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St Cuthbert's Church, Wells: Reredos Collection

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Fragment of drapery bearing rich diaper work over gilding from the north transept reredos, c. 1440-c. 1445

About the Collection

This remarkable and unique collection of late medieval painted sculpture was discovered in 1848 during a programme of renovation at St Cuthbert's Parish Church in Wells, Somerset. Dismantling the eastern walls of the transepts, workmen uncovered around 450 pieces of broken sculpture blocked into the niches of two large stone reredoses. These had been an important focus for worship in the medieval church and were consequently targets for Reformers who, in the mid-sixteenth century, dismantled the reredoses - pulling statues from the niches, breaking them up and cutting back the faces of the remaining structures. At the time of their rediscovery the fragments still retained their bright polychromy: ironically, their long interment had preserved much of their medieval paint intact.

Head of a prophet from the south transept Jesse Tree reredos, 1470-1472

The north transept reredos backed the altar in the Lady Chapel, and features imagery from the life of the Virgin: an Annunciation scene, the Madonna and Child - and, on the basis of the cataloguing work, Jerry Sampson hypothesises a depiction of St Anne teaching the Virgin. No heads from the northern reredos survive, possibly indicating an earlier phase of destruction of its Marian imagery. Although the statues are badly fragmented, their rich decoration is apparent. A kneeling donor figure from one of the niches may be identified as Sir John Wellington, whose gift of ‘newly made' curtains to adorn the altar is recorded in the churchwardens' inventories published by Thomas Serel; this evidence suggests a date of c. 1440-c.1445 for the completion of the reredos.

The south transept reredos can be dated precisely owning to the survival of the contract for its production (now kept at Wells City Archives), which is dated 1470. Mason John Stowell was contracted by the fraternity of the Blessed Virgin to construct the reredos over an 18-month period. Stowell (fl. 1448-1470) was master mason at Wells Cathedral and responsible for the Chain Gate and the west cloister. The reredos depicts the genealogy of Christ in the image of the Tree of Jesse with the figure of Jesse, Christ's ancestor, reclining in relief at the base of the structure. The sculptures from this reredos depict Christ's kingly forebears and the prophets who foretold His coming.

Fragment of the sinister thigh of a tall standing and winged figure, probably the Archangel Gabriel from an Annunciation scene in the north transept reredos, c. 1440-c. 1445

In the years after 1848, the fragments were stored in various places and under various conditions, suffering some damage as a result. The collection was numbered and photographed by conservators Sue and Lawrence Kelland in 1987 whilst it was temporarily housed at the Wells Cathedral Masons' Yard. This numbering system was retained for the current catalogue, and as such there are some gaps in the sequence where items have gone missing over the years.

Although this remarkable collection has been recognised as one of the most important groups of medieval sculpture in an English church today, it had not previously been properly investigated in its entirety. This online collection is the result of a project executed in 2016 which produced a comprehensive catalogue of the fragmented sculpture, identifying as far as possible the iconography of the two reredoses and allocating the pieces to their original context. Alongside this work a condition report was produced, incorporating paint analysis of samples taken from the frameworks and a selected group of the fragments; this information further develops understanding of the original composition and construction of the reredoses as well as their subsequent history of use.

These investigations have provided more details about the dating, construction and destruction of this unusual survival which is potentially the most important assemblage of late medieval painted sculpture in any English parish church. The online catalogue enables images and details to be shared more widely while protecting the fragile sculptures (now properly stored) from further handling and exposure.

Fragment of canopy work from the north transept reredos, c. 1440-c. 1445          Fragment of drapery from a figure sculpture from the south transept Jesse Tree reredos, 1470-1472

Use of the catalogue

The Parochial Church Council of St Cuthbert's Church (St Cuthbert's PCC) intends this resource to be widely and freely accessible for research and education, and used in place of physical access to the artefact collection so that the condition of the latter may be preserved.

Usage: These images are licensed for public or private use under the Creative Commons Attribution by Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC) licence. Under the terms of this licence the images may be used for non-commercial purposes, and the copyright owner must be appropriately credited. Further information regarding usage, including images for print publication may be obtained from the Churchwardens of St Cuthbert's Church.

Copyright: © St Cuthbert's PCC/ Jerry Sampson 2016, unless otherwise specified. Additional images of the reredos frameworks were supplied by Humphries & Jones, © St Cuthbert's PCC 2016.

Contact Details

Address:
The Churchwarden
St Cuthbert's Church
St Cuthbert Street
Wells
Somerset BA5 2AW

Email: churchwardensstcuthberts@gmail.com
Project website: www.reredosproject.wordpress.com
Project funders: The Heritage Lottery Fund; The Pilgrim Trust; ChurchCare; The Alfred Gillett Trust; Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society (Maltwood Fund); The Leche Trust
Project cataloguer: Jerry Sampson
Project conservators: Lynne Humphries and Emma Norris (Humphries & Jones)
Project management team: Graham Barrow (St Cuthbert's PCC); Patsy Barrow; Antonia Gwynn (St Cuthbert's PCC); Piers Rose (St Cuthbert’s PCC); Jonathan Saunders (Caroe & Partners Architects); Judeth Saunders (Alfred Gillett Trust)


The Heritage Lottery Fund      The Pilgrim Trust    ChurchCare      The Leche Trust


Central torso of a ?standing ?king in belted robe and mantle from the south transept Jesse Tree reredos, 1470-1472

Image credits

 

 

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