turning point

The best exam question I was ever asked came at Christmas in my sixth form year.  It was in a British Studies class: in interdisciplinary History and Literature class, team taught by two of the best teachers I have ever had. It was my first three hour exam:  an hour for literature, an hour for history, and an hour for… well, that’s the bit I want to tell you about.

The third hour was a free for all.  In the last minutes of the second hour, the teachers began placing postcards face down on our desk.  The postcards had something to do with the curriculum, and it was our task to figure out and write about what.  That was all.  ‘Please write for one hour in reference to your postcard and the things you have learned this term.’

Mine was of a boar snuffling around the base of a tree.  At least I think it was a boar.  It might have been a pig, but it was hard to tell. It was richly coloured and glinting, from some illuminated manuscript or other.  Quite lovely, in its way, but a bit alarming as an exam question.

I paused briefly to panic, and watched as every illuminated boar-related though flit through my mind.

  • truffles
  • manuscript
  • monasteries
  • scribes, literacy
  • court
  • hunting
  • poverty and riches
  • Grendel
    (no, I don’t know why either, but it works like that sometimes)
  • Boar’s Head Carol
  • Boar hunting >> dangerous >> knights>> chivalry
  • heir to the throne, risk
  • oh help, I need to write an essay about a boar?
  • England and France
  • Aquitaine
  • The Lion in Winter
    No, wait.  That’s a different course.
  • Oh help.
  • Bestiaries

Anyway, you get the idea.  There is actually more than enough there to write for an hour.  You just need to sort it into clusters and wax lyrical.  I took a deep breath, and wrote frantically till the time was up.

And then I panicked all through the holidays because I really hadn’t a clue as to what they had wanted or whether I had given it to them.

Thankfully, I had.  It was a turning point for me:  the first moment my terribly divergent mind was given free reign and deemed worthy.  It was fun.  And, I confess, all the more so because most of my classmates — who were usually smarter and faster and more clever than I– had not coped with the postcards at all and suddenly, my essay was offered up as the model.

I was reminded of that exam as I looked at the wall paintings in Easby recently.  Easby is best know for the Abbey ruins, and the Turner painting thereof.  But what I didn’t realise for years was that the real treasure of Easby is in the parish church.   There, unguarded and unprotected, are a set of wall paintings dating from  c. 1250 which tell the story of salvation.

They are captivating and beautiful, and I will say more about them later in relation to my nascent thoughts on wonder. But for now, I just want to show you my favourite and ask you to consider in in the spirit of the British Studies exam.

20 thoughts on “turning point”

  1. What a good game – I’m happy to play.

    It is a nativity scene.
    Recumbent Madonna – recumbent Buddha figures
    Ox and ass – Isaiah prophecies – golden legend
    O Magnum Mysterium – tradition of animals bowing at midnight on Christmas Eve, Lauridson carol.
    Animals in the gospels.
    Animals in profile, humans have full faces.
    Joseph was an old man – English carol traditions
    Is she holding cherry blossom? – more English Carols and link to Qu’ranic tradition of date tree bending to allow her to eat.
    Picture at some time covered with lettering – iconoclasm – fight between words and images
    Flaxen hair – Englishness of Mary – issues of class and ethnicity
    “Winding sheet” around the child (another carol)
    Halos – cross in halo
    Tiredness of Joseph
    Crosses above arches like consecration crosses
    Star similar to comet in Bayeux Tapestry – possibility of comet being star
    3D effect of top border – quest for 3D representation nothing new
    Joseph leaning on a staff like coptic Tau cross, given to eminent monks.

  2. I should have known you’d excel at this.

    Your response also shows why it’s a great exam question. (readers, please note: Kelvin knows far more about theology than I do about illuminated boar)

  3. Oh, it went down under the ten commandments!
    ‘Thou shalt not’ was writ on the door.
    Poor Joseph – he has to be a very old man with a crutch – never mind, in this version he is already the father of James and the other siblings.
    He is seated like a king – the folds of his clothes towards us like that – because that was the only forward seated figure the artist had seen? Or to give him dignitas?
    But he looks exhausted and sad.
    I wonder if the artist had heard of the Church of the Nativity, because he gives her arches?
    Mary invites us in – I think it is a fleur-de-lise – she wants us to understand she is a virgin still.
    She is indoors, relaxing so we are allowed to see her hair – that’s nice. That is intimate. If Christ is our lover, Mary can be our mistress –
    I love the solution to letting us see the baby without implying the poor child is halfway outside the stable.
    We can adore him up there so easily – but it is odd. Art can be very odd and still work.
    You would never think that babies rest easier of bound up tightly, but they do -they still do.
    Were it not for the ox and ass we might forget this is a stable.
    None of this is cute. When did we let cute in to spoil the whole thing?
    The ox is a real ox, artist either did not know or could not draw donkeys.
    When did donkeys first come to the UK? You need them for mules.
    Neither parent is poor, but why would a good craftsman be poor?
    What did the artist earn,what was he paid for his work here?
    Mary is not that young – marriage in the artisan classes in England was not that early.
    Joseph is decrepit but not that old – the early deaths of the middle ages, were they preceded by a long period of decline?
    Those in our society who appear old long long before their time.
    Given the Hebrew Scriptures, why is so little of Jesus attention on social justice?
    (drifting away here)
    Love the fluidity of the star – our solid stars are in every way less realistic and pleasing, but easier to draw.

