The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe. Making, Meaning, Preserving

As the paperback of this acclaimed collection appears for the first time, co-editor Lucy Wrapson presents an overview of its coverage and explains why one word from the subtitle – Preserving – may make it more timely than ever.

I am delighted that The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe. Making, Meaning, Preserving, a book that I co-edited in 2017 with Spike Bucklow and Richard Marks, is now out in paperback. The book forms part of the excellent Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture series edited by Julian Luxford and Asa Mittman, and grew from the themes and content of a conference on church screens held at Cambridge in 2012. The book was well-received, garnering positive reviews, including by Paul Williamson in The English Historical Review and is well-illustrated to boot.

As Paul Binski describes eloquently in his introduction to the book, the subject of medieval European church screens received little attention between the 1940s and the 1980s, and yet since then the scholarship has developed substantially and in several distinct but complementary directions. In The Stripping of the Altars (1992) Eamon Duffy used the parochial as a microcosm for larger issues, reforming attitudes to the Reformation. Other authors such as Richard Marks, Julian Luxford and Jacqueline Jung have explored the function of images on screens in thinking about piety and devotional practice, both in their scholarship more widely and here in their contributions in The Art and Science of the Church Screen. David Griffith’s piece in the book examines not just the image but the word, as found in vernacular and Latin inscriptions on the screens of England, presaging cultural changes at the Reformation. More recently, my own work and that of other contributors to this volume such as Spike Bucklow, Hugh Harrison, Jeffrey West and Eddie Sinclair, has dealt with screens as things, as structures built and decorated by craftsmen, bringing both the material turn and the science of art to bear on the subject. Very sadly, since the book was originally published in 2017, one of our contributors, Eddie Sinclair, has died. Through her conservation work and writing, Eddie’s contribution to preserving and understanding the screens of Devon was immense, and she is sorely missed.

The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe covers a lot of ground theoretically therefore, in making, meaning and preserving, but also temporally and geographically as well. Papers by Ebbe Nyborg, Justin Kroesen, and Donal Cooper respectively explore Scandinavian, Netherlandish and Italian screens and roods, ranging in date from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries.

The publication of the paperback comes at a key time for England’s unparalleled numbers of medieval screens and their preservation. The active membership of the Church of England is ageing. Cathedral and city congregations are growing in some places, but in the rural areas where the most historically important churches and their screens are located, congregations are typically dwindling. Many historic churches are therefore looking at an immediate future in which they are going to see a change in use, probably within a ten to twenty-year timeframe.

Through my own work in the practical conservation and technical study of screens, I have come to have real concerns over their long term survival, something that was highlighted in an article in the Guardian back in 2013. Many screens and the buildings in which they stand are in poor condition. Funding is tight and, ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what value we place on these historic monuments as a society, as we face the potential for a massive loss of material and visual culture. I think if we do value medieval churches and their contents then we need to find a new structure for their funding as well as new and more comprehensive ways to conserve, record, research and share what we find, considering preservation models from elsewhere in Europe. I very much hope that the informative and pleasantly affordable paperback version of The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe will play its part in raising the profile of these intriguing structures, and will spark wider interest in them among diverse audiences.

This guest post was written by Lucy Wrapson, Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe
Edited by Spike Bucklow, Richard Marks & Lucy Wrapson
Paperback, 9781783275359, £16.25 or $22.72
Hardback, 9781783271238, £48.75 or $78

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