Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

I promised you a couple of posts ago a set of surprising medievalist photographs, and now the post has come. You may remember that I was being shown hidden bits of the Middle Ages lying in the general area of Dudley in the Black Country, but the second of them was out by some way at a village called Claverley. Claverley is quite well vintaged in general…

Early modern buildings in Claverley

Early modern buildings in Claverley

… but our target was All Saints Church.

All Saints Claverley

All Saints Claverley, viewed from the path up from the village

This goes back to the reign of Henry I, probably, or at least in his reign it was established as a collegiate chapel of the royal castle at Bridgnorth, which we have seen here before, some distance off. What’s visible from the outside now is largely a bit later than that…

Grotesques around a late medieval window at All Saints Claverley

Grotesques around a late medieval window

… but inside quite a lot of at least the later Norman fabric remains, meaning not just movable bits and pieces like this…

A possibly-Saxon font at All Saints Claverley

Possibly a Saxon font?

A medieval font at All Saints Claverley

A more certainly medieval font

… but actual standing fabric.

View down the nave from the east end of All Saints Church, Claverley

View down the nave from the east end

Carved joinery helping to hold up the roof at All Saints Claverley

Carved joinery helping to hold up the roof

There are signs of some quite deep-lying architectural mucking about here and there…

Older fabric partially concealed by rebuilding work at All Saints Church, Claverley

Older fabric partially concealed by rebuilding work and remnants of a polychrome angel

… but I confess I didn’t poke into that as deeply as I might usually have done, partly because the vicar was very kindly showing us around, being delighted to have actual medievalists interested in the church in his care, but mainly because I was blown away by the surviving decoration.

Medieval fresco along the northern arcade wall of All Saints Church, Claverley

Medieval fresco along the northern arcade wall; clock through for a larger version

This fresco, which shows fifteen knights or knight-like people in various martial activities, is by far the stand-out piece of it, but there’s bits and pieces everywhere.

Polychrome decoration on an arcade pillar in All Saints Church, Claverley

Polychrome decoration on an arcade pillar

Polychrome wall art in the vestry of All Saints Church, Claverley, under a protective covering

Polychrome wall art in the vestry, under a protective covering, kindly being lifted for us by the Reverend Garry Ward

A kneeling figure in fresco in the tower of All Saints Church, Claverley

A kneeling figure in fresco in the tower

Now, give me and two Byzantinists, one an art historian proper and the other with training in that direction, a complex sequence of imagery and of course we will try to read it. We had already got a certain distance when the vicar spotted us for what we were, largely by means of the kind of logic that goes, ‘that there is a dragon so this is probably Revelation‘…

Partial fresco depiction of a knight defeating a dragon at All Saints, Claverley

Partial fresco depiction of a knight defeating a dragon

… or similarly, ‘that there is a cross in the Hand of God and the dude above is wearing a crown’, and that led one of us (not me alas) to wonder if this was the Emperor Heraclius.

Martial figures being led on by a cross in the Hand of God, a fresco decoration in the church of All Saints, Claverley

Martial figures being led on by a cross in the Hand of God

Well, several points to that Byzantinist, but it turns out a lot more points were on offer, as an article had recently been published by one Christopher Barrett trying to re-read the whole scheme and if he’s right there’s quite a lot going on here.1 Pretty much every expert who’s looked at these paintings has come up with something different, but more of it had been exposed and restored than previously when Barrett wrote, and he thinks that what we have here is a sequence of stories about the Holy Cross that tie into the Crusades and the Cross’s use as a standard in battle, starting with its growth as a tree as per the popular English poetic trope

A probable depiction of the Cross Tree on the north wall of All Saints, Claverley

A probable depiction of the Cross Tree on the north wall

… and then running through a series of quasi-historical encounters including but not limited to Emperor Constantine I at the Milvian Bridge, Heraclius at Nineveh, Roland at Roncesvalles (which seems to me a stretch, given the distinct absence of the Holy Cross from that story, and the fact that I can’t see the horn that Barrett thinks the character is holding—I might rather see this bit as an actual Crusading battle, perhaps the Battle of Antioch) and finally the revived Charlemagne riding forth for the final battles of Revelation (including the conquering of the Beast, so I take my few paltry points for that bit).

Fresco sequence on the north arcade wall of All Saints, Claverley

A different angle on the north wall fresco sequence

Now, some of this is being guessed at from fragments of devices that even if correctly identified might really be trying to tell us something else, but it does provide a way to make most or all of the art in the Church fit together, and Barrett argues a plausible historical context for it too, the various pledges to go on Crusade of the beleaguered Plantagenet kings of England in the first half of the thirteenth century and the specific actual going on Crusade of Earl Ranulf of Chester, during part of that period custodian of Bridgnorth Castle.

