth nakyd all way
Why schall erth upon erth goo stowte or gay
Seth erth owt of erth schall passe yn pour aray (Fisher has yu)

I counsill erth upon erth that ys wondurly wroght
The whyl yt. erth ys apon erth to torne hys thowht
And pray to god upon erth yt. all erth wroght
That all crystyn soullys to ye. blys may be broght

'Flanking the angel and providing a frame for the sides of the image are a pair of multiple-storeyed buildings with crenellated battlements and, round and ogee-headed apertures and cruciform structures which Gill argues may represent the vain 'towers and castles' which characterise earthly pride in 'Erthe upon erthe', and central Cherub which she suggests recalls the use of this figure as a mnemonic for penitence in the tract De Sex Aliis Cherubim, ascribed to Alan of Lille (Gill 2002, 167). Below the angel were two figures, which Wheler 'with a wholly uncharacteristic lack of perception' identified as male, but one of which, Puddephat maintained, was female (SCLA DR624/29). This might support Gill's (2002, 167) suggestion that the figures may represent a burial party. They are shown kneeling either side of a rectangular grave which contains a shrouded corpse covered in worms, two skulls and several human bones and point to the second poem beneath. The inscription has three stanzas on each line, but Wheler gives each stanza separately:'

Whoo soo hym be thowgh
Inwardly and ofte
How harde hyt ys to flett /
From bede to peyt
From peyt to peyne
That nevr: schall seys serten/
He wolde not doo no syn
All ye world to wyn

Puddephat's depiction of this scene (Figure 28) once again reconstructed what he thought were missing details from Fisher's drawing, including the addition of lattices to the windows depicted in the scene, which he also recessed in order to give a 'perspective view' (SCLA DR624/29). Puddephat also suggested that this image in particular provided evidence for the rather improvisatory nature of the painters' craft, where masonry joints had been used to create horizontal divisions within the scene and where the lack of symmetry in the angel's arms suggested constraints imposed by a lack of concern with the symmetrical placing of the figure within the scene.


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