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Seeing and Believing: Visuality and Space in Pre-Modern England

Author(s): Kate Giles

Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 39, No. 1, Viewing Space (Mar., 2007), pp. 105-121
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40026485
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Seeing and believing: visuality and space

in pre-modern England
Kate Giles


Recently, archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the study of visual relationships
within past landscapes and buildings. However, our approaches and techniques of visual analysis
often apply modern ways of thinking about sight and space to the pre-modern past, thereby ignoring
important debates in other disciplines about the historicity of these concepts. Using the case studies

of two schemes of medieval wall paintings in Pickering church (North Yorkshire) and the Guild
Chapel, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, this paper argues that archaeologists should engage more
critically with this issue. Throughout, the idea of a 'palimpsest' is used, both as a metaphor for the
physical layers of plaster which overlie medieval wall paintings and as an analogy for the process of
archaeological interpretation itself.

Visuality; space; historicity; wall paintings; palimpsest.

Then I contemplated the great sweep of lime-washed wall before me. Yes 'contemplated' - no other word will serve: it was a solemn moment

man I ran the flats of both hands along its surfa

distempered again

bound to be a Judgement because they always got

couldn't avoid seeing the God-awe-full things that woul

fork out their tithes or marry the girl they'd got w

weighing souls against Sin, Christ in Majesty refereeing

flameth for evermore - a really splendidly showy crow

(Carr 1991)

Palimpsest - 'a parchment or other writing surface on w

effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten aga

O Routledge World Archaeology Vol. 39(1): 105-121 Viewing Space

l\ Tay,or&FranciscrouP 2007 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online

DOI: 10.1080/00438240601136470

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106 Kate Giles


Like the other contributions to this themed edition of World Archaeology, this is a paper

concerned with the archaeology of sight and space. In recent years, archaeologists in the
UK have become increasingly interested in the ways in which past spaces were actively
used to structure particular senses of place, forms of identity, social relations and political
power. It is this 'spatial turn' within the discipline that has prompted archaeologists to pay

close attention to studying the visual relationships within and between past landscapes,
buildings and material culture. However, current approaches tend to impose our own,
modern ways of seeing and thinking, as a means of understanding perceptions and
experiences in the past. This ignores important debates in other disciplines about the
historicity of visuality and spatiality. These debates raise important issues with which
archaeologists therefore now need to engage more critically.
This article seeks to spark debate about such issues, first, by highlighting some of these

debates and, second, by examining their consequences for some of the theoretical
approaches and methodological techniques we currently use. The third part of the paper
explores how an understanding of these issues can generate a more nuanced understanding
of two schemes of medieval wall paintings in Pickering church (North Yorkshire) and the

paintings of the Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross, Stratford-upon-Avon (Warwickshire),

England. Throughout, the idea of a 'palimpsest' is used, both as a metaphor for the layers
of paint and plaster and acts of erasure which constitute these schemes, but also as an
analogy for the process of archaeological interpretation itself.

The historicity of visuality

In recent years, there has been considerable debate in the disciplines of art and
architectural history about the historicity of visuality. Scholars have been concerned not
just with the gradual development of a scientific knowledge of optics, but also with how
people understood the process of 'seeing', and with how images and objects were designed
and invested with meaning by artists and audiences in the past. Such debates have
therefore drawn a useful distinction between 'vision' as the mechanism of sight, and
'visuality', as the social and cultural constructedness of vision (Foster 1998; Nelson 2000:
2). These arguments also have resonance for our understanding of space. In recent years,
the wide-ranging theoretical debates about the nature and meaning of space within
cultural geography and the social sciences have begun to take account of the very different

ways in which space may have been thought about and experienced in the past (Casey
1997; Hanawalt and Kobialka 1999).
Of particular relevance to the case studies presented below is the idea that pre-modern
concepts of visuality and space differ in important and subtle ways from our own, modern

way of thinking about these issues. Here, pre-modern is used to refer particularly to the

archaeology of the medieval period prior to c. 1600, where it is possible to engage with
contemporary writings about these issues in surviving philosophical tracts and other
documentary sources. Importantly, however, we should not expect there to be a one-toone correlation between the ideas expressed in documentary sources and material culture

