Richard Taylor shows how churches were designed to give medieval people a way to escape death, with their Judgement scenes, cadaver tombs and crucifixion depictions.
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In the Middle Ages, death was never far from our ancestors' minds.
And inside their churches, warnings about death were writ large,
leaving no doubt as to what would greet them on the other side.
This is an image of the Last Judgment.
The choice is between heaven and hell.
The dead rise naked from their graves.
Their souls are weighed against their sins.
The saved are welcomed into heaven,
and the damned are being hauled into hell.
What do images like this tell us about the medieval fixation with death,
and the epic drama awaiting them beyond the grave?
By the Middle Ages,
the church was an institution so influential
that you lived and died in its shadow.
And dying well mattered just as much as living well.
I'm Richard Taylor.
I write books about the meaning of Britain's churches.
I believe we've forgotten how to read the language of these buildings.
But if we care to look,
we can connect directly with our ancestors' deepest hopes
I'll be looking at medieval images of mortality,
heaven and hell, to find out
how they dealt with the threat of death, and the hereafter.
Death in the Middle Ages was ever-present.
Anything from plague, childbirth or the simplest infection
could suddenly take you from this life.
Inside Holy Trinity Church, at Westbury on Trym, lies a morbid
and graphic reminder of mortality.
This is a cadaver tomb,
so known because, rather than
the usual tombs where the person buried underneath it
is shown in the pink of health and in their best clothes,
this tomb shows the person underneath it
as they are now...
rotting. I have to say it makes me feel
quite uncomfortable being this close to one.
Cadaver tombs came into being
in the wake of the Black Death in the mid-14th century,
which decimated Europe, killing as much as one third of the population,
destroying whole communities and often taking the hale and the hearty.
And it shows an intense response
to the experience of death in the mind of the living.
But it also contains a message,
"As I am, so tomorrow you may be."
DISCORDANT PEAL OF BELLS
The medieval preoccupation with mortality is reinforced
by a representation of death
that dominated the interior of nearly every church in the land.
Deep in Devon, St Andrew's has a 19th-century
re-imagining of this central scene -
This is a rood screen that separates the nave,
where the people would have stood, from the sanctuary beyond,
where the holy mystery of the Mass would be performed.
The word "rood" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "cross".
It's spelt R-O-O-D.
And above it is the rood itself.
It's an image of Christ crucified, nailed to the cross.
And what's being shown is the moment of his death
as his head falls forward, usually to the right.
In many ways, it's an appalling scene.
This is an image of torture, of execution and of death.
And for it to be standing here,
in the most central spot of the church, is...
striking and...moving and perplexing.
Why put a torture scene at the heart of a church?
Although it's an image of pain, it's also an image of hope,
because it represents
Christ's sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
And it was through his suffering and death
that you were offered salvation.
The concentration on the suffering of Jesus was a new development.
Early Christianity had used an empty cross
to symbolise Jesus conquering death.
This aversion to showing Christ's suffering
continued into Saxon times. If he was shown
on the cross he was robed, arms outstretched and triumphant.
It was only in the 13th century
that artists began to portray a dying Christ, hanging heavily on his arms.
This was because of a growing theological emphasis on the humanity of Christ.
Passion scenes start to be depicted with realism and symbolic detail.
And it is within the Priory Church at Great Malvern
that the full extent of this devotion can be found.
This is an amazing survival.
These are medieval tiles
of the sort that once would have covered the floors and the walls.
But I'm here trying to find one in particular. Oh, yes, here we are.
It's down here.
This is a tile showing what's known as "the instruments of the Passion".
And you have the crown of thorns.
You've got the whip that was used to beat Christ.
You've got the nails, you've got the spear that pierced his side.
There are dice here that the soldiers used to gamble for Christ's clothes.
Images like this one appeared everywhere in the Middle Ages,
and they are a kind of aide-memoire of what Christ had suffered,
and they fired the popular imagination.
Actually, as I'm looking,
this section here is covered with these images.
It gives you a sense of how often you would have encountered
images like this, reminders of the suffering that Christ had endured.
And here you have them again,
up here in the windows.
There's a crown of thorns,
the rods that were used to beat Christ with nails coming out of them.
There's a hammer with two nails on either side of it.
There's the three dice appearing again.
I don't recognise that.
Oh! Except that it's the wounds.
Those are the five wounds of Christ.
They're always in these groups of five - one for each hand,
one for each foot, and one for the heart.
And they're... Eurgh!
They're pouring blood.
It's a very visceral, powerful image.
Cathy, I've been exploring those images
of the instruments of the Passion and I'm amazed
by just how many of them there are there. What were they intended to achieve?
This emphasis on thinking about Christ's suffering has a great deal
to do with lifting Christ's death
out of the historical context of dying,
you know, in the first part of the 1st century AD, as it were,
and an idea that Christ is dying all the time,
that he's suffering all the time.
And every time you do something wrong,
like the people who originally crucified him made him suffer,
you make him suffer in the same way.
And if you're aware that what you do makes Christ suffer,
then you can make amends for it. And these devotions
play a very good part in that,
in bringing these things to one's consciousness.
