Benedictine Patronage and Devotion

 

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Horsham St Faith is a small village about four or five miles north of Norwich.  In the Middle Ages, it was dominated by a Benedictine Priory of which there are now very scant remains, except for some domestic quarters with important medieval wall paintings. The priory was founded in 1105 by Robert FitzWalter.   After stopping off at Conques on his return from a pilgrimage to Rome ,FitzWalter invited the community at Conques to establish a priory cell on his estate in Horsham.  Conques was the centre of the cult of St Faith or St Foy and contained her shrine and the new priory was naturally given a dedication to her.  Although an alien priory, it was given a grant of denization in 1390, so it escaped being dissolved as an alien house by Henry V.  After that date it had English monks and an English superior.

IMG_0976.JPGThe present parish church of Our Lady and St Andrew in Horsham St Faith, sits to the south of the priory site and on what was the southern edge of the monastic precinct.  Among the late medieval works of art it still contains, is a 15th-century rood screen with painted panels and a rarer thing, a six-sided pulpit of the same period.  This intriguing object is painted with ten figures of saints, all set against typical green and red counterchanged grounds and has very interesting evidence of it’s patronage, that connects it to the neighbouring monastic community.

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Unlike the pulpit at Burnham Depedale, which has figures of the Doctors of the Church, the saints that are included on the pulpit here at Horsham, are a more varied bunch. The figures all stand on tall plinths as though they were three-dimensional objects, figure sculpture and as though we are looking through a window to a world beyond.  There are figures of two Apostles: St John the Evangelist with the chalice and viper and St Andrew with his saltire.

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Next to St John the Evangelist is St John the Baptist and beside him is St Stephen holding the stones of his martyrdom.

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A figure of a sainted archbishop (St Thomas of Canterbury?) stands beside a figure of St Christopher.  These are all figures typical of the period and reflect a conventional piety. The figure of St Andrew presumably eludes to the joint dedication of the church and the two figures of St John we might conjecture, indicate the Christian name of the patron.

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On the next side of the pulpit St Helen stands on her stone plinth holding the true cross, beside a panel that is less conventional.  We look as though through a window, to witness a scene beyond, a scene of intimate devotion.  The Virgin and her Child stand ona plinth as the others, but kneeling before the raised plinth is a figure of the donor of the pulpit. He is a tonsured cleric dressed in a black habit, presumably a Benedictine monk of the priory of St Faith.  As he kneels he looks upwards gazing at the Virgin, his hands parted. On scroll that encircles his head like a speech bubble and as though he is praying these words, is the rhyming Middle English couplet:

Mercyful lady qwene of hevyn kepe me from þe dedly synnys sevyn

An intensity of devotion to Mary is here expressed, as he kneels he prays to the Blessed Virgin to give him the strength to avoid committing the seven deadly sins.

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The Benedictine identity of the black habited figure, is further reinforced by a final panel, that forms the pulpit’s door.  It is decorated with a pair of Benedictine saints: a sainted Benedictine superior holding a book (perhaps St Benedict himself holding his rule?) and St Leonard, dressed as a Benedictine prior and holding his shackles.

Infuriatingly we don’t know precisely who the patron was who paid for this masterpiece, as the inscription recording his gift is badly damaged and is missing in places and wasn’t recorded in it any antiquarian sources.  The only bit that remains is the part that dates the work to 1487 and asks for prayers for his:

domini millimo cccc lxxx viij cuius anime propicietur deus amen

Without the name of this Benedictine donor, this whole object remains something of an enigma and we are left with lots of unanswered questions.  Was this object originally made for the priory church of St Faith itself and removed to the parish church at the Dissolution of the Monasteries?  If made for the parish church, what precisely was the relationship between the priory and the parish that would have made such a gift by an individual monk possible?  Was he serving as the parish priest?  What does the gift of a pulpit say about the vibrancy of this particular house in the final years of Catholic England?  Tantalising questions that may remain unanswered, but what we have been given here is an insight into the intense devotion of one monk to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

3 thoughts on “Benedictine Patronage and Devotion

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    1. It’s not as surprising as it first appears. One of the things that is mentioned frequently in visitations to monastic houses, particularly in the 15th-century is that monastics were often in possession of private property against the vow of poverty. The vow of poverty was again and again reiterated, but it seems it was increasingly ignored.

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