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Seeing and believing 107

(Moreland 2001). Rather, the question for archaeologists is how other forms of material
culture - landscapes, buildings and artefacts - were actively manipulated both to structure
and to transform visuality and spatiality in the past. In this way, such debates are also of

relevance to the study of proto-historic and prehistoric periods, where anthropology and
ethnography are rather used as sources of analogy in interpreting the meaning of past
spaces (Parker Pearson and Richards 1994). But they are also of relevance to the study of
other periods that, like pre- and early modern England, witnessed the impact of processes

of profound social, economic and cultural change (Dyer 2005; Gaimster and Stamper
1997; Johnson 1996).
In recent years, art historians have drawn attention to the fact that during the period
c. 1400-c. 1600 we can discern the coexistence of complex, and sometimes conflicting,
ways of seeing. In some ways, late medieval concepts of visuality laid the foundations
for Renaissance and thus, ultimately, for more 'modern' ways of thinking about the
process of 'vision'. Yet they also preserved a much more corporeal and affective concept
of 'visuality' (Biernoff 2002: 64). Medieval treatises on sight emphasized the active role
of all of the senses as 'crucial creative conduits for taking in, grappling with, and
ultimately understanding the world through the body' (Camille 1996: 198-200, 2000:
206). However, the distinctions we draw between the senses of seeing and touching, or
hearing, may have had less significance for pre-modern communities (Ingold 2000: 269;
Ong 1982: 73-4). Medieval seeing was thought of as a form of feeling, providing the
beholder with the sense of touching the object of vision. Moreover, in the theory of
extramission, light was also thought to return from the object of vision, acting back and
affecting the observer (Biernoff 2002: 97; Nelson 2000: 3). In this way, images themselves
could be thought to have an affective power. Seeing was also understood as an essential
part of understanding and remembering. Thus, contemporaries were advised to use real
places as visual mnemonics in the medieval 'ars memorid or 'art of memory' (Carruthers
1990; Coleman 1992).
A similarly complex picture emerges from current debates about the historicity of space.

Once again, medieval concepts of space were subtly different from our own. Medieval
writers, influenced by Aristotle, thought of space as 'place' or 'locus', an immobile
container for human action (Casey 1997). Yet from the late fourteenth century onwards,
the idea of space as something 'infinite' and 'abstract' also emerged from contemporary
philosophical and theological debate. Gradually, the idea that space was the 'aggregate
sum of qualitatively different places occupied by persons, groups or objects' gave way to
more modern ideas of space as the space in between persons, groups and objects (Evans
2002: 16; Kleinschmidt 2000: 60). Similarly, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
the idea that the individual occupied a fixed point in the cosmos was replaced by an
understanding that the individual's centre of perception was wherever he, or she, stood
(Casey 1997: 115-29).
What is the significance of these debates about historicity for archaeologists? Premodern treatises and tracts indicate that, while pre-modern ways of thinking about sight
and space may have laid important foundations for our own, modern concepts of visuality

and spatiality, they also differed from them in subtle and important ways. They raise

important questions about how the use of contemporary landscapes and buildings
reflected, but also structured such ideas. And in doing so, they raise questions about our

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108 Kate Giles

ability, as archaeologists, to get at this complex relationship. This means looking

closely at the theories and methods we currently use to analyse visuality and spatiality

they allow us to explore these issues, or do they simply project our own, modern ways
thinking about them, onto the past?

