Thursday, 12 April 2012

Faces from Norwich

This is the Guildhall of Norwich, a rare treasure of mediaeval boom-time economy, begun in 1407, with so much ambition and self confidence on the part of the wealthy men involved that it is the biggest such outside London. A rare treasure indeed for today's Fine City. One wonders what the city folk made of it, for as Blomefield's History records "each constable had a warrant to press workmen, citizens & foreigners to work at the Gild-hall every day from 5 o' clock in the morning to 8 at night, as often as there was occasion…"


As it was also the place where they would thereafter be taxed, tried, imprisoned and punished, perhaps "a treasure" was the last thing they called it.The window is that of the Mayor's Court, which would have played an important part in the lives of thousands of Norwich men, women & even children, of whose struggles almost nothing survives. I was lucky enough to be in there recently, but it was hard to imagine all those ordinary people, for many of whom their few minutes in that room would have been of life-changing importance. How did they look? Like any of us, undoubtedly. But I did see these faces, faces drawn and painted on glass by Norwich men (and possibly women) at that time, maybe five hundred years ago.


Among all it's other rooms & wealth, the Guildhall had a chapel, so these angels are likely to be from its windows. They are now in the small right-hand window of the Mayor's Court, where all surviving old glass fragments were gathered this century. Norwich was known for its high status crafts in mediaeval times, and experts can often identify Norwich-made glass from the faces, such as these.


Look at how beautifully they are drawn, with clear, elegant lines, varying in thickness to delineate the forms of the features. The eyes are particularly well defined, with encircling lines and subtle shading to delineate the upper & lower lids. It's a consistent, sophisticated style, which marks them as by Norwich painters. But they are subtly individual as well: compare the mouths of the two un-crowned angels, and their hair, which is almost Art Nouveau. The one with the tiara-type thing has bagpipes, which you can just see on the left.


Fragments, as fragile as any parchment roll recording the names of those who had their moments before the Mayor, for good or ill. Fragments only, just small parts of the stories of those who were paid to make them, for whom the muddy streets of Norwich were home. And like any artists, they would have created faces influenced by those of the friends & neighbours around them, to whom perhaps this is as close as we can get.

4 comments:

  1. The 'Gild-Hall' looks almost Venetian in your photo.

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    1. It does doesn't it Tom. That's the chequer board design created by some very clever flint knappers long ago, although the rest of the building is mainly black flint and so far more austere in appearance.

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  2. You can find out about some of those who were punished in the Mayor's Court by going here... http://theshamingofagnesleman.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. The Contributions Secretary, RSAR15 April 2012 at 18:30

      Indeed you can, my good friend Anonymous, and most excellent work it is too. Much interesting, tickling and enlightening information is to be found at this blog, which the Society recommends to all curious minds.

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