For over 400 years, wooden sculptures were the most familiar and accessible form of devotional imagery and the immediate material interface between laymen and -women of the British Isles and their faith. Between the 1530s and 1640s, these once ubiquitous works vanished from churches, chapels, shrines, monasteries, cathedrals, etc. throughout virtually every community. The last century of scholarship maintains that the vast majority are lost beyond retrieval – smashed to smithereens or reduced to pathetic piles of ash as a result of sweeping sixteenth-century governmental edicts for dismantling and destruction, spectacular ‘burnings’ in larger towns and cities and the predations of Parliamentarian soldiers and self-promoting iconoclasts. The disappearance of medieval devotional wood sculpture is singled out as the defining material consequence of the medieval British Church’s sixteenth-century and later transformations. Indeed, churches and other sacred sites are empty, save for a piteous handful of chance survivals, scorched and battered remains and immured relics and, largely considered too isolated to submit to comprehensive analysis.
But does absence necessarily imply obliteration? Those factors that made wooden sculptures especially vulnerable (their ubiquity and inherent mobility) must also have ensured substantial numbers of survivals, just not where one might expect to find them. Documentation also abounds that removal of wood sculpture from its original context, even in the thick of sixteenth-century reformation-related changes, did not spell instant annihilation. Parish after parish recorded the sixteenth-century rescue, concealment and resale of devotional imagery into private ownership or for export. Equally numerous are later accounts of chance finds or strange encounters with images out of context but still very much active and in use: Mary and John ‘hid up’ in a church-house or St Peter guarding the entrance to a pub as a trade-sign. It is perplexing that copious evidence that the post-medieval fate of devotional wood sculptor was in reality anything but near total destruction has failed to propel scholars to track these works beyond church walls and along their indirect and often surprising paths down to the present. As a result, the largest unexplored body of British medieval art and imagery (much of it from chronically underrepresented rural parish communities) slips further into obscurity and towards eventual oblivion.
Invisible Saints is a community-driven, web-based project to locate, digitally record and document the medieval devotional wood sculpture of the British Isles, which survives, largely unrecognised, in situ, in institutional and private collections and circulating within the works of art market. The ultimate aim of this phase is to bring these works, which constitute a lost heritage of British medieval art and local culture, to the light of scholarship and to make information about them accessible in an easy to use format that appeals to academics and non-academics alike. In addition to a continuously expanding, searchable database with extensive images/references and full catalogue entries, resources available through the website will include a repository of transcribed primary documents pertaining to medieval devotional wood sculpture in the British Isles, a secondary bibliography, an index of institutions and other sites at which known works are on view to the public and a showcase for scholarly articles.
A further aim of Invisible Saints is to foster collaboration across disciplines and amongst different academic and non-academic interest groups. Enhancing understanding of British medieval devotional wood sculpture will spark the interest of scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, as well as providing a resource for conservation specialists, museum professionals, collectors, private enthusiasts and local heritage bodies. From the outset, the project seeks to actively engage these various constituencies by enlisting submissions for possible inclusion in the database and other resources and encouraging discussion through an online forum and social media. Moreover, the project’s subject matter (appealing simultaneously to historians and art historians alike by linking to such issues as travelling and artisans and their techniques, local patronage, iconographic innovation and translation, ‘lifecycle’ issues such as ‘survival and re-contextualisation’, communal memory and transformation of the British Church and the experience of local belief into the sixteenth-century and beyond) offers the unique opportunity to unite the efforts and interests of the Warwick History and History of Art departments under the auspices of the Network for Parish Research.
What are the limits of the project?
- Chronological: c. 1100 – c. 1550
- Geographic: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Channel Islands
- free-standing devotional figure sculpture
- figural groups
- reliefs or appliqués from altarpieces, reredos, retables, etc.
- figurative elements from roodscreens and -lofts (rood-groups, apostles, etc.)
- figurative fragments associated with any of the above categories
- components of tabernacles, image corbels and other housings/supports for wooden devotional images
- non-figurative carvings
- zoomorphic carvings
- ecclesiastical architectural and/or roof carvings (corbels, ceiling bosses, spandrels, so-called ‘beam angels’, etc.)
- marginal ecclesiastical carvings (misericords, bench-ends, etc.)
- effigies and other elements of tomb sculpture
- domestic or civic secular sculpture
- in-period continental European imports
Invisible Saints is envisioned as a long-term venture, which will continue to evolve beyond this exploratory phase. The current flexible, web-based format allows for the expansion of the project into publications, exhibitions and various forms of public programming as findings, feedback and funding allow. It is also hoped that during subsequent phases the online database will remain fully accessible as an ongoing public resource.
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