Mapping sight and space

Archaeologists working in the UK have employed various techniques to analyse th

and meaning of the built environment, including planning analysis (Faulkner 196
access analysis, or 'space syntax' (after Hillier and Hanson 1984). Rather than
representing the relative form and position of rooms as conventional, scaled plans, these
techniques tend to juxtapose ground plans with a series of boxes, or symbols, to show how

such spaces were used. Thus, in planning analysis, the interrelationship and functions of
rooms, including those on different floors, are shown as interlinked boxes. In this way,
planning analysis has revealed the use of 'suites' of interconnected rooms by distinctive
household groups at Bolton Castle (Yorkshire), Bodiam Castle (East Sussex) (Faulkner
1963) and Edlingham Castle, (Northumberland) (Fairclough 1992). More recently, the
technique has been applied to 'suites' of upper-floor rooms in vernacular houses in East
Sussex (Martin 2003).
'Space syntax' also considers the relationships between rooms, but does so by examining

the access patterns within buildings (Hillier and Hanson 1984; Hanson 1998). It uses the
plan of a building to analyse how easy, or difficult, it is for a visitor entering a building to
access particular rooms or spaces. These relationships are represented graphically, to show
the relative spatial 'depth' of particular spaces within the building. Space syntax, or 'access

analysis' presumes that spatial organization directly reflects social organization, shedding
important light on concepts such as hierarchy and privacy. In the UK, it has been used to

analyse Iron Age brochs (Foster 1989), medieval monasteries and nunneries (Gilchrist
1994), medieval castles (Gilchrist 1999; Mathieu 1999) and palaces (Richardson 2003).
However, rather than relying on ground plans exclusively, these archaeologists have also
explored how visual 'cues' embedded in the standing fabric, were also used to signal, or
elicit, particular modes of behaviour.
More recently archaeologists have begun to map what people saw, and from where,
using the technique of isovist, or viewshed, analysis. An isovist, or viewshed, is 'the area in
a spatial environment directly visible from a location within the space' (Turner et al. 2001).

This technique has largely been applied to medieval parish churches within UK historical

archaeology. Graves (2000) and Roffey (2004), for example, have used viewshed analysis
to understand how the visual relationships between the nave, occupied by the laity, and
fittings and fixtures, such as screens, statues, altars and chantry chapels, were used to
structure particular kinds of late medieval devotional and social practices. The use of this
technique may, in part, reflect the fact that the relatively simple plan forms of these
buildings do not lend themselves so readily to space syntax.
However, here we need to return to the historicity of visuality and space. These

approaches use the analysis of particular visual and spatial configurations to get at
concepts such as identity, status and privacy. And yet in origin these techniques take little

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Seeing and believing 109

account of the historicity of these concepts. Indeed, the theoretical paradigms which
underpin them often hold that the organization of space follows certain 'rules', regardless

of period or culture (Hillier 1996). These rules are those observed extensively within
modern society. Thus, although historical archaeologists have made extensive use of
contextual information to inform their use of planning and access analysis, there is still a

danger that the techniques themselves still impose normative, modern ways of thinking
abut the perception and use of space onto the pre-modern past. For example, the
convention of representing space in plan form is itself a mode of representation originating

in Classical and Renaissance architecture. Moreover, in all these models, visuality is

modelled as a straight line, a way of thinking that is also a product of modern ideas about

single-point perspective (Edgerton 1976).

More recently, new techniques to model more effectively the three-dimensionality of

space and the role of human agents within it within have been developed within
environment studies. These include experiments with three-dimensional digital elevation
models (Ratti 2005) and 'visibility graphs' (Turner et al. 2001) which seek to map the
'configurational' relationships within buildings and streetscapes. A further development
is the use of 'agent-based' computer models, which compare the modelling of movement
and motivation with observations of real-life, contemporary human agents (Turner
2003). These techniques are argued to reveal the 'visual process of inhabitation'. Yet,
before we apply these techniques archaeologically, we need to remember that, once
again, these models are based on the analysis of modern visuality and movement.
Applying them to archaeological sites still requires us to think critically about how this
might differ from the ways in which past individuals and communities would have seen,
and experienced, past places.
What is missing from these approaches is a means of getting at the more embodied and

somatic qualities of pre-modern sight and space, discussed above. In this context it seems
surprising that historical archaeologists in the UK have seemed so reluctant to use
theoretical approaches which might help them get at these issues. These include time-space
geography, which has been applied successfully to the study of nineteenth-century Swedish

agricultural communities (Pred 1985), and phenomenology, which has been used
extensively within British prehistory, but much more sparingly in medieval archaeology
(Alternberg 2003; Johnson 2004). Similarly, attempts to 'map' the mental templates
underpinning the design and use of buildings have received little attention or development

