Project Canterbury

The Chancel Screen.

By F. E. Howard.

London: The Warham Guild, 1919.

THOUGH the chancel screen has been brought by the genius of generations of craftsmen to so great a beauty that it has become one of the grandest ornaments of the church; it is primarily a simple barrier to protect the sanctuary from the irreverent or uninstructed. The earliest records of church arrangement we possess mention screens. Thus the sanctuary of the church, at Tyre, built in the time of Constantine, was surrounded by wooden lattices, perfectly finished with the most cunning workmanship, as we learn from the sermon preached at its dedication by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea. It may be that screens were borrowed from the arrangements of the Jewish Temple, or from the barriers which are known to have existed in Roman secular buildings. It is sufficient to know that the Church has approved, of the chancel screen from the earliest times.

At various periods and in different parts of Christendom the screen has assumed diverse forms. In the highly civilized parts of the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean, where the usual form of church was a continuous hall, with or without aisles, and terminating in a semicircular apse, the screen took the form of a low breast wall, usually decorated with carving, often pierced, or even decorated with glittering mosaics. In a number of cases a row of columns, supporting a beam, was incorporated. Curtains were sometimes hung from the beam, while lights, or eventually figures of the saints, with the Crucifix in the midst, were placed upon it.

In the East, where the domed plan of church prevailed, the screen became the iconostasis, a high barrier of wooden panelling, pierced by doors, but completely shutting off the altar from the view of the laity. These screens are usually decorated sumptuously with carved and gilded work, enshrining numerous ikons.

In Roman Britain the churches probably followed the Western continuous plan as in the case of the little church discovered at Silchester, but after the Saxon invasion an entirely new type of plan, made its appearance, and has remained with us ever since in a slightly modified form. In this new plan the church consisted of two separate chambers, one for the altar and the other for the worshippers, communicating only by a narrow arch. The arrangement may have originated in the Christian missionary first building for himself a small oratory in which to say Mass, with a western doorway, about which the converts would congregate, and would eventually build on to the original oratory a nave to shelter themselves. Certainly to this day it is the duty of the parish priest to keep the chancel in repair, while the repair of the nave falls to the parishioners. In Saxon churches, then, the nave and chancel are separated, not by a screen but by a solid wall, pierced only by a narrow archway, which was closed by a door, grille or hanging. In the course of the ages the arch was widened, and the grille, ever gaining in size and importance, developed into the chancel screen of wood. A concurrent line of development may also be traced in which openings were pierced by either side of the arch, gradually becoming wider, until the whole width of the lower part of the wall became light screenwork of stone. In yet another type of English church plan the screen takes the form of a triple chancel arch, supported on columns, a direct importation from Italy, introduced by the mission of Augustine.

The screens of North-west Europe, and above all those of England, combine the characteristics of East and West very happily. Wood is the usual material, though stone is not uncommon. The stone or marble breast wall is represented by the solid panelling of the lower part, while strong posts of wood take the place of the marble columns. The paintings of apostles and saints so often found in mediaeval screens upon the base panels or rood-loft front, are a link with the Eastern iconostasis, to which they are also allied by their comparative solidity of structure.

The earliest surviving English screens date from the thirteenth century, when the craft of woodworking was only just beginning to find itself. By examining the hideous, but often very accurate, copies of these early screens, introduced into many churches by Victorian architects, we can see how much of their charm the oldest screens owe to their age and to the irregularities of workmanship which are lacking in the new work.

By the fifteenth century the art of designing and carving in wood had been brought to perfection, and the screens of this period have never been surpassed. The stately screens of East Anglia, with their graceful proportions and carefully studied ornament, carved or painted; the glorious work of the West Country, encrusted with luxuriant foliage; the simple and restrained screens of the Midlands and the intricately fretted screens of Wales and the Border counties, still show how devoted were the mediaeval craftsmen to their Church, and how accomplished they were in their craft.

It is difficult to trace back to a very remote period the custom of placing above the screen the figure of our Lord on the Cross, but the practice is of high antiquity. In Saxon churches the rood, as it was then called, seems often to have been of stone, built into the wall over the low and narrow chancel arches which were commonly used at that period. At first it appears that the Christ was represented as a robed and crowned King. At an early date the figures of our Lady and St. John were added on either hand, worthy representatives of the countless millions of men and women for whom the Sacrifice of Calvary was offered. After A.D. 1000, the figure of the Christ was usually more or less realistic, but the cross with its floreated extremities and medallions containing the Four Living Creatures remained a “Tree of glory.”

Above, either on a wall or upon a partition filling the upper part of the chancel arch, was usually a representation of Christ in Majesty, sometimes accompanied by angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion, with our Lady and St. John Baptist interceding at His feet; while the souls of the Righteous may be seen on His right hand and those of the Lost on His left.

From the fourteenth century onwards a gallery, known as the rood-loft, was usually contrived, supported on the screen. It was evidently introduced in imitation of the pulpitum found in monastic, collegiate, and cathedral churches. The loft was used as a means of access to the lights which were placed on each side of, and before the rood, and also as a musicians’ gallery. When large enough it was occasionally used as a chapel.

It was the practice, of mediaeval designers to increase the richness of a composition towards the summit, and the rood-loft front was consequently the most elaborate and beautiful part of the screen which it crowned. Very often it was designed as a series of panels with traceried heads, or the panels were entirely filled in with pierced tracery, but many examples had a series of niches, each with a figure of a saint, carved or painted, or in some instances, with an array of scenes in bas-relief.