View from the west to east end of the nave of All Saints Church, Claverley

View from the west to east end of the nave

Well, it may be so; I certainly don’t have a better idea to suggest! But what I can do is very much recommend that you also have a look, if you happen to be in the area. And if you like us are overwhelmed somewhat by it, perhaps don’t do what we then did and visit the pub in England most likely to confuse and upset your senses even before you get to the beer…

The Crooked House pub, Dudley, from outside

The Crooked House pub, Dudley, from safely outside; I’ve made no alteration to this photo beyond light levels!

That’s all for now but I hope for one more this week, an the fates be kind, by way of trying to catch up a bit. We shall see!

1. Christopher Barrett, “Roland and Crusade Imagery in an English Royal Chapel: early thirteenth-century wall paintings in Claverley Church, Shropshire” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 92 (Cambridge 2012), pp. 129–168, DOI: 10.1017/S0003581512000091. This article is my source for pretty much everything I couldn’t straight away see for myself in this post.

6 responses to “Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

  1. Allan McKinley

    Why have I never heard this was standing so close to a concentration of medievalists in Birmingham?

    Anyway, can I point out that your possible cross tree has a snake in it? Which suggests we’re looking at Adam and Eve here, which with the Angel might be the banishment from the Garden of Eden? Which might make this a more generally illustrative scheme (although the crusading-type iconography is unusual). I assume the upper register above the nights are a collection of saints though (well, they’ve got the halos…), presumably reflecting (or determining?) the dedication to All Saints.

    • I think your identification is right, but that tree is one of two, which causes our boy Barrett to say, I quote:

      “At Claverley the scroll-form trees facing each other on the north and south walls are very similar to these sprouting branches and suggest a possible unifying theme of the story of the Holy Cross for the whole painting scheme. The cross in the form of a sprouting tree highlights the transformative and historical significance of Christ’s Crucifixion. Christ is the second Adam restoring mankind to a state of grace, the Tree of the Fall becomes the Tree of Salvation.”

      I think I have photographed the wrong one for my caption, though, you’re right there!

      • Now I look again at Barrett’s text to answer your query below, Alan, I also find this bit:

        “The Fall can be excluded as the subject since angels do not appear until the Expulsion, and at Claverley there is no room for Adam and Eve in their usual positions.”

        He sees it as the Archangel Michael and the Tree of Paradise, though why those things would be together in a picture I’m less clear…

  2. Allan McKinley

    Does he provide any references to the association of the cross as a living tree (which, probably due to limited reading, I’ve always assumed was a conceit of Old English poetry) and the tree in the Garden of Eden? It seems plausible as a metaphor for salvation, but I’d be happier with that link if I knew it had medieval comparators. Especially because looking at that tree I don’t see a cross implicit in the representation (other’s readings will likely vary though) so this is not a clearly explicit link.

    I also wonder if 14th-century Claverleyites sat around trying to figure out the significance of the old paintings on the church wall: I’m guessing at some point the meaning became unclear or confused.

    • The short version of the answer seems to be, yes, the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Golden Legend, but the slightly longer one goes like this:

      One source of the Holy Cross story is the Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, the most influential of the Apocryphal Gospels. An Old English version, in an eleventh-century manuscript, makes the link between the two trees, as does Lambert of Saint-Omer in Liber floribus (1120) and John Beleth in his homily for the Exaltation festival in Rationale divinorum officiorum (c. 1170). The full Holy Cross story is in the Golden Legend (1261–6). The story is told by Adam’s son, Seth. He recalls being sent to the gates of Paradise by his dying father to ask God for oil from the Tree of Mercy. Seth prays, the Archangel Michael appears and refuses the request. This is the opening scene in the Story of the Holy Cross. In the murals by Agnolo Gaddi, in Santa Croce, Florence (1388–92), Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, in the Chapel of the Cross, San Francesco, Volterra (1410), and Piero della Francesca, at Arezzo (1452–66), the Holy Cross cycle opens with a scene showing an angel speaking with Seth and occupies
      exactly the same position on the top left of the south wall as at Claverley. In the earliest of these versions, by Gaddi, Seth receives a scroll, which may also be the case at Claverley.”

      This would also seem to answer my concern about the association of angel and tree above! I should have looked closer. His references here (apart from those in text) include B. Baert, A Heritage of Holy Wood: the Legend of the True Cross in text and image, transl. L. Preedy, Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions 22 (Leiden 2004), which I guess is where you’d go to go further.

      • Allan McKinley

        Thanks. The snake in the tree has to indicate the fall surely, but otherwise I’ve learnt something here. Probably have to add another layer of meaning whenever I see a vine scroll on an Anglo-Saxon sculpture, which makes about ten or so…

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