(Austin 1990, 1998; Johnson 1993). One explanation for this reluctance is that the sheer
wealth of contextual evidence available for the period actually constrains historical
archaeologists from adopting the more creative and imaginative approaches employed by
our pre-historic colleagues. It is also more difficult for historical archaeologists to
generalize about mental templates or mindsets, given the complexity and diversity of
contemporary sources. However, difficulties in applying these techniques may also reflect

the fact that even these techniques continue to use the archaeologist's own visual and
somatic experience as a basis for reconstructing these aspects of life in the past.
The point of this critique is not to undermine archaeologists' use of existing visual
and spatial theories, but rather to call for a more sustained debate about the implications
of the historicity of visuality for such approaches. Such debate has resonance not only
for archaeologists working within text-aided periods, but also for all those working with

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110 Kate Giles

pre-modern communities, including prehistory. In the third section of this pa

therefore want to experiment with writing the historicity of visuality and spatiality

into our interpretation of material culture. I want to do this through the analysis of t

schemes of medieval wall paintings, in the parish church of SS Peter and Paul, Pic
(North Yorkshire) and the guild chapel of the Holy Cross, Stratford-upon-Avon
(Warwickshire). Here then I want to return to the idea of the palimpsest, both as a
metaphor for the multiple layers of paint, plaster and meaning, which we encounter, and
as an analogy for the interpretative process itself.

Seeing and believing?

In September 1852, repairs in the nave of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Pickering, brought to

light a series of paintings on the nave and transept walls that were sketched by a York
architect, William Hey Dykes (1853; Spencer Hall 1854). On the north wall, from west to
east, were St George, St Christopher, St John the Baptist, St Thomas a Becket and
St. Edmund and the Coronation of the Virgin (Plate 1). On the south wall, from west to
east were scenes from the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Harrowing of Hell and
Ascension of Christ, the Corporal Acts of Mercy, scenes from the death and funeral of the
Virgin, and scenes from the life and martyrdom of St Catherine (Plate 2). However, only a

fortnight later, the incumbent, the Rev. Ponsonby, ordered the paintings to be rewhitewashed, on the grounds, it is alleged, that they would distract his parishioners from

focusing on his sermons. Other, and possibly older, schemes, including a Doom in the
north transept, were destroyed during the restoration. The paintings were re-exposed and

the entire scheme repainted in 1876-8 by the Rev. Lightfoot (1895).

At Stratford, it was also restoration work in 1804, which revealed wall paintings in the
former Guild chapel of the Holy Cross (Plate 3). In the chancel, running left to right along

the north, east and south sides, were scenes depicting the legend of the Holy Cross
(Plate 4). Above the chancel arch was a Doom, or Last Judgement. The upper parts of the
nave walls depicted a range of English saints. Below, on the south wall were scenes from
the life of Adam. At the west end were St George and St Thomas a Becket, and a series of

'memento morf verses. Once again, the nineteenth-century restoration resulted in the

Plate 1 The north wall, SS Peter and Paul, Pickering (North Yorkshire). From left to right: St
George, St Christopher, The Coronation of the Virgin (top), The Martyrdom of St John the Baptist

(below), The Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket (top), The Martyrdom of St Edmund (below).

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Seeing and believing 111

Plate 2 The south wall, SS Peter and Paul, Pickering (North Yorkshire). From left to right: The
Martyrdom of St Catherine, The Ascension and Funeral of the Virgin (top), the Corporal Acts of
Mercy (below), The Ascension of Christ (top), the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection (below),
the Harrowing of Hell (bottom).

Plate 3 The Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross, Stratford-upon-Avon, showing the 'Doom', or Last
Judgement, painting over the chancel arch. Photograph courtesy of Field Archaeology Specialists,

partial destruction of the images. Although they were drawn and described by Fisher
(1807) and Nichols (1838), those in the chancel were destroyed owing, it is said, to poor
state of the plaster, while those in the nave were re-covered. It was not until 1928 that the

Doom above the Chancel arch was re-revealed (Davidson 1988: 14). And it was only in
1955 that during further restoration work Puddephat (1960) discovered the Dance of

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112 Kate Giles

Plate 4 Fisher, T. 1807. Sketch of 'The Discovery of the True Cross'. Chancel, Guild Chapel o
Holy Cross, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace T
Records Office, SBT 1995-19/3.

