Something for Good Friday (it would be Rood not to)…

Jonathan Willis

Just a little something for Good Friday: I don’t know how many of you know the parish church of St Catherine, Ludham, Norfolk, but like so many of the county’s churches it has a solid medieval pedigree and is really worth a visit!

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I went there last summer (remember summer?!) on the trail of an early commandment board, and while I’m still not convinced that I found one there, I did come across something rather special. Ludham has one of those vast, flint-clad churches so characteristic of East Anglia, a result of huge wealth generated by a thriving local economy, and particularly the strength of the cloth trade. Anyway, one of the main attractions is its beautiful, intricate medieval painted screen:

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But more interesting I think, at least from an early modern perspective, is the contents of the chancel arch. Viewed from the nave, it contains a striking, early example of an Elizabethan Royal Arms, declaring Vivat Regina Elizabeta alongside the motto Non me pudet evangilium Christi, ‘Let me not be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ’.

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Arms like this are rare enough, and I’ve not come across any other examples with this particular motto, but on the reverse side, facing into the Chancel, is something quite spectacular: a rare survival from the Catholic restoration of the reign of Mary I, a painted Rood. Christ crucified in the centre is surmounted (I think) by the dove of the Holy Spirit, and flanked by (probably) Mary and John the Baptist, two other saints, and two crowned, winged figures who I think are unmistakably angels:

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Beyond that, the rest is speculation. We have very little to compare either example to, and it may be that Ludham was just an extremely compliant parish when it came to obeying the capricious religious policies of the Tudor monarchs. Perhaps this Rood was nothing special, just a rare example of the sort of stop-gap measure adopted by hundreds of churches across the country, and which the death of Mary prevented from achieving greater permanence. But (and this is surely the reformation historian inside me) it is also tempting to read a more polemical narrative into the actions of Ludham. Was their strident Elizabethan declaration not to be ashamed of the gospel in part a defence against charges of conservatism of the type embodied by their Marian Rood? Both Rood and Arms survive today purely by chance, hidden away until they were rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century. How fortunate for us that they do: now we just have to figure out what to make of them!

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4 thoughts on “Something for Good Friday (it would be Rood not to)…

  1. Great pictures Jonathan! And some really fantastic paintings – those angels look suspiciously like they might be wearing feathered tights (leaving the lower leg and feet bare), perhaps one of those examples where the artist seems to be painting from his memory of a costumed angel in a theatrical performance?

    • Thanks for this Laura, I hadn’t noticed/realised, but you’re absolutely right, I see it now. It’s frustrating: it looks like both the angels are holding something, which made me wonder if it was possible to identify them as one of the named archangels, but (to my eyes at least) the panel is just too degraded. Ditto for the two other saints. The one on the right is holding a black rectangular object that looks a little like a book, and the red and white robes of the figure on the left are very clearly defined, but I’m still not sure who they are. If I had to guess, I’d say the one on the left could be St Catherine, to whom the church is dedicated: there’s something by her left leg which might be a reference to the wheel on which she was martyred? I’m relatively convinced the right-hand saint is male, but the book doesn’t really narrow it down: it could be anyone from Anthony to Vincent! Part of me wants it to be a bona fide ‘counter reformation’ saint, but I don’t think I can make it stick…

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