I have had numerous requests for further information regarding this object, and so I started by asking my colleague Dr Corinna Wagner, who already helped us with finding out more about Harry Hems, if she knew anything about it.
According to Corinna, this is a bench end which refers to the Passion. The symbols on it – heart, feet, hands – refer to ‘The Five Wounds of Christ’. This was a really helpful piece of advice which inspired me to look further.
We can compare our bench end with another one from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (above), which also seems to come from Devon or Cornwall, dating 1500-1520, by an unknown artist. The Victoria and Albert Museum website dedicated to it suggests that the motifs on the shields also refer to the Passion, but this time they were identified as the instruments of the Passion through the inclusion of what looks like a book or wrist-gard, which indicates that they may have been the craftsman’s trade symbols.
I then asked my colleague Dr Naomi Howell, Associate Research Fellow in Medieval Studies in the Department of English at Exeter, if she was familiar with this image. She immediately sent me a set of other images, such as the one above titled Cumnor, Berkshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum (Allan Barton), with the line: ‘a double-sided poppy head decorated with instruments of the Passion on one side and the cross, a sacred monogram and the five wounds on the other’.
She also sent this image (above), again posted by Allan Barton, with the title ‘Medieval benchends (one decorated with the five wounds)’ at St. Chad’s Church, Harpswell, Lincolnshire, and the image below titled ‘Five wounds of Christ’ and showing a detail one of eight carved oak panels made for Cardinal David Beaton at some point before his assassination in 1546, National Museum of Scotland, suggesting that ‘The Five Wounds, like the Holy Name, were the object of wide popular devotion in Britain immediately before the Reformation.’
These images all differ from one another, because of the choice and/or position of the symbols representing the Five Wounds of Christ. Notice the different positioning of the feet, the presence, or absence of the cross, symbols relating to trade, and general shape of the image.
Dr Naomi Howell is an expert in this field. Together with Professor Philip Schwyzer, she is working on two projects, the Leverhulme-funded Speaking with the Dead: Histories of Memory in Sacred Space and the EU-funded The Past in its Place: Histories of Memory in English and Welsh Locates, which investigate changing attitudes to memory and commemoration in English cathedrals, from the middle ages to the modern Era.
We asked her for further clarification on our object. She said: ‘these Five Wounds of Christ were a very popular image, or set of images, throughout the Middle Ages which were used in devotion and contemplation’. ‘If you do a search on the web for “medieval + five + wounds +Christ”, she notes, ‘you will see how numerous and varied these representations are, whether in manuscripts, larger paintings, stained glass, and, later in block prints.’
Perhaps most crucially for us, she points out, ‘the interesting thing about the representation on pews seems to be that they are on shields, like heraldic devices. The reason for this could be interesting to think about. What does it mean for those bodily fragments to be positioned as signs of personal identity, origin, and genealogical purpose? This motif makes me think of all the past hands and feet brushing or shuffling past them over the ages. These carvings might have often been touched in passing before they were seen or looked at attentively. Did the designers and artisans have this bodily proximity in mind when they chose a motif which emphasises the body? Touching the “hands” of Christ would have been unavoidable, and could have been an unconscious or semiconscious act of piety, as the seat became more and more familiar to its occupants during the course of their lifetimes.’
This insight Naomi has given us into the ‘performativity’ of this object, what it has been affording us to do, what relationships it prompted over centuries (i.e., the act of touching Naomi refers to, and the way this would have evolved over the years, as one would become more familiar with the object), is what we think Moor Stories is about.
if you have seen this image, or anything similar to this image, anywhere on Dartmoor, or further afield, wherever this may be, please get in touch.
NB some images are from creative commons sites. Please contact us if you wish to your name or image to be cited in any other way.