  4. what fun this is.

    Rosemary, can you see that the words are the commandments or are you guessing? I ask because (1) it’s the side wall; (2) I can’t decipher them yet, and (3) the only other words that remain on the (back, side aisle) wall are about eunuchs, so I have the hunch the good folk of Easby might have chosen anything.

  5. They might have. I’m half guessing. I think I can see ‘R’ for Remember the sabbath day’ and ‘t’ for ‘to keep it holy’ in the first two lines. The most usual offering is the Lord’s prayer and the ten commandments – one was supposed to have these in all churches so they could be learned. The Reformation coincides with a great leap in literacy. I would be willing to bet that if not over this image, there were there some where. Visiting officials would expect to see them.

  6. “Donkeys and Mules were used as pack animals mainly but both could be ridden however they are noted for their rarity in medieval documents. John Langdon in ‘Medieval Farming and Technology’ notes that there were only 11 donkeys and 1 mule in his survey of 406 manor houses in Britain in the 11th century making up only 3.9% of the working horse population. When he surveyed over 4000 other rural holdings the figure was even lower at 1.9%. Shoeing donkeys seems to only have been carried out for journeys in wet weather and on ‘modern’ roads. A writer in the 1300’s comments on one hard working donkey going about his business ‘withoute nail and scho’.” http://historicalrecreations.blogspot.com/2011/05/animals-in-middle-ages.html

  7. Round 2

    Is Joseph wearing a carpenter’s apron? Patron of workers. Worker priest movement.
    Who wears the blue in this nativity? Not her!
    Chastity/sexuality issues in representations of Holy Family
    Blue crosses under Joseph. One doesn’t see many blue crosses.
    Crosses make connection between incarnation and Good Friday
    Compare with St Francis promoting crib scenes.
    Absence of Shepherds
    Absence of Magi
    Absence of Angel(s)
    Absence of colour for the virgin – v unusual
    Folds in cloth – “Still” by Alison Watt in OSP
    Ginger beards – more common in 1250 than now. Both fashionably and genetically.
    Smocking in virgin’s garment suggests a good needleperson in the family – Anna or Joachim perhaps. Gendered expectations of household roles and tasks.
    Is she lying on a bed or an altar? – compare the two – bed as offering – altar as rest
    Limited colours – is the picture finished?
    We see Joseph’s feet but not her feet. Poss connection with feet euphemism in OT – Mary has no “feet” because she is too pure for all that.

  8. “The kings have departed, the shepherds have gone,
    the child and his parents are left on their own.”

    By an odd coincidence, I came across this (unfamiliar) Candlemass
    hymn shortly after seeing your picture. (Tune: Lourdes). So at least we
    know the next item on the Holy Familiy’s agenda. I was pondering the rarity
    of either a picture or a hymn celebrating such a state of inactivity.

    However, if the Angels and the Shepherds you mention at 4:06 are part of
    the same scene then I fear the above is a misunderstanding based on
    a partial view. Ah well.


  9. How lovely. And I think it stands true. The paintings show the whole story from Creation to Resurrection. Each image stands alone, as well as merging with the others.

    I hadn’t thought of the image in relation to that hymn. Thank you for sharing the idea and for stopping by.

  10. It is an enchanting picture.

    The equivalent in my education was something called General Studies. One could do an A level in General Studies in some parts of the country when I was but a lad. Unsurprisingly, it was my best A level result.

    This would be a good way to teach preaching.

  11. Round 3

    Men in skirts, dresses, kilts. (Clothes emphasise physicality)
    Women swathed in cloth, wimples, burkas. (Clothes cover physicality)
    Headcoverings much more normal in those days.
    Veil issues. Did women viewing this originally wear a mantilla?
    Suspect style of sleeves indicates wealth. Same with swags under her like American political banners. Indicates richness. Mary is no simple peasant girl here.
    The swaddling bands also make crosses.

    The Word of God, breaking through and overpowering the words of the people.
    Who caused wordy iconoclasm – mob or clerics?
    Who caused picture to be uncovered – clerics or mob or time and decay?
    Child is nearer to animals/nature than to parents – creator/creation relationship.
    Mary about to tumble off bed and out of picture towards us. Does grace tumble towards us?
    Face is “Full of Grace”. Hail Mary. <– was this popular devotion then?
    Blue crosses below Joseph seem to be inscribed on a different building.
    Deep division between blue and red in the picture.
    Blue building vs Red building – what's that about?

    What was coming to church for – to view pics, to learn, to make devotions, to wonder or to hear mass?
    Are the pictures there to be spoken to or gazed at?
    Existence now revealed, of other pics – cartoon format – interesting amalgam of image and narrative. Challenges those who would chose one over the other.
    Ink pigments.

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