The mystery of two wonderful examples of medieval memento mori

I found the article below in the Church Times and thought that I would share it with you.  Although on first glance they may look a little macabre, I saw them as lovely examples of medieval iconogrpahy.  In many ways they are also very touching.  I love the mystery surrounding them as well.

Shrouded skeletons on brasses in medieval Durham church investigated

02 MARCH 2018

 

FRIENDS OF ST EDMUND’S CHURCH

The two shrouded figures displayed on brasses at St Edmund’s, Sedgefield

PUBLIC curiosity about two shrouded skeletons in a medieval church has led to an investigation into their origins.

The figures — believed to be male and female — are depicted on brasses displayed on the wall at 13th-century St Edmund’s, Sedgefield, in Co. Durham, which is Grade I listed. The plates are singular in that they portray skeletons: normally, the figure is a likeness of the person in the tomb.

Little is known about them, and the Friends of St Edmund’s are trying to find out more. “We are asked about the origin of the skeletons on a fairly regular basis, and it would be nice to have an explanation for people who visit the church,” Alison Hodgson, a local historian and the secretary of the group, said.

They hope that documents held in the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne will shed some light, and are aware of one record which says that the two figures were once on a tomb that had a shield and ribbon above, and a border — probably with an inscription — around the edge.

Brian Mutch, a churchwarden and the Friends’ membership secretary, is leading the investigation. “We don’t know how long they have been in the church,” he said. “One document from 1896 says they were there then; so we will have to go further back. There is no indication as to how old they are, but all the others in the church date from the 1300s; so it is quite likely they come from then.

“It is possible they were on a tomb in the north transept, but that has been altered two or three times over the years. However, we do have two stone effigies in the south transept — one of a man and the other of a woman — and I wonder if it is them. There are records of noble families in the area giving patronage to the church, but we have yet to examine them.

“There is a lot more work to do. I don’t know how long it will take, but we shall persevere.”

Symbol of the Month – The Shrouded Cross

The Shrouded Cross on the family grave of the Beckley family, St Nicholas church, Sevenoaks
©Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol is a rare one and I discovered it in my local churchyard, St Nicholas in Sevenoaks. It’s on the grave of the Beckley family.

A draped cross in West Norwood Greek section.
©Carole Tyrrell

However, I have also previously seen crosses with real cloth draped on them in two big London cemeteries One was in the Greek Section of West Norwood.  At that time I thought that perhaps it was to commemorate an anniversary or a particular religious festival. However, during my research for this post. I have discovered that the colour of the   West Norwood cloth, white,  is associated with Easter Sunday.

As you can see from the above photo of the Beckley headstone, the cloth is wrapped loosely around the cross  and, according to my research, it’s a resurrection symbol.  In fact it’s known as the Resurrection Cross or the Shrouded Cross. Some of its other names are: the Draped Cross, the Empty Cross, the Risen Cross or the Deposition Cross. The latter is a further reminder of Christ’s descent from the cross

It’s intended to be a representation of Jesus no longer being on the cross. Although there are also plain crosses on graves unless they have the cloth they are not Resurrection crosses. The cloth is a supposed reference to Christ’s grave clothes or shroud that were found in the tomb after he rose from the dead. It emphasises to the bereaved left behind that death isn’t the end.

Within the church calendar, the cloth draped around a cross during important dates in the Christian calendar particularly Easter has special significance according the colours of the fabric. These are white, purple – the colour of royalty, and black.  The latter is used from Palm Sunday (the week prior to Easter) until Good Friday and denotes mourning after Christ’s death on the cross.

The shrouded cross on the Beckley headstone is a striking image which caught my attention and really stood out in a churchyard containing several headstones with fascinating symbols on them.

So this one may be an affirmation of faith on behalf of the deceased  or a strong belief in the afterlife with death being seen as the beginning of a new life.

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

 

References and further reading

https://www.seiyaku.com/customs/crosses/shrouded.html

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://answers.yahoo.com/question/ind?qid=20170406140444AAUuXdc