Death on the north nave wall, first described by the Antiquarian Stow in 1576. It
subsequently panelled over.

These processes of discovery, re-plastering and repainting constitute the upper layers

our palimpsest. In order to understand how these paintings were understood in

medieval period, we therefore need first to engage with how nineteenth- and twen
century incumbents, parishioners and scholar also saw and experienced them.
Importantly, one of the first reactions was to cover them back up, and remove them
from sight altogether. This was not simply an act of random vandalism, but rather
reflected the concerns of men like the Rev. Ponsonby at Pickering and J. L. Carr's fictional

Rev. Keach, that '"[i]t will be in full view of the people". . . he complained . . .Whatever
it is ... it will distract attention from worship' (Carr 1991: 1 1).

For the Victorians, such images were a visual, and thus a spiritual, distraction from
worship, which should be properly focused, not on the clutter of previous centuries, but
rather 'the Word' preached from the pulpit. In the Faculties for such restorations we can
detect a similar attitude to other distractions, as screens, tombs and monuments were
swept away, or 'tidied' up, to facilitate the re-ordering of the Victorian church.

Both the Pickering and Stratford schemes suffered from the vicissitudes of this
nineteenth-century re-plastering and re-uncovering. In order to restore them, it was
therefore thought necessary to restore them, as far as possible, to their original
appearance. At Pickering, for example, the Rev. Lightfoot justified his re-painting of
the entire scheme on the grounds, that, 'mutilated as they had been, the paintings could
not have remained in any church used as a place of worship without more or less
restoration' (Lightfoot 1895: 353). Where the condition of the plaster or the paintings
was too fragmentary, as in the chancel at Stratford, the paintings were destroyed

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Seeing and believing 113

(Davidson 1988: 11). At one level, the repainting of the schemes appeared to restore the
visual coherence of the images and allow them to be 'read' by modern observers. In this
way, it could be understood to have restored their perceived original function as the Biblia

Pauperum, or Poor Man's Bible, communicating complex theological and doctrinal issues
to a largely illiterate laity (Rouse 1991).
However, at another level, these restorations completely transformed the visual
meanings of the paintings. The paintings became decorative schemes and tourist
attractions, not objects with a didactic or devotional function. Viewers were distanced
visually and interpretatively from the paintings, not just by their ignorance of their
original meanings, but also by the ways in which they were encountered. They were seen,

not within the context of ritual, or even social practice, but through the medium of
guidebooks and scholarly texts. What is particularly significant here is the mode of
representation used in such sources. The images were removed from their threedimensional, architectural context, 'flattening' their undulating surfaces onto the static
page. They were framed, not by a mural canvas with its associated windows and doors,
fixtures and fittings, but rather by the borders of the page itself. All sense of the differential

lighting and relative scale of the images was lost. Rather than being encountered
dynamically, somatically, each image is therefore placed directly in the line of sight of the
viewer. These modes of representation have continued to be used throughout the twentieth

It is therefore important to understand that nineteenth- and twentieth-century

programmes of restoration and interpretation enable us to see and experience these
images in particular ways. Rather than simply 'restoring' these schemes to their original
state, they have, like the palimpsest, both partially effaced and obscured the layers of
paint, plaster and inscription which lie beneath them. This includes the important layers of

sixteenth-century plaster, painted text and iconoclastic damage that constitute the next
layers of our metaphorical palimpsest. Traditionally, it has been presumed that the
religious imagery contained in these wall paintings became a target for iconoclasm during
the English Protestant Reformation. Reformation historiography has tended to emphasize
the devastating consequences of the Reformation in general, and iconoclasm in particular,
for the rich material culture of the late medieval Catholic Church (Aston 2003; Duffy 1992;

Gaimster and Gilchrist 2003). Archaeologists have been profoundly influenced by these
interpretations, although they have acknowledged that, in the absence of documentary
evidence, it is difficult to date the negative evidence of iconoclasm, or the loss of fixtures
and fittings.

