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Quem Aspicientes Viverent: Symbolism in the Early Medieval Church Door and its Ironwork

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 April 2011


Symbolic perception of the church door in early English exegetical writings and in medieval liturgical practice is illustrated and discussed as the wider context of a proposal that the arched iron strip at the top of the twelfth-century church door at Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire, represents the rainbow of Noah's Flood, perceived as a reminder ofjudgement past and of judgement still to come, and as a symbol of the covenant between God and humanity. The possibility is considered that on other surviving early medieval church-doors too, the rainbow shape, even if primarily functional or dictated by the shape of the door-opening, and notwithstanding the absence of other figural imagery, may have been recognized as an emblem of the covenant, basis of all church-sanctioned contracts, aptly dislayed on the threshold—where various liturgical or other formal actions had their setting—of the sacred spaces of the domus dei.

Research Article
Copyright © The Society of Antiquaries of London 1988

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1 Addyman, P. V. and Goodall, I. H., ‘The Norman church and door at Stillingfleet, North Yorkshire’, Archaeologia, cvi (1979), 75105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Ibid., 104.

3 Bradley, S. A. J., ‘The Norman door of St Helen Stillingfleet and the legend of the Holy Rood Tree’, in Addyman, P. V. and Black, V. E. (eds.), Archaeological Papers from York Presented to M. W. Barley (York, 1984), 84100.Google Scholar

4 Bradley, , op. cit. (note 3), 99100.Google Scholar

5 Bede, , De Templo Libri II, Liber II, lines 809–33:Google ScholarJones, C. W., Bedae Venerabilis Opera Exegetica, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 118 A (II, 1) (Turnholti,1967), 212–13.Google Scholar

6 Bede, , Homelia II, 25,Google Scholar 'In Dedicatione Ecclesiae; Hurst, D., Bedae Venerabilis Opera Homiletica, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 122 (Turnholti, 1955), 377.Google Scholar Bede deals more elaborately with the exegetical potential of doors in his De Templo ( Hurst, D., Bedae Venerabilis Opera Exegetica, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 119 A, Pars II, 2A (Turnholti, 1969)Google Scholar where, among the rest, he calls the ‘ostium portions’ (‘door of the porch [of the Temple]’) a ‘sermo propheticus’ (‘prophetic manner of speaking’) because it ‘predicts’ the ‘ostium tempi’ (‘door of the Temple’)—that is, Christ the Saviour—lying ahead.

7 Bradley, , op. cit. (note 3), 99.Google Scholar It is beyond the scope of this paper, however, to enter into questions of the changing function and status given to the various doorways in church structures at different periods by changing architectural and liturgical conventions, crucial though such considerations are to any final attempt at interpretation of iconography associated with the individual doors.

8 The Ordo is a regular item in pontificals, the books containing rituals and texts belonging to the exercise of the office of bishop. A convenient, if in some points antiquated, survey of thirty-five pontificals ‘of English and Scotch Use' dated from the tenth to the sixteenth century is in Henderson, W. G., Liber Pontificalis Chr.Bainbridge Archiepiscopi Eboracensis, Surtees Soc. 61 (1875), ixGoogle Scholar ff. A narrative exposition of the medieval ceremonial of dedication, perceived as an analogy to baptism of the individual, is in Bowen, L., ‘The tropology of mediaeval dedication rites’, Speculum, xvi (1941), 469–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The Anglo-Saxon ceremonial, as exemplified in the Lanalet Pontifical (Bibliothèque Municipale, Rouen, A 27) (see below, notes 11 and 12), is briefly reviewed in Gage, J., ‘The Anglo-Saxon ceremonial of the dedication and consecration of churches, illustrated from a pontifical in the Public Library at Rouen’, Archaeologia, xxv (1834), 235–74)Google Scholar where a text of the Ordo is also printed, together with a reproduction of fo. 2V of the Lanalet Pontifical depicting a bishop consecrating a church. Support for Gage's suggestion that crosses were placed, and blessed at dedication, on walls, door and altar is offered by Smirke, S. in ‘An illustration from the church of St John, Syracuse, to accompany Mr Gage's dissertation on the Anglo-Saxon ceremonial of the dedication and consecration of churches’, Archaeologia, xxv (1834), 275–8.Google Scholar Smirke's evidence actually relates to a stone carving on the interior wall of the church. For a general history, see Muncey, R. W., A History of the Consecration of Churches and Churchyards (Cambridge, 1930),Google Scholar where fo. 2v of the Lanalet Pontifical is again reproduced (facing p. 35).

