Although it is the last thing I will share, the chapel was one of the first places we visited at Haddon Hall. In many respects, I have saved the best till last. Parts of this tiny chapel date back over nine hundred years, to the original fortress begun by William Peverel. He was an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, the Norman invader who took the crown of England from King Harold at the battle of Hastings in 1066.
To step through the door, watched by the two carved heads that smile benevolently down from the arch, is to step into history. There have been very few changes made here since the seventeenth century, other than the painstaking restorations that have uncovered treasures long hidden beneath the whitewash.
Inside the doorway, a ridiculously narrow stair leads up to where the old doorway to the rood loft would have opened out into the chapel. There is neither rood loft nor screen now…like the medieval wall paintings, such things were proscribed by changes in religious affiliations during the Reformation, and later under Cromwell’s puritanical rule. But the door still remains, high in the wall, as a testament to former glories.
And those walls are amazing. A cursory glance and you might think they bear the remnants of torn and faded wallpaper. In fact, they are covered with medieval wall paintings or incredible detail. The festive boughs that adorned the chapel for our visit during the festive season seemed to echo their painted counterparts. They felt indefinably right somehow. It is almost as if the Garden of Eden has been recreated in paint.
Tonsured monks… and one that seems to be wearing a flat cap… wander amid fantastic foliage and flowers. One gentleman appears to be fishing in the swirling waters of a river and a closer look shows that there are plenty of fish to be caught.
Opposite the door stands one of ‘our’ beheaded saints… the giant St Christopher, carrying the Christ-Child as he wades across the river. The hermit who set him to his task, ferrying travellers across the dangerous river in order to serve, stands close by, watching as the giant bears the weight of the world on his shoulder
The paintings, which date from the early 1400s, are beautifully executed. Even after so many centuries, there is a freshness about the artist’s touch, surprise, gentleness and awe in the saint’s expression…
…and smiles on the faces of the fish that swim through the translucent waters at his feet. There was a St Christopher in the very first church Stuart and I visited together, before we even knew that we were beginning an adventure that has neither ceased nor palled after all these years. We have seen many medieval paintings of this saint, almost always painted opposite the door of church or chapel, where pilgrims would see him first of all and gain a special blessing. But as far as the artistry is concerned, this is one of the finest.
But the paintings do not stop there. Behind the family pews in the nave. there are vignettes… scenes of family groups, which may tell the stories of saints and biblical figures… but also seem to capture moments of life in medieval times as well as providing detailed illustrations of the fashions of the time. As such pictures served the purpose of educating the unlettered at a time when services were taken in Latin, it was customary for biblical figures to be portrayed as lords and ladies, in such a way that the peasants would recognise their status in the religious story.
In one of the vignettes, a man and a woman watch as a girl-child reads. Is this the familiar medieval theme of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read? St Nicholas, to whom the chapel is dedicated, blesses the ship that gave grain to the starving with no lessening of its cargo, but quite what is going on with the giant chalice, I do not know.
The chapel looks amazing today. One can only imagine how rich and wondrous it must have looked when the paint was fresh and complete or how many stories it told. Yet it was not all about educating the peasantry… their lords and masters too had lessons to learn.
At the back of the chapel is, to modern eyes at least, the remains of a macabre scene. Three rather happy skeletons grin back at you from the walls. There is a tale of three kings riding through a forest. They came to the edge of a clearing where no birds sang, but they could not enter as their way was blocked by foliage. The kings dismounted and found a way into the clearing, where three skeletons were kneeling. The grisly watchers rose as they approached, and from deep in their bones they spoke in unison saying, ‘As you are now, so once were we. As we are now, so you will be.’ The kings fled, but that very night they were all slain as they slept.
The skeletons on the wall act as a memento mori, an ever-present reminder of mortality and of the equality of all men beneath the skin. When the outer trappings of wealth and power are erased by death, all men are equal. The conscious acceptance of life as finite reminds us of how precious our time here should be.
