4.2 The Chancel: the Legend of the Cross


The Legend of the Cross had its origins in early apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate (Davidson 1988, 22). However, it was included in texts that circulated widely among clergy and laity in late medieval England, such as Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend, printed by Caxton in 1483, and the early 14th-century poem, the Cursor Mundi (Horrall 1985; 1989). Davidson (1988, 23) suggests that the chronology and iconography of the Stratford scheme as represented by Fisher (1838), is closest to the latter source. Although the chancel images do not commence with the earliest events in the story as related by The Golden Legend, namely the Fall of Adam and his death 900 years later, these scenes appear to have been included on the south wall of the nave, where fragmentary texts were deciphered by Puddephat in 1955-6.

The model and the paintings

The digital model combines Thomas Fisher's individual drawings of the scenes that comprised the Legend of the Cross, as published by Nichols (in Fisher 1838) and place them within their mural context. No attempt has been made to transcribe the texts accompanying the images for the purpose of this project, although Miriam Gill has made a number of important observations about these to the authors which have been gratefully received and incorporated below. This is clearly an important area of future research.

Fisher numbered his drawings alphabetically, to reflect the narrative sequence of the Legend. Scenes A-H were contained within eight compartments arranged in two tiers on the north wall, while I-K were set side-by-side on the south wall.

Diagrammatic layout of scheme

Plate A represents the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the Court of King Solomon, with the timber that becomes the True Cross depicted over a brook between them. Plate B depicts the Victory of Constantine over Maxentius and in an inserted panel in the upper left hand of the compartment, Constantine's Vision of the Cross. Plate C depicts the 'Invention of the Cross', in which the Empress Helena sets forth to discover the True Cross. This scene is connected pictorially via an angel's trumpet with the adjacent Plate D, which shows Helena's Discovery of the True Cross. Plate E shows the 'Testing and Veneration of the True Cross' in which a 'dead man' is brought back to life, although as Miriam Gill (pers. comm.) has pointed out, the accompanying text refers to a 'made' (i.e. a maid or girl) which may shed important light on the specific manuscript source for the Legend. Plate F depicts the Empress Helena taking the Cross to Constantinople and presenting it to her son, Constantine. Plate G depicts Heraclius rescuing a relic of the Cross stolen by King Chosroës of Persia, by defeating Chosroës' son at the bridge. In H, Chosroës is depicted standing in his tower prior to his decapitation by Heraclius.

The south wall scene I shows 'The Exaltation of the Holy Cross', as it is returned to Jerusalem by Heraclius, who is confronted by an angel for the sin of pride. In J, Heraclius is depicted setting aside his crown and approaches Jerusalem with humility, where the relic is returned to the site of the Crucifixion.

Fisher's record of The Legend of the Cross has been largely accepted, partly because it follows the narrative sequence established in sources such as the Cursor Mundi and The Golden Legend but also because, with the exception of a small volume of miniature watercolours made by James Saunders in 1805/6, it is the only pictorial depiction of the sequence that survives (SCLA DR624/13 (i)). However, what has been overlooked by most scholars, with the exception of Wilfrid Puddephat (SCLA DR624/13 (i)), is that there is an important difference between the sequence depicted by Fisher on the chancel north wall and that described by his contemporary, Robert Bell Wheler, published in 1806.

In Wheler's description, the first upper compartment of the north wall depicts what Wheler interpreted as the 'first battle between Heraclius and the Persians for the recovery of the Cross' (this was probably Constantine - Fisher's B). Below this Wheler noted victory of Heraclius over 'Coldroy' (Chosroës' son) (Fisher's G). The next two upper compartments are recorded as showing the Queen of Sheba and Solomon (Fisher's A) and the Empress Helena bearing the Cross and using it miraculously to raise the body of a shrouded figure from a coffin (Fisher's E). Below these were two scenes which Wheler noted represented 'other parts of the same history, and in point of time precede the last described picture', Helena setting out for Jerusalem in search of the Cross (Fisher's G) and the revealing of the location of the Cross by Judas, grandson of Zaccheus and the discovery of the Cross itself (Fisher's D). Beyond the next window, the lower compartment was identified by Wheler (1814, 63) as the martyrdom of Chosros (sic), the Persian King, being slain by Heraclius (Fisher's H) and below this a scene that Wheler noted had been 'intentionally mutilated', where the Cross was venerated at an altar (Fisher's F).

In an unpublished lecture, Wilfrid Puddephat (SCLA DR624/13 (i)) wrestled with the reasons for this discrepancy, initially presuming that Wheler's scheme had 'no discernible merit' but reflecting subsequently that many of the subscribers to his volume, including the Revd James Davenport, Vicar of Stratford, the Revd John Whitmore, Curate and Master of the Free Grammar School, and James Saunders, had seen the paintings, and yet no corrections or amendments were made to the second edition, which was published in 1814.

The only explanation Puddephat could propose for Wheler's scheme being a plausible alternative to that of Fisher was one which drew on his own artistic training, based on an aesthetic, rather than a historical or literary analysis of the scheme. Puddephat suggested that the inscriptions that accompanied the images within the Golden Legend sequence 'were almost certainly arranged symmetrically' to form a regular pattern of squares; a hypothesis that works for both arrangements. However, when the position of the inset panels within the images was also taken into consideration, they appeared to occupy 'logical and pleasing positions in diagonally opposite corners of the mural design' in Wheler's arrangement only. Similarly, pictorial rather than thematic unity was provided by the linkage between scenes C-D in Wheler's arrangements. Puddephat (SCLA DR624/13 (i) and DR624/24) sought to represent this graphically, and the digital model presents these two alternative arrangements by re-ordering Fisher's sequence to fit Wheler's description.

Fisher's arrangement

Diagrammatic layout of scheme

Wheler's arrangement:

Diagrammatic layout of scheme

By presenting these two alternative sequences of The Legend of the Cross in the digital model, it becomes possible to examine Puddephat's hypothesis visually, as well as textually and intellectually.

In this way, the model itself becomes a research tool for exploring multiple and alternative versions records of the past. If Puddephat is correct, it also raises interesting questions about the possible sources for the paintings. Were Stratford's painters actually working with copies of The Cursor Mundi or The Golden Legend to hand? Although several of the scenes within the Guild Chapel draw closely on textual sources, such as the Dance of Death and Life of Adam, or the allegorical paintings on the west wall, there are also important and subtle variations between surviving manuscript sources of these images and their realisation in the wall paintings of Stratford. This may shed important light on the existence in the 15th century of a set of more short-lived texts, sketches or drawings, which drew on published or manuscript sources but were used on a day-to-day basis by artists such as those working in Stratford and which, in the case of the chancel, had simply got 'out of order' or been misinterpreted on site.


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