9 Wilson, H. A., The Pontifical of Magdalen College, Henry Bradshaw Soc. 39 (London, 1910), 98.Google Scholar The pontifical (Magdalen College, Oxford, MS 226) is of the second half of the twelfth century (ibid., xii) and probably from Canterbury (ibid., viii). Here and in a number of similar instances following I have substituted modern punctuation for the manuscript punctuation.

10 Ibid., 99.

11 The whole of the following sequence is in ibid., 103. In the Lanalet Pontifical, fo. 2V (see pl. xxiv), the bishop is depicted striking not the lintel but, apparently, the door itself. Though manuscript drawings of this date (tenth-century) are not generally reliable in architectural detail (but for a theory for distinguishing contemporary artefacts from copied models in early medieval manuscript drawings, see Carver, M. O. H., ‘Contemporary artefacts illustrated in late Saxon manuscripts, Archaeologia, cviii (1986), 117–45,CrossRefGoogle Scholar esp.132, fig-16 and table 3), this drawing does not support the idea that ironwork crosses on doors such as Stillingfleet's marked the spot where the bishop was to lay a blessing on the door: no cross features in its design. But other pontificals do show the bishop, apparently before the door of the church, touching such consecration crosses, for example, the early thirteenth-century Pontifical of Paris (Bibliothèque Municipale, Metz, MS 1169, fo. 39); but see too the fifteenth-century Pontifical of Charles de Neufchatel (Bibliothèque Municipale, Besançon, MS 116, fo. 103); both illustrated in Leroquais, V., Les Pontificaux Manuscrits des Bibliothèques Publiques de France (Paris, 1937), pls. XIX and XCIXGoogle Scholar respectively; see pl. xxv. These pontificals substantially predate Gage's supplementary evidence of a sixteenth-century printed pontifical from Rome in the British Museum, cited by Smirke, , op. cit. (note 8), 277Google Scholar.

12 Doble, G. H., Pontificale Lanaletense (London, 1937), 5.Google Scholar

13 Greenwell, W., The Pontifical of Egbert, Archbishop of York 732-66, Surtees Soc. 27 (1853), 45.Google Scholar

14 Wilson, , op. cit. (note 9), 115.Google Scholar

15 Ibid., 120. A similar appeal ‘per uirtutem sancte crucis’ (‘through the virtue of the Holy Cross’) occurs in the preceding prayer (ibid., 120), a commendation to the saint in whose honour the church is dedicated. At the consecration of Stillingfleet church, dedicated to St Helen, finder of the True Cross, these two prayers invoking the Holy Cross would presumably have held a special force for the clergy and congregation.

16 Addyman, and Goodall, , op. cit. (note 1), 89.Google Scholar

17 Ibid., 82-3.

18 Ibid., 97-8.

19 Ibid., 89.

20 Wilson, , op. cit. (note 9), 103.Google Scholar

21 Vulgate Latin; The New English Bible trans.

22 British Library, London, MS Cotton Claudius BIV; Crawford, S. J., The Old English Version ofthe Heptateuch, Ælfric's Treatise on the Old and New Testament and his Preface to Genesis, Early English Text Soc. original series 160 (London, 1922)Google Scholar; Dodwell, C. R. and Clemoes, P., The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile XVIII (Copenhagen, 1974).Google Scholar For other points of comparability between the art of this manuscript and that of the Stillingfleet door, see Bradley, , op. cit. (note 3)Google Scholar.

23 Ker, N. R., A Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), 179, item 142.Google Scholar

24 I have expanded contractions and substituted modern punctuation.

25 If the intended source of this topos of twofold judgement is indeed the Antiquities of Josephus, much distortion of the original narrative has been perpetrated, perhaps wilfully, since Josephus mentions a second judgement only as a fear in Noah's mind, which led him to sacrifice to the Lord in order to avert a yearly flood. The Lord, Josephus says, ‘granted entire success to his prayers’, and there is no more mention of a second judgement on the earth. See Whiston, W., The Works of Flavins Josephus (London, 1851), 38.Google ScholarCross, F. L., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edn., Oxford, 1974), 759,Google Scholar notes that Josephus was opportunistically exploited by Jerome and other Fathers.

