The Dance of Death | Brian LewisPosted: September 30, 2014
I wake thick dust as chapel-sunlight pales
and into silence lift my stubborn breath…
On a late September morning of thick cloud and thin air, I visited St. Mary Magdalene church in Newark-on-Trent, accompanied by poet Chris Jones and artist/writer Emma Bolland. We’d travelled there to record the first of three podcasts based on Chris’s Reformation-era sequence Death and the Gallant; the first stop on a one-day tour of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire that would also take in the parish churches of Pickworth and Corby Glen. Death and the Gallant is an imaginative exploration of the slow purging of Catholic wall art that began in the sixteenth century (authorised by the Royal Injunctions of 1559) and continued for a hundred years. Few pictures, paintings or other ‘Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry’ (including altar rails, chancel steps and crucifixes) escaped the notice of iconoclasts like William Dowsing, who visited over 250 churches in East Anglia during 1643-1644; most of the objects and images that did survive were either effaced (often with whitewash) or concealed. Dowsing’s journal of destruction (a valuable source for Death and the Gallant) might be considered a record of an anti-pilgrimage. Our brief expedition, in which we sought to document and discuss some of the remnants that the purges left behind, was not in itself a pilgrimage – we were journeying through the faith of an earlier culture, and the efforts to bring that faith and culture to an end, rather than immersed in a personal quest – but each of the visits was focused by contemplative ritual.
St. Mary Magdalene is reputed to be one of the largest parish churches in the country; as Chris observes, its dimensions rival those of Southwell Minster a few miles to the west. At 236 feet, the church spire is the highest in Nottinghamshire; the spire and the tower were completed in the 13th century, with the nave and the chancel dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Impressive as the scale and reach of the building is, it’s not the reason for our visit, or the occasion of our wonder. Chris leads us inside, through a nave busy with clinking teacups and pockets of chat, and towards a small sanctuary, flanked by two chapels, north and south. To the south of the high altar is the Markham chantry, founded in 1506 for Robert Markham and his wife Elizabeth, as directed in (and endowed by) Markham’s will. The base of the chantry is decorated with heraldic shields; the wall above it is divided into twenty-eight bays. Of these twenty-eight, almost all are empty. In the lower right corner of the wall, flickering under reflective glass, we find a pair of painted panels, filling out the last two bays, one panel depicting a skeleton, the other an affluent young man. The skeleton (a ‘feminised’ skeleton, as Emma notes) dances, the right hand extending a carnation to the young man, the left hand pointing at the ground (or the grave). This is ‘The Dance of Death’. The colours have paled, but the message (a popular theme of the medieval period) is clear: death comes to us all, and cannot be deferred by worldly wealth. What is less clear is why, and how, this fragment survived the purges. We step back from the panels, and step forward again, the painting disappearing and reappearing in shifts of light.
Emma, who is photographing the day’s visits, starts setting up her tripod and camera. I switch on my audio recorder. This version of ‘The Dance of Death’ is the primary source for the eighth poem in Death and the Gallant. Until today, Chris had only seen the work in reproduction. He begins to speak, and speaks firstly of the painting’s presence, the details unavailable in the print and online photographs; in particular, a small dagger with an inlaid skull. The panels seem to draw him further and further in, the voice slows, is made hesitant, is moved almost to silence. We start over, and over, Chris pacing around the painting, musing on its history, refining and reconsidering his ideas about the work, always at a hush, in spite of the loud, frequent interruptions of sprung doors opening and closing nearby. I become attuned to the interruptions, footsteps in the nave, faint smears of traffic, the shutter-click of Emma’s camera, her own pacing, sensed but unseen, testing the light, testing the angle, drawing into distance, closing on the panels. I think of her work on the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project, in which she and her collaborators Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers explore the idea of ‘research as performance’, ceremonies of remembrance enacted for the camera, ritual as a defence against civic erasure, against forgetting. Today, she’s on the other side of the camera, the ritual steadying her with patience, waiting for the light, waiting for us to move into it, her image-making punctuating Chris’s narrative of image-breaking. We consider the chapel plaque, its allusion to a missing inscription, a prayer for souls that was lost to the destruction. Chris offers his last words to the painting, and Emma offers her last words to the painting. We gather our things from the pews, our voices small in the vaulted space.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Two further blog posts (by Emma Bolland and Chris Jones) and podcasts, documenting the visits to churches in Pickworth and Corby Glen, appear here and here. Listen to Chris Jones discuss ‘The Dance of Death’ and its relationship to the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St. Mary Magdalene church, Newark-on-Trent, 19 Sept 2014):