The Shepherds of Corby Glen | Chris JonesPosted: October 17, 2014
I trail my shadow round this Lord’s demesne –
closed cottages, forge, tavern, farm…
Death and the Gallant, Chris Jones
It’s very rare that you get to see depictions of medieval individuals going about their daily business in the flesh. You could visit a ‘high end’ art gallery, for sure, and study sombre portraits, or go online and hunt down illuminated manuscripts and books of hours that showed wealthy patrons rooted in the narratives of their good lives. Then – perhaps more humbly – there are those paintings in parish churches that offer wider perspectives on Pre-Reformation England and its culture. The art on offer is often fragmentary, worn-away, and incomplete, but the views on offer in these settings are compelling, haunting, and tantalising in equal measure.
As part of our peregrinations around Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, we came across paintings of three shepherds at St John’s church, Corby Glen. The shepherds, represented on the south arcade of the church, are coming in from the fields with their sheep. The two adult shepherds depicted are carrying crooks across their shoulders. Hanging from these staffs there seem to be lunch pails or baskets. An accompanying boy shepherd is playing a musical instrument, perhaps something like a bombard (in the official literature it says, more prosaically, ‘pipes’). You can see by the way the boy is pursing his lips that he is playing an instrument with a reed. The shepherds also have a sheepdog for company. Although the animal is five hundred years old you can still see the spots on its coat – the red blotchy pigment that remains is echoed in both the boy’s and the adult shepherds’ garb.
These shepherds of the nativity story are, quite naturally, medieval citizens. They straddle Biblical time and ‘contemporary’ time in a relaxed, uncomplicated manner. Yet however much this small group is stylised, however much they escape from ‘realist’ perspectives and framing devices, there is a sense in which we are looking at authentic representatives of a time and place. The men and the boy have names, they have families. They know their fields around the village.
The modern viewer might want to perceive these images in terms of continuity: the wall paintings offer evidence of an unbroken lineage of worship in Corby Glen that goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the very existence of these portraits is underpinned by acts of violence and suppression. The shepherds now occupy space on the walls of the church because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation. These stylised bucolic images, however endearing and romantic our responses to them, signal the end of one dominant religious system of belief in the country, and flag up (through their concealment over the centuries) new approaches to praising God in Protestant England. The shepherds are not only messengers sent to herald the birth of the new king but revenants of the ‘old ways’. They offer interested parties, day-trippers, sightseers, perhaps even pilgrims, a glimpse of some strange and beguiling worldview of man’s place in the universe that has long since been repudiated, abandoned. The shepherds seem very old and at the same time immediate, knowable: fresh from their day’s work on the land.
What remains with me from the three churches we visited over the course of one morning and afternoon is the way in which these images come back to me, floating up through the bricks and stone. However faint or half-formed these pictures appear on the walls, they linger on the retina like strange dreams you can’t quite shake in daylight. I felt deeply humbled to spend time among these medieval paintings, created by anonymous artists who left no signature or ‘thumbprint’ in sight.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the third and final blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (visited by Emma Bolland, Brian Lewis and Chris Jones on 19 September 2014). The first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here; the second post, by Emma Bolland, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Tree of Jesse’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St John the Evangelist’s Church, Corby Glen, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):