At Pickering, all we can say is that the paintings were probably covered over at some
point in the sixteenth century. During the seventeenth century, the scheme was further
damaged by wall monuments (Hey Dykes 1853: 288; Lightfoot 1895: 360). A clearer date
emerges from Stratford, where John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare's father, was paid
2 Jin 1563-4 for 'defasyng the ymages in ye chapel'. The following year, 'ye rood loft' was

taken down for the sum of 2s (Savage 1921: 7). In 1586-7 the walls of the chapel were
washed, at a cost of 16d, perhaps in advance of Cartwright's preaching of a sermon here
(Savage 1929: xix, 31). At some point, too, the Dance of Death paintings were overpainted with a Renaissance architectural design (Puddephat 1960). The chancel paintings
do indeed appear to have been damaged by iconoclasts. Wheler noted that 'many parts of

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114 Kate Giles

them especially the crosses, had been evidently mutilated by some sharp instrument by

ill-directed zeal of our early reformers' (1806: 97-8). Sadly, all traces of other icono

actions, or subsequent graffiti over the images, appear to have been destroyed by
nineteenth-century restorations. This is a shame, for Fleming (2001) and Plesch (2
have demonstrated that such graffiti are rich source of information about early m
religious and secular concerns. The experience of these buildings was further alt
through architectural changes. The visual links between nave and chancel were
transformed by the loss of the Rood screen at Pickering and the severing of the chancel
from the nave at Stratford in 1641 (Puddephat 1960: 30). New fixtures and fittings
contributed to such changes. At Stratford during the late sixteenth century there are good
records of expenditure on the pulpit, on boards and tables for the commandments and new

pews (Savage 1921, 1929).

At one level, these changes appear to herald the emergence of modern ways of seeing
and experiencing ecclesiastical space. Images were defaced and over-painted, emptied of
their magical presences and their affective power over the observer. Iconoclasm revealed,
and thus emphasized, the mundane and secular reality of the paint and plaster of such
paintings, as it did the wood and glass of other devotional objects (Koerner 2004). The
traditional east-west hierarchies were disrupted by the severing of visual links between
nave and chancel and by the new positioning of the communion table in the nave, rather
than at the east end. But the new visual focus of Protestantism on the pulpit, communion
table and font also re-appropriated the nave, sweeping away the multiple visual focuses of

subsidiary altars, chantry chapels, screens and statues. Movement around these spaces,
particularly during services, became much more difficult as pews fixed parishioners in
serried, hierarchical ranks, and as the pulpit became the centre of visual and aural
attention. Here, then, was a visual and spatial expression not simply of the annihilation of

the image, but also the 'triumph' of 'the Word':

When a parish congregation came to sit in their newly stripped, whitewashed and
lavishly betexted church building, they could know that the Word of God was literally

all around them, protecting them from the assaults of the Ancient Enemy, some of
whose broken symbols they could also see surviving in their church, as tokens of his

(MacCulloch 2003: 560)

And yet, the material evidence of these changes is also more complex than this. For,
while the visual and spatial experience of churches was undoubtedly transformed during
this period, more traditional ways of seeing, and perhaps of believing, were also
preserved during these changes, well into the later sixteenth century. At Stratford, for
example, the paintings appear to have survived not only the initial waves of
Reformation but also the Injunctions of 1559, before Shakespeare took action in the
1560s. Indeed, the Dance of Death paintings were still visible in 1576 when they were
seen by the antiquarian Stow (Davidson 1988: 10). Moreover, iconoclasm did not
remove these schemes completely from sight. The defacement of images often left behind

what Koerner (2004: 106) has called 'a residue of face', the outline or remnants of an
image, such as the crosses in the chancel at Stratford. While such damage was evidently