It is certain that most screens were decorated in gold, and colour, though many have been scraped or have been badly and ignorantly re-painted by incompetent workmen or misguided amateurs. The finest pointed work is to be found in East Anglia. That of the West Country is much less refined.

The painted figures of saints which decorate the lower panels of many of the finest screens are of the greatest interest. The Twelve Apostles are very often found, sometimes paired with the Twelve Prophets. The Four Evangelists, balanced by the Four Doctors of the Church, are also of frequent occurrence. The list of other saints and martyrs found in English screen paintings is along one. In one instance the male saints are grouped on one portion of the screen and the women on the other, but generally the arrangement is less formal. Such comparatively modern saints as St. Francis and St. Peter Martyr were often represented, while local saints and reputed saints, such as Sir John Schorne, were sometimes included. In short, the rood-screen of an English parish church presented a complete scheme of Christian iconography, leading up to and culminating in the great Rood, and the Christ in Majesty and Judgement.

In its perfection the rood-loft was one of the most wonderful conceptions of the Middle Ages. A practical necessity had been turned into a clear and inspiring exposition of the Faith.

The screen was retained all through the confusion of the Reformation period, and it is now generally, agreed that at no time has it been legal either to remove a screen or to build a church without one. However, the rood fell a victim to the Royal Injunctions as to Images issued towards the end of the year 1547, and only two or three examples remain, none in situ. The rood-lofts were ordered to be removed in the early years of Elizabeth, but the orders were not generally obeyed, and a good many still remain. They were certainly in use in the second year of Edward VI, and the excuse for their removal, namely, the avoidance of superstition, no longer remains.

Many screens were erected after the Reformation, even during the Commonwealth. Some of these are spoilt by fantastic strapwork of Dutch origin or by clumsy and barbaric surface ornament, but there are very many examples which are both beautiful and dignified.

Every modern church should have a screen. It is clearly required by the Ornaments Rubric, and few ornaments can add more beauty to a church than a well designed screen. At the same time, nothing can so degrade and disfigure a building as one of bad design, or starved for want of funds. Let us turn to the mediaeval craftsmen for inspiration, and to the Victorian architects to learn what to avoid. A new screen should generally show the influence of the old screens of the district, for modern art is not yet sufficiently robust to discard the guidance of tradition. If the church is ancient, the relationship should be close; if modern, the treatment may be quite free, but it should be apparent that the new work is a direct descendant of those old screens which make the neighbouring churches so glorious. Its framework should be solid and good, and material should not be stinted. It should be borne in mind that a screen looks far lighter and airier in execution than in a drawing. Most modern screens are flimsy, weak, and unsubstantial, and are consequently devoid of dignity. Oak is unquestionably the best material, and if uncoloured it should be of English growth. No other oak has so handsome a texture; in a new church experiments may be tried with other woods, but it is probable that the effect would not be so good and lasting, for oak combines the good qualities of great, strength, comparative, ease of working, and fine grain and colour.

The work of the heart and intelligence is a better offering to God than mechanical hand labour, and loveliness of proportion and detail is more to be desired than minute perfection of finish, though no scamping or jerry-building should be tolerated.

There may be as much or as little carving as the  resources of the donors allow, but it should be fine; and precious. It should not be coarse in scale, sprawling over as much space as possible, in the manner of the architects of the last generation. Ornament should be effective from a distance, but there is no necessity for every detail to be plainly visible; from the back of the church. Indeed it is far better for the full beauty of the design to unfold itself only on close inspection.

Where it is impossible to raise enough money to carry out an entire scheme at once it is a good plan; to erect first the main framework of the screen itself; adding the carved enrichments, the carving, and the loft as the opportunity occurs.

Many screens are erected as memorials, and if an inscription is necessary it is far better to incorporate it into the design than to disfigure the work by screwing on a brass plate, as seems still to be the orthodox custom. Well-designed lettering can form a very beautiful ornamental band, decorating rail or cornice, while the right use of heraldry is an excellent and unostentatious way of commemorating those in whose memory the work has been given.

Of late years the rood and the rood-loft have often been successfully restored. We should do well to associate the Christ in Majesty with the Christ on the Cross, as in the mediaeval examples, but it is doubtful, whether the robed and crowned Figure would ever appeal to the literal modern English mind. On the other hand the sight of the suffering Christ, on the Cross means vastly more to the average Churchman than hours of Instruction, and makes him dissatisfied with his Imperfection and unworthiness. The loft also is often a very convenient place for a small organ or for singers. No other position is so admirable for sound, and the absence of the loft has caused our chancels to be crowded in a manner never contemplated by the Ornaments Rubric.

Once more, remember that a screen must be fairly solid if it is to look well. It is wonderful how little the view of the altar is obstructed even by the closely mullioned screens of Devon. Indeed a fine screen is rather a help than a hindrance to devotion, for it impresses upon the worshipper the mystery and the wonder of the Rite in which it is his privilege to take part.

Oddington, Oxon. Design for Rood Screen.

Warfield, Berks.—15th Cent. Midland type.

Attleborough, Norfolk. 15th Cent. East Anglian type, now moved to west end.

Plymtree, Devon. 15th Cent. West Country type. Loft removed.

Kenton, Devon. 15th Cent. West Country type. Loft restored by F. Bligh Bond, Architect.

Littlemore, Oxford. Midland type.

St. Michael’s Wigan. North Country type. By the Warham Guild.

St. Michael’s Wigan. By the Warham Guild.

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