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Medieval Moments

History that shaped our statues in England.

We love our church statuary, from humble crib figures to great masterpieces; yet some consider only carved wooden figures worthy of church settings. They dismiss plaster figures such as those affectionately known as Saint Sulpice, as inferior. This misconception overlooks God's efficacy in providing a variety of malleable materials for artists to use for His purposes.

Where historically, wood was plentiful, and in common use from the forest bodger to the medieval guilds of woodcarvers, to peasants gathering kindling for fires - much of England has since been deforested. While the art of the wood carver continues to this day, in times of necessity, plaster would serve an equally important purpose.

From the start of the reformation in 1534, to the first Catholic relief act of 1778,

Roman Catholics in Britain were not allowed to practice their faith, or integrate fully into society. During this time England experienced iconoclasm on an unprecedented scale. Protesters against the Roman Catholic faith set out to strip the altars of artefacts, and the monasteries of their assets. Their intention was to erase - (cancel!) Catholic culture, and supress their beliefs.

English masterpieces were destroyed or burned, including the figure of Our lady of Walsingham, which Henry VIII himself had famously venerated in thanksgiving for a son and heir.

The rejection of Roman Catholicism left a huge void in the hearts of the nation *who had been happy to practice Catholicism for centuries. The church and people had provided a means of spirituality, sustenance and welfare for the poor which formed the fabric of society.

*(See 'Stripping of the Altars' by Eamon Duffy.)

Medieval Bishop carved in Alabaster
Medieval Bishop carved in Alabaster

By the early 1700's the Norman Gothic style associated with early medieval Roman Catholicism in England, was supplanted by the Neo classical style. Unlike the highly decorative Gothic, with needle-like church spires which pierced the heavens, the Neo classical style used simple forms and symmetry, as seen in the ancient temples to Greek and Roman gods. By 1740 The Neo classical style was getting old, and a new interest in the Gothic Architecture of medieval England arose. This was linked to movements which sought to ease societal restrictions on Roman Catholicism, and a concern within the Anglo Catholic church of the growth of religious non-conformism.

In 1829 the Emancipation of Catholics Act was passed, and Catholicism enjoyed a new blossoming, along with its decorative arts. The increasing number of church buildings demanded artifacts to fill them. The revival was ripe for Plaster church statuary to come into its how in Rediscovering Maison Rafl.

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