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Wall Post Figures

The twelve sets of double figures that appear on the roof posts in St Clement's Church, are probably unique. To date no other sets of figures have been discovered quite like these. They are, however, part of a genre of illustration used in late medieval Christian art. The juxtaposition of figures that are beautiful and therefore "good" or virtuous, and those that are ugly or deformed, or threatening or evil, was a common way of teaching the difference between good and evil, virtue and vice. Virtue beautified the body and the soul, vice reduced human beings to a deformed state. Beautiful images were those of the saints, who usually had long, thin perfectly-proportioned faces and hands; images which showed some form of ugliness or deformity, no matter how slight, indicated evil, or sin or imperfection, or sometimes, simply, human frailty.

The figures at Outwell belong to a period when a major project to enlarge the church was underway – probably the early decades of the fifteenth century. This was a time when many churches in East Anglia were being rebuilt. The region was relatively prosperous and the population was just beginning to grow again following the devastation of the Black Death (1348–1349) and subsequent episodes to the last decades of that century. It was also a time when the Church was putting renewed emphasis on teaching its basic doctrines and beliefs as expressed in the Lord's Prayer, the seven sacraments, the articles of the Creed, the seven virtues and vices, the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of Mercy.

There were two reasons for increased interest in church buildings and their contents. Henry V, who reigned from 1413 to 1422, was a warrior king but also genuinely pious: he set an example by building churches and religious houses, and sponsoring other religious institutions. At the same time the Church authorities, together with the King, were combatting the Lollard heresy.

The Lollard movement was the popular heretical expression of the teaching of John Wycliffe (c.1320–1384), a theologian from Oxford University. Lollards favoured the use of the Bible in English, along with a simpler liturgy and wider use of English; they wanted to restrict the use of imagery in churches, and to lessen the power of the clergy. Many also questioned belief in the Eucharist and in other sacraments. Some Lollards smashed or defaced images, or provided satirical images of their own; some wrote works protesting against the orthodox teachings of the Church.

It was against this background that St Clement's Church was being enlarged and decorated with imagery in wood, stone and glass. Alas, little is left untouched from that period, but the roof is a notable exception with two sets of angels as well as the double figures on the roof posts. It is unfortunate that at some point in the recent past the roof was painted with a wood preservative which has now blackened all the timber. This makes it very difficult to see from a distance a series of large figures of angels down each side of the nave roof, and the double figures on the roof posts. Perhaps this near-invisibility adds to the interest.

Observed from the ground the twelve sets of figures appear to be part of the roof structure, but when seen close up, it is clear that this is not the case. Each of the figures sits on a specially constructed ledge beneath the main roof structure. When seen from the ground it appears that the larger figure behind is looming over the smaller figure in front. When seen close-up the appearance is completely different: the larger figure seems weighed down by the weight of the roof – even though it is not part of the structure – whilst the smaller figure stands tall and proud. What is clear from all angles is the subtlety of the carving, the careful modelling of the dress and of the faces. The larger figures seem to be more threatening, more deviant, suggested by the very clever carving of their physical form or dress; the figures in front are more delicate and beautiful.

We could also see these double figures as one, or two, sides of the same human being. There was much play, or ludic argument, with words and images in the Middle Ages, and images like those on the roof at Outwell were often used to give expression to the belief that in each individual there was good and bad, eccentric and normal behaviour, serious and humorous elements, and that God himself, in Christ, as both God and Man, would recognise these elements. Whether or not the creators of these figures were aware of these kinds of arguments, or were simply showing off their ability to carve something intricate, different and slightly off-beat or shocking, we will never know.

 © Claire Daunton, January 2015.

For a draft guide to the North side figures download a pdf here.

For a draft guide to the South side figures download a pdf here.