In gathering images from the Abbey I completely underplayed the significance of the medieval panels here on my first visit, so returned to put that right.
As I said in my last Hexham post, the Tudors and the Victorians weren’t aficionados, so some of the panels spent years covered in whitewash whilst others were removed and hidden away, so many of these artefacts were lost to the world, reappearing during building works or restoration to the church furniture. Not all of the losses can be attributed to those periods however. The visitor centre displays a series of 9 panels depicting “The Passion” which date back to the 16th century (ironically the century when Henry VIII was at work dismantling the Catholic church and looting its treasures). Originally there were 10 but one was lost during my lifetime, which does tend to set the mind wondering about wealthy collectors of medieval art acquiring a unique piece.
I mentioned in that earlier post the Dance of Death, and this really requires more than passing reference.
European progress and growing prosperity had stumbled in the 14th and 15th centuries as the result of a series of catastrophic events. A great famine swept the continent resulting from three consecutive years of crop failures, prompting some to turn to cannibalism as a remedy whilst others killed their own children to reduce the numbers of mouths to feed.
This was also the period when the plague known as “The Black Death” spread from Central Asia across the whole of Europe, with recurrences that lasted for centuries.
To this gloomy picture can be added war, and for England and her traditional enemy France, the series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years War. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were certainly busy during the 14th Century, so much so that some estimate a halving of Europe’s population during this period, and as art reflects culture and our way of life, so this gave rise to a type of mural or painting known as Danse Macabre or Dance of Death.
Examples were recorded across the continent though few survive to the present day so Hexham’s is particularly valuable (it’s thought to be the best of the UK’s three examples). The works are a sort of momento mori a reminder of our mortality as they show people from all walks of life falling victim to a visitation from Death. The working class are missing from the example at Hexham where four panels show a cardinal, a king, a bishop and a pope as victims, but the screen where they are displayed has spaces for another four panels suggesting a larger work (or perhaps a different location) when it was originally produced.
The loss of the “lesser” victims undermines the message behind it that Death is the great leveller. If there is someone sitting on an illicit collection of the missing pieces perhaps they should think on that!