26 Ælfric, , Interrogationes Sigwulfi in Genesin, in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 303, pp. 324–35. SeeGoogle ScholarMaclean, G. E., ‘Ælfric's Version of Alcuini interrogationes Sigeuulfi in Genesin’, Anglia, vii (1884), 159;Google Scholar and Migne, , Patrologia Latina, 100,Google Scholar col. 515 following, for Alcuin's original Latin.

27 Bede, , Liber Quatuor in Principium Genesis,Google Scholar Liber Secundus, in Jones, , op. cit. (note 5).Google Scholar Bede in his turn is closely following St Augustine in much of this exegesis of Genesis 9: see Augustine, , Contra Adversarium Legis el Prophetarum Liber Primus, 20, 43;Google Scholar in Daur, K. D., Aurelii Augustini Opera, Pars XV, 3, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 49 (Turnholti, 1985)Google Scholar.

28 This poem of well over 29,000 lines surveys the course of the world from Creation to Doomsday. Though the text belongs to the fourteenth century its ideas were largely traditional and conventional. On the further potential relevance of the Cursor Mundi to the imagery of the Stillingfleet door, see Bradley, , op. cit. (note 3), 87Google Scholar.

29 Lines 1,975-86: Morris, R., Cursor Mundi, Early English Text Soc. original ser. 57, 59,62 and 66 (London, 1874-1877, repr. 1961)Google Scholar.

30 Figural elements may have been lost from the bottom of the door; and it has been suggested that the ironwork ‘looks partly rearranged’ and that the door ‘has clearly been altered to fit its present position’ (J. Geddes, ‘Decorative ironwork’, in the exhibition catalogue by Zarnecki, G. et al., English Romanesque Art 1066-1200 (Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1984), 296–7).Google Scholar If so, interpretation of the iconography must be all the more tentative.

31 Benediction for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, The Benedictional of Archbishop Robert, Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen, MS Y 7; Wilson, H. A., The Benedictional of Archbishop Robert, Henry Bradshaw Soc. 24 (London, 1903), 8Google Scholar.

32 In some early English representations, the rainbow has a conspicuous part in ‘the Lord's glory’, serving as a throne for Christ in majesty or for the Trinity. See, for example, the New Minster Charter, dated 966, British Library, London, MS Cotton Vespasian A viii, fo. 2V, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue edited by Backhouse, J.,Turner, D. H. and Webster, L., The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon An 966-1066 (British Museum, London, 1984), pl. IVGoogle Scholar; the Anglo-Saxon ivory cross fragment from the first half of the eleventh century, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (17.190.217), illustrated ibid., 124a; the Bury Bible (c. 1135), Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 2, fo. 281v; British Library, London, MS Cotton Titus D XXVII fo. 75v (second quarter eleventh century); and cf. Revelation 4:3, ‘et iris erat in circuitu sedis’ (‘and there was a rainbow round about the throne’). A good example of a late twelfth-century manuscript rainbow painted blue on the outer edges and orange-red in the centre is in Boase, T. S. R., The York Psalter (London, 1962), pl. 7,Google Scholar showing David as psalmist seated on a rainbow.

33 In the marginal illustrations to this psalm in the Bury St Edmunds Psalter (Vatican MS Reg. Lat. 12, fo. 108r, second quarter of th e eleventh century), are a ship with mariners, the leviathan, a winged dragon, an elephant and a coney.

34 British Library, London, MS Harley 603 was supplemented by further Utrecht-style illustrations about 1140 and a new Utrecht-style psalter (albeit much more formally composed and drawn, in accordance with Romanesque taste) was made in Canterbury c. 1147 (the Eadwine Psalter, Trinity College, Cambridge, MS R.17.1), while, on the Continent, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Latin 8846 was made c. 1200.

35 Crawford, , op. cit. (note 22), 107.Google Scholar

36 See above, note 33.

37 Wilson, , op. cit. (note 9), 160–1.Google Scholar At the Stillingfleet door, the couple would be watched over, piquantly enough, by Adam and Eve.

38 So at least in the Ordo ad Purificandum Mulierem post Partum ante Hostium Ecclesiae in the (probably thirteenth-century) Sarum Manuale; Collins, A. Jefferies, Manuale ad Usum Percelebris Ecclesiae Sarisburiensis, Henr y Bradshaw Soc. 91 (Chichester, 1960), 43–4Google Scholar.