Somerton: a Parochial Case Study

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Susan Orlik, a PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Susan is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on the changing material culture of the English parish church, c.1560-1640.  Here she reflects upon the implications of a close case study of the Somerset parish of Somerton for Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis.

Over the last thirty years scholars have challenged Patrick Collinson’s generalised arguments on iconophobia, which he laid out in his famous 1985 Stenton lecture, and then developed in The Birthpangs of Protestant England in 1988. In the book he used the famous phrase ‘severe visual anorexia’ to describe the absence of the visual.[i] Recently the rich material evidence from local parish churches has been used to challenge his view and provide a more nuanced perspective about the visual.

Somerton in Somerset provides such rich material evidence. It has an inscribed and coloured pulpit of 1615 and a carved communion table of 1626 with some rare images on its bulbous legs. The material evidence is matched here by informative Churchwardens’ accounts: these tell of the Churchwardens raising an annual rate and also raising an additional rate for a specific purpose. In 1615 the additional rate was levied ‘for and towards the building of the new pulpit and repayeringe of defects about the church’. The octagonal pulpit has the date on it, as well as an elaborately decorated cornice with a frieze of flowers and leaves.

Somerton Pulpit

Somerton Pulpit

The frieze is interrupted on alternate faces by two figures with a shield. The four shields display different images: a dove, the lamb and flag, a patonce cross, and the ambiguous crossed keys. The dove was a well known image of peace. The image of the patonce cross represented the Trinity through the three petals at the end of each line of the cross. The lamb and flag were both the symbol of St John the Baptist and of the Resurrection. The crossed keys were both the symbol of the papacy and the keys to heaven. These were well known images, demonstrating familiarity and therefore continuity, but unusual and only just acceptable at this time. Each panel has a decorated arch with a blind arcade, and the accounts show that colouring was used in 1615, colouring which has now been clearly restored.

On the pulpit’s drum are the words: PRAISE GOD 1615 FOR AI, which probably means Praise God for ever. Then there is the fleur de lys and the initials HS IH; these are the initials of the two churchwardens for 1615, Humpherie Shepperd and John Horssie. The cost of the new pulpit was £5 1s 11d, including £4 11s to the joiner. In its size, elaborate carving and colouring, the pulpit extends far beyond the requirements of the 1604 canon for a ‘comely and decent pulpit’. The bold inscriptions proclaim the date for all to remember, the exhortation to praise and the names of the Churchwardens are a statement of parochial identity, with unusual but acceptable images that demonstrate some continuity with the visual tradition of the past.

The Churchwardens accounts record in 1626 ‘Item for caridge of the Communion table from Langport iis’. Langport is a few miles away from Somerton. The poor joiner eventually was paid in the 1627 accounts, ‘Item to the joyner for the new Communion Table £iii’.[ii] In 1627 the chancel was altered and in 1628 the church was painted and a gallery was built. This would indicate that the decorated communion table was part of a wholesale improvement project for the church, and that this was significantly before the imposed drive by Archbishop Laud and his standard bearer the Bishop of Bath and Wells, William Piers.

The communion table is a large oak table with bulbous legs. On the frieze around the top are black leaves and gold fruit; here they are the familiar grapes. On the front and the back is a crowned head of an angel, painted gold. The angels both carry a shield with the date 1626. The table has a hidden space in the hinged top for the storage of vestments or liturgical paraphernalia. The lock next to the front angel was added in 1630 to secure the storage space. On the sides of the frieze are carved heads placed centrally. The different images on the legs are very unusual, but acceptable. On the inside of each leg are pomegranates, the symbol of fertility and life. On the outside of each leg are four images: on one leg Adam and a long haired Eve hold the apple with an aggressive serpent seeming to leer out of the Tree of Knowledge laden with fruit. The second leg appears to have the image of Adam toiling after the expulsion. On the third leg is probably the image of Noah building the Ark. These three traditional stories were well known from the Old Testament. Although familiar, it appears unusual to have them carved on the legs of the communion table. The fourth leg is rare: the symbolic images of cuffed hands holding a communion cup, which stands on an unlocked Bible with an hourglass on its side.

Somerton Communion Table

Somerton 1626 Communion Table: symbolic images on the fourth leg

These images probably represent the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Word of God read in the Bible, and the Word of God preached. Whilst the hourglass could represent the latter, it could also indicate time stilled. It may be that the scheme of the four images indicates the link between man’s sin and God’s salvation, first through Old Testament narratives and then through the New Testament symbolic images. There is much that we do not understand about how the lines of sight worked. We do know that many of the images would have been familiar and indicate continuity of a visual tradition.

Like the pulpit eleven years earlier, the parochial community had invested in a communion table as part of a wider project, to make their church more beautiful. Both the table and the pulpit were expressions also of parochial pride and identity, and they pre-date any demands made by Archbishop Laud and Bishop Piers. Both confound the generalised view that Protestants had eschewed religious imagery in their churches or were suffering from ‘severe visual anorexia’. The rich material evidence in Somerton would indicate that they embraced the visual, while taking care that the images were acceptable.

[i] Patrick Collinson, ‘From iconoclasm to iconophobia: the cultural impact of the Second English Reformation’, first published as The Stenton Lecture (Reading, 1985) reprinted in Peter Marshall (ed.), The Impact of the English Reformation, 1500-1640 (London, 1997); Patrick Collinson, The Birthpangs Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. The Third Anstey Memorial Lecture in the University of Kent at Canterbury-15 May 1986, Elizabethan Essays (Basingstoke, 1988).

[ii] Somerset Record Office D/P/som/4/1/1-2.


4 thoughts on “Somerton: a Parochial Case Study

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

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