They were there to influence people's day-to-day behaviour.
Because they're such vivid and imaginative images,
-they make people feel.
And it's making people feel that enables them to understand.
And this would enable people to feel that Christ was on their side as well.
When you sit here, where medieval people would have sat,
and you contemplate these...
bits of glass and these tiles, just as they would have contemplated them,
I understand how you could look at these images
and feel your way into them
by breaking down and unpacking the Crucifixion.
By focusing on each element of the Passion,
you would feel what had happened more and more and more.
Increasingly, people identified their lives
with the life and death of Jesus.
The Crucifixion embodied the awful reality of their own mortality.
Although you didn't know when death would come,
you fervently believed that it wasn't the end.
Our medieval churches would be changed dramatically
by one particular conviction about the afterlife.
It became an obsession for the medieval Christian.
The fate for anybody who died without having confessed
and repented of their sins, was the state known as purgatory.
Purgatory was not hell,
it was a kind of outpatients' department of hell,
a place where you would be punished for the sins
that you had not confessed and been absolved of in your life.
Often the punishment fitted the crime,
so that gluttons, for example, would be fed on a diet of snakes and worms.
Or the greedy would be fed on molten gold until they sickened of it,
the purpose being to purge you of these sins.
But purgatory could be avoided,
or at least, your time in it could be reduced,
by living well and by dying well.
It was too big a risk to wait until your final breath
before contemplating the eternal fate of your soul.
Far better to make preparation
for Judgment Day while you were alive and well.
And the interiors of many of our churches benefited from this need to prepare
for death, as it was thought that gifts to your parish church
could ease your way through purgatory.
I've come here
to All Saints, Bristol, to find the story of just one woman -
Alice Chestre - who, like tens of thousands up and down the country,
was concerned with the remembrance of her soul after her death.
And what I want to find out is what she left behind.
This church is now a Christian education centre.
It might look as though Alice is long forgotten, but a very special record -
The All Saints Church Book - reveals her legacy.
-OK. What did she give?
-Well, there's an awful lot of stuff.
Towels, jugs, and ewers and that sort of thing, and torches,
these are big candles,
to just about every church in the middle of Bristol,
"being in good prosperity", absolutely in good prosperity,
"and health of body, has led to be made a new rood screen
"at her own proper cost".
What did Alice fear might happen to her,
and how did she think that these gifts were going to help?
Well, in common with everybody else, she was very worried about purgatory.
So, basically, when you die,
if you've been very, very bad indeed you go straight to hell.
If you've been very, very good you go to heaven.
But most people, they go to purgatory.
But at the end of that, you go to heaven and that's for eternity.
So to get there, somebody like Alice Chestre is doing good works.
Basically, it's a kind of spiritual economy.
You want to have made recompense
for as much sin as possible,
and to ease your passage through purgatory.
Many medieval Christians like Alice
made bequests to secure a place in heaven.
But there was a more ostentatious method of chipping away
at your time in purgatory -
the chantry chapel.
Churches up and down the land were built,
rebuilt and modified to accommodate these memorials
to the dead.
Chantry chapels housed the tomb of their wealthy founder,
and also an altar, around which priests were paid to say Mass
for their soul's redemption.
This one is tucked away inside the parish church
at Dennington in Suffolk.
Gosh! What a fine church.
I'm struggling to find my way into this one.
And of course, they were a chantry chapel for a particular individual.
So actually, the only access that you really wanted was for the priests.
You certainly didn't want any common people coming in.
Here we go.
You can even tell that by the spikes on the door.
Chantry chapels were... the Belgravia of death.
You'd set them up just for yourself.
But here, you have the people who endowed the chantry
lying in prayer for eternity.
I always find this a knockout when I visit places like this.
But when these were put here,
these costumes were contemporary,
this is what people were wearing at the time.
At her head,
she's being cradled on a cushion by two angels on either side,
both of whom are looking heavenward.
Here you've got his sword firmly in place, at his side.
It's so realistic, you feel as if you could just give it a tug
and pull it out now, and he'd be jumping up
and back at war.
They're very fine.
And then at this end,
this is the raised area
where the priest would have been saying Masses for the dead.
And I suspect for these people,
they would have given a sufficient endowment
for Masses to be said for their souls forever.
Roy, I've had a look around the glorious chantry chapel
that you've got here, and I've done my best to work out what's going on
but I don't actually know who these people were.
What can you tell me about them?
He is Sir William Phelip, who married Lady Joan Bardolph
and therefore became Lord Bardolph in her right.
He fought at Agincourt and was a Garter Knight.
He was a person of national repute, and she was very much a lady.
What sort of money would it have taken to set up
a chantry chapel like this and have priests saying Masses for your soul?
He gave £20 per annum
to pay two chantry priests to offer Mass daily for the Bardolph family.
And this church would have been filled with the sound of the murmuring
of Masses being said for the dead, day in, day out.
Yes. And the Sanctus bell booming out from the tower at the climax of the Mass,
so that all the people in the fields and in the homes would pause.
It was worth what you paid to know
that you were being remembered before God daily.