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Seeing and believing 115

an iconoclastic act, inevitably and paradoxically it also drew attention to the power that
such images were believed to have had.
Moreover, for most of the sixteenth century, the people using these buildings carried
with them not only the visual but also the somatic memory of where particular images had

been, and the devotional practices associated with them. Indeed, the outlines of such
images may well have continued to show through early layers of whitewash as is the case at
Pickering still today. We can therefore speculate that, for those who wished it, the 'absent
presence' of these images continued to elicit the memory of spiritual beliefs and devotional

practices in their beholders. The complexity of these layers of our palimpsest therefore
reminds us that visual and spatial practices were not completely transformed through the

imposition of high-level theoretical ideas onto the landscapes and buildings of early
modern England. Rather, they were structured through the everyday experiences of past
communities, and by their negotiation of the visual affor dances of place and space. We can

therefore use our understanding of these processes of both continuity and change to
understand the differing ways in which these paintings were seen and experienced in the
pre-modern period itself.

Moving backwards, then, to reveal the original layers of our palimpsest, we can finally
begin to consider the medieval paintings themselves. At Pickering, the patrons of the
scheme are likely to have been prominent lay parishioners. At Stratford-upon-Avon, the
patron may well have been Sir Hugh Clopton, a prominent guild member. Both schemes
involved the rebuilding and re-fenestration of these areas, to light the images. At
Pickering, there was a new clerestory and, at Stratford, a new series of magnificent
Perpendicular windows. The combined visual effects of these changes was highly effective:

changing patterns and qualities in the light transformed these two-dimensional images,
illuminating some while casting others into shadow, reflecting off the undulating surfaces
and different pigments to animate the images of saints and angels - and sinners. Much has

been written about the metaphysics of light and high-status Gothic architecture (Camille
1996: 5; Hahn 2000). However, here we can see how, at parochial level, light and

architecture could be used to structure a belief in the power of images to look back and
affect the observer. And thus it reminds us how '[i]n a world thick with presences, unseen

as well as seen, images of things were far more powerful than they are today' (Camille
1996: 19).
From the late fourteenth century onwards, changes in liturgy and architecture made the

rite of the Mass less physically accessible to the laity. In response, an increasing emphasis
was therefore placed on medieval seeing as a means of participating, visually and bodily, in

the divine, particularly through witnessing the moment of the elevation of the Host
(Biernoff 2002: 134). This was facilitated through a range of strategies, including the
piercing and creation of peepholes in screens and squints through side walls to provide the
laity with views of the High, or other subsidiary, altars. Traditionally, archaeologists have

modelled these lines of sight as straight lines (Graves 2000; Roffey 2004). Yet perhaps we
need to take more account of the circuitous journeys and movements that this seeing
involved: negotiating or pushing one's way through the crowd, peering around tombs or
other monuments, jostling for a glimpse through the squint or hagioscope and kneeling,
stooping, stretching, craning and straining to see and hear the moment of the elevation of
the Host, signalled by the ringing of the sacring bell.

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116 Kate Giles

Visually and spatially, this emphasis on the Host drew attention to the underl

east- west hierarchy of the church. And yet, during the fifteenth century a different

of devotional topography also emerged within the nave of the parish church

topography was often centred on subsidiary altars, such as those dedicated to the V
at Pickering and Stratford-upon-Avon. Often, fraternities or guilds, such as tho

incorporated into the Guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford and the 'service' of Our
recorded at Pickering, were associated with these focuses. At particular moments,
as saints' days, or during the saying of obits and prayers for departed guild mem
visual and aural attention was therefore shifted away from the dominant east-w

hierarchy of the church towards these specific locales. What these spaces suggest, then,

that there was a tension in late medieval visuality between a linear, east-west orien

of space and a much more regionalized sense of place, or locale. A further te

existed between the ways in which individuals encountered images, as they m

dynamically through the church, and the more intense and contemplative gazing
images which became such a feature of late medieval devotional practice (Kameri
2002; Marks 2004).

