Iconography on Brasses

Brass Rubbings Collection

Though the effigies, of course, are the most significant parts of brasses, they need to be viewed in relation to other details of the composition, for figure brasses, at least up to the Reformation, are concerned with two major themes: the worldly state and fortunes of the person commemorated, and the safe passage of the soul of the deceased to its heavenly reward.(1) Obviously, the more elaborate the brass, the greater the opportunity for suggesting the religious significance, for the arrangement of the composition leads the viewer from emblems of earth to those of heaven and the eternal. Indeed, all details—figures of saints, the Trinity, attendant angels, symbols of the Evangelists, certain flowers, even the inscriptions—have their place in this scheme.

The effigy, of course, tells us much: lords of the manor, squires, and knights are usually depicted in armor, and their ladies, in the latest fashions and fashionable headdresses; the lawyers wear their judicial robes, and the clergy and academicians, their appropriate vestments. The richness of costume proclaims worldly success of merchants, and the footrests, their specific occupations.

The animal at the feet has meaning. The lion at the feet of men in armor probably symbolizes courage and the hound manly sport, but the double-tailed lion at the feet of Maud Chaucer, the daughter-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer, is heraldic, borrowed from the arms of her father, John Burghersh, and the dragon at the feet of Margaret Willoughby of Raveningham, Norfolk, is an attribute of St. Margaret, her namesake.

Other details related to the worldly concerns of the deceased. Heraldic shields tell us, for example, about family and marriage. On the shield from the brass of Nicholas and Isabel Carew, 1432, at Beddington, Surrey, the Carew arms (three black passant lions on a gold field) impale the arms of Isabel’s family (unknown)—a field charged with three Catherine wheels.

Heraldic dress, too, can tell us much. Take, for example, the brass of Lady Katherine Howard, who was the great-grandmother of two English queens, both of whom lost their heads—Ann Boleyn and Katherine Howard, two of the wives of Henry VIII. She bears on the right side of her mantle three of the Howard family quarterings: at the top the arms of Brotherton; in the middle, those of Howard; and, at the bottom, the arms of Segrave—the Brotherton and Segrave arms representing heiresses who married into the Howard family. On the left side of her mantle are her own father’s arms, for she was the daughter of William, Lord Moleyns. So here, even though the inscription has been lost, we can identify Lady Katherine merely by reading the arms that tell us of the marriage of a Howard to a woman of the Moleyns line.

Merchants, too, may have shields on their brasses, though these usually display their merchant marks or the arms of the trading company to which they belong, as on the brass for John Grenewey, where under the "Pray for John Grenewey" a shield displays the arms of the Merchant Adventurers Company of Hamburg.

The medieval inscription, whether in Norman French, Latin, or English, usually combines the worldly with the religious, providing information about the deceased as well as offering a short prayer. The Latin inscription (here translated) on the brass of John Bedell (1498) at Winchester College Chapel is illustrative:

Pray for the soul of John Bedell, former mayor of the
city of Winchester, once scholar of this College, who
died on the next to last day of the month of July in
the year of our Lord, 1498, on whose soul may God have
mercy. Amen.

If the world brings a measure of wealth and happiness to some, it is also a place of suffering and corruption, and the symbols of evil are sometimes represented. The wild men beneath