BELL TOLLS, CHORISTERS SING
Some families went overboard on how much they paid.
And nowhere more so than in Scotland.
The Scottish nobility
seem to have been particularly concerned for their souls.
This church at Seton, east of Edinburgh, is one enormous chantry.
Well, if you ever doubted how seriously
people took the idea of purgatory, come here.
This entire church is built for one purpose,
and that is to protect the souls of the dead of one family,
the local lairds - the Seton family.
And, as well as building this church for that purpose, they left an endowment
for priests to say Masses for their souls -
several tending the altar up there, two tending another altar here,
two another altar there.
All of these resources pouring into one family.
Not clothing the naked or feeding the hungry,
not even saying prayers for somebody else. Just them.
But it's difficult in a place like this,
at 500 years' distance, to feel that outraged,
because it is so very beautiful.
While the wealthy spent a fortune to ensure their souls' speedy passage
through purgatory, the poor relied on friends in high places -
One of the most popular saints then
is still well-known to us now - St Christopher, the patron saint
St Christophers are familiar to us from a thousand travellers' medallions,
but this is the daddy of them.
The legend was that St Christopher was a devil-worshipper originally,
who converted to Christianity.
And, as part of his duties, he escorted people across a swollen river.
One day a small boy came to him and asked to be carried across the river.
He did this, but the weight of the boy was tremendous.
He got him across, but when he'd got to the other side and let the boy down,
the boy told him that he had carried the weight of the world
and of the creator of the world. And, of course,
the boy was Jesus, the infant Jesus.
The name Christopher means "Christ carrier".
You wanted to see images like this at least once a day
because, if you saw an image of St Christopher,
then you would not die that day unshriven.
In other words, they wouldn't die without their sins having been confessed.
I love the idea that people in the Middle Ages
might have just popped into the church door there,
just to have a quick look at St Christopher,
before going about their daily business.
But why St Christopher?
What was it about looking at him as opposed to any other saint?
You're crossing from life into death,
and it was the man who'd carried Christ
who would give you comfort in that crossing.
Your crossing into the next world mattered just as much as life itself.
Everyone believed literally in the Day of Judgment,
when their sins would be weighed in front of the risen Christ.
Holy Trinity in Coventry
has the most compelling medieval depiction of this scene in Britain.
So this is it. This is the end.
This is the Day of Judgment.
This is what it's all been there for -
all those prayers, all those good works,
all that repentance,
all that expenditure on items and on chantry chapels.
You rise from the grave, often in your burial clothes,
and stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
The just are ushered into heaven
and the damned are condemned to hell.
This scene has been described as being about control and dominance.
But what would you have felt if you were a medieval person
standing down here, seeing it from where it was meant to be seen?
You would have seen the rood, the crucifix below the arch there.
That sacrifice for your sins and for everybody's sins.
You would see Christ there in judgment showing his wounds,
not as a stern judge,
but as a fellow sufferer, sharing his humanity with you.
You'd see the saints beneath Christ, pleading for your soul.
And the whole thing told with these little touches of medieval humour.
The ale wives in their ridiculous headdresses being pulled down to hell
for selling watered-down beer.
And lined up for judgment
are kings in their crowns, are clergy in their red cardinal's hats.
The rich with the poor,
the powerful with the weak.
There must have been some comfort
that, at the day of final judgment, everybody would be judged together.
Like the cadaver tomb,
this isn't an image that's designed to terrorise you with death.
It's an image designed to encourage you about how to live.
And put like that, is it any wonder that medieval men and women
embraced this drama
of life and death, and life after death?
But soon there would be a seismic upheaval in this system of belief.
and prayers for the dead that comforted so many for centuries
would be obliterated.
This church in Kedington in Suffolk, holds a clue
to the dramatic change that turned Christianity
and the church on its head.
You are surrounded here by images of death,
by skulls and bones, and monuments to the departed.
The choice between heaven and hell
and the reality of the afterlife were still very much with you.
But as you move deeper into the church,
you see that there's something terribly wrong.
This is the old church rood screen
that once was lined with images of the saints,
but which now have been aggressively scrubbed out
and the screen ripped out
from where it once stood in the heart of the church
and used for a completely new purpose...
as a pew.
There was no time now for dooms and chantries, or saints or crucifixes.
A new age was coming
with wholly new ideas about God and how he should be worshipped.
I'll be exploring how a clash of ideologies spawned an English church
unrecognisable from all that had gone before.
I'll be discovering how, in the 16th and 17th centuries,
destruction and innovation went hand-in-hand in the Reformation.
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The medieval church cannot be understood without recognising that death was at its heart. Richard Taylor shows how churches were designed to give medieval people a way to escape death, with their Judgement scenes, cadaver tombs and graphic depictions of the crucifixion.
He explains why scenes of suffering on the cross became so prominent and why the instruments used in the persecution of Jesus were depicted in the decoration of windows, floors and walls at such remarkable sites as Malvern Priory in Worcestershire.
Taylor explains the medieval obsession with purgatory and how this again transformed our churches with the building of elaborate chantry chapels, where Masses could be said to ease the journey of departed souls into heaven.