Acknowledging these tensions allows us, first, to begin to make sense of the meaning

the paintings at both Stratford and Pickering and, second, to return to the issue o

medieval visuality and spatiality laid the foundations for more modern ways of seeing a

experiencing material culture. Traditionally, fifteenth-century ecclesiastical wall paintin

have been argued to lack the quality and coherence of previous centuries, consistin
rather random juxtaposition of popular saints and didactic images (Rickert 1965:
Tudor-Craig 1987: 44-5). At one level, Pickering reflects this trend. The north w
functions as a series of via exempla and the south wall as a series of more didactic s

(Giles 2000). And yet, at both sites, there are important symbolic links between differe

sets of images, located in different parts of the church. Thus, at Pickering, scenes from

death, funeral and Coronation of the Virgin occur on both walls. And, at Stratford, the

are links between the chancel legend of the Holy Cross and those of the life of Ada
the south wall of the nave, and between the Doom on the chancel arch, the Danc

Death on the north wall and memento mori verses on the west wall (Davidson 19
Mooney 2000).
At present, the loss of the medieval fixtures and fittings within these spaces ma

difficult to reconstruct the ritual and devotional practices that linked such images toge

Nevertheless, the visual relationships between them might indicate, for example

location of previous altars, statues or other devotional focuses in association with t

Moreover, at Pickering, the images of the saints are arranged, from west to east a

progresses down the nave, to form a 'liturgical calendar' (Fig. 1; Giles 2000). The re
position and scale of images may have paralleled the relative 'grading' of saints fou
contemporary liturgical calendars (Pfaff 1998). Here, then, it is also possible to explore

relationship between medieval visuality and temporality. At one level, the s

organization of the calendar from west to east, and scenes such as the Passio

Resurrection of Christ represent Christian time as a straight, linear path. Yet the litur

calendar and the regionalization of space within the nave also structured a compet

cyclical notion of time as the liturgical and metaphorical cursus (Higgins 1989: 230). Thi

a very different sense of temporality; an eschatological framework within which

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Seeing and believing 117

Figure 1 Plan SS Peter and Paul, Pickering (North Yorkshire), showing dates of saints, feasts,
forming a liturgical calendar (Giles 2000).
present and future were combined (Camille 1996: 95). In this way, vision was incorporated

into conscious labour of memory, or anamnesis (Kemp 1991: 88).

The substantial amounts of text, as well as images, incorporated into both the Stratford
and Pickering schemes raise important questions, too, about the dichotomy between image

and Word which we have discussed above. How did medieval parishioners perceive and
understand such texts? Were they designed to appeal to the increasingly large numbers of
the laity who were literate, and exclude the illiterate, from their meaning? Or did particular
devotional practices, such as the oral recitation of the words on scrolls or panels, imprint it
onto the memories of all of the faithful? Alternatively, did texts confer additional symbolic

meanings upon the images with which they were associated, such as the large amounts of
text associated with the image of St Catherine, the model of the knowledgeable Christian,

at Pickering? Either way, this is evidence to support the idea of seeing and reading as a
unified form of visual practice, designed to elucidate the meaning and understanding of
devotional images (Camille 2000: 215-16).
This brief analysis of the palimpsests of Pickering and Stratford-upon-Avon has
attempted to explore some of the complex relationships between pre-modern, early
modern and modern ways of thinking visuality, spatiality and temporality. What it
suggests is that there are important differences in the ways in which people saw and
experienced material culture in different periods in the past. However, it indicates that
there is no necessary, linear 'progression' in these concepts, from one period to another.
Rather, in each era, there existed complex and conflicting ways of seeing and
understanding images and space. Moreover, while it supports the idea that material
culture provides important evidence of the influence of long-term processes of cultural and
ideological change, it also reveals the material strategies by which communities preserved a
sense of continuity with the past. It is therefore the complexity of historicity which needs

to be addressed more closely not only by archaeologists working within historical

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118 Kate Giles

archaeology in the UK, but also by scholars working on other cultures and per


The author would like to thank the Rector and churchwardens of Pickering ch
Robert Bearman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the two anonymous re
whose comments improved the article considerably.
Department of Archaeology , University of York


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Dr Kate Giles is a buildings archaeologist and lecturer in the Department of Archaeology

at the University of York. Her research interests include the archaeology of public
buildings, particularly guildhalls, and, more widely, the use of buildings to structure social
identity in the past.

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