At a time when the Church ruled the lives of men and women in a way we no longer really understand, it would also have been a constant reminder of the need to live a life that would pass muster at the Gate of Heaven, as well as the equality of all men in the sight of God. Merit, not wealth, would be all that mattered. The skeletons would also reinforce the concept of noblesse oblige, whereby the lords of the manor had a duty of care for the land under their dominion and its people.
Curiously, the story continues into modern times. When the paintings were rediscovered beneath the whitewash and the restorations began, the kings crumbled away to nothing, while the skeletons remained, once again, perhaps, sharing their lesson with the lords of the manor.
For us, though, there was simply delight after delight. There is a Norman font from the 1100s that bears wooden cover over four hundred years old and in which countless generations of the Vernon and Manners families would have been baptised. Opposite the font is a six hundred year old stoop for holy water. The octagonal stem is crenellated and bears a worn but watchful head… and echoes the shape of the bell tower above.
Even the stained glass is medieval…a rare survival. One of them bears the legend ‘Ornate pro animabus Riccardi Vernon et Benedicte uxoris eius qui fecerunt anno dni 1472’, installed to commemorate the extension of the chapel by Richard Vernon and his wife Benedicta in that year.
Most pertinent to us, after the very recent forays into symbolism, was the window whose three panels show Saints Michael and George, each with their dragons. St Michael, it must be remembered, is also an archangel…and we have yet to get to the bottom of why the church felt the need to accord an angel sainthood. Between them, this time, we definitely have St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. The story appears in The Golden Legend, a collection of tales of the lives of saints, compiled by Jacobus da Varagine around 1260 and very popular in medieval times.
Modern research and understanding may look indulgently upon many of these old tales, deeming them fantasy, high romance or even just ecclesiastical propaganda. They may well be any or all of those things… though we incline to the view that many are based upon older, pre-Christian stories and are replete with symbolism… but to the faithful of the time, such tales were simply seen as true and they were given a vivid life in the art of the period.
Nowhere is that vivid artistic life more graphically portrayed than in the reredos at Haddon Hall. The stone altar is draped in a cloth bearing armorial motifs. Beside it is piscina, where the holy water and wine were given back to the consecrated stones of the chapel after use. Behind it is the painted alabaster reredos that depicts scenes from the Passion of Christ. It is not original, having been installed in 1933 as part of the restoration, but it is contemporary with this part of the chapel, dating from the 1400s. It is also local, as it was probably carved in Nottingham thirty miles away. There are nine panels, though there may once have been twelve in the series. The detail, once again, is incredible and shows so much of how life would have looked six hundred years ago.
In the first panel, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, surrounded by his followers. In the background, the battlements of the city hold onlookers with palm branches, while a small figure spreads a cloak on the ground for Jesus’ mount to walk upon. The second panel is the betrayal by Judas’ kiss and the arrest at Gethsemane. The soldiers are all armoured and armed in the medieval fashion. In the third, Jesus is taunted and condemned. Bound and hooded, the figure retains both dignity and serenity.
Stripped and tied to a post, Jesus is scourged… and the expressions of His tormentors seem to show every emotion from shame to determination. In the next panel, He carries the Cross, accompanied by guards who bring hammer, nails and pincers. His Mother looks on in grief, comforted by one of the Disciples who leans in towards her. There is no Crucifixion scene… so the next panel shows His removal from the Cross. His limp body is supported tenderly while pincers are used to remove the nails… and His Mother holds His hand.
In the final panels, He is wrapped in a shroud and laid in the tomb. A mother grieves for her son, and Mary Magdalene wipes the blood from His hands with her hair, anointing his body perhaps with oil from the jar. Angels attend the resurrection, as Jesus rises, one foot still in the tomb, the guards seem not to see… But in the last panel, Mary Magdalene sees ‘the gardener’, complete with spade, and asks him if he has seen her lord. They are surrounded by a picket fence and green, growing things, symbolising life and renewal… and Mary now wears a halo. Throughout, the expressions on every face are wonderfully carved and the details just amazing. For this alone, it would have been worth the visit. If you ever get chance to visit Haddon Hall… don’t miss it.
My apologies for the length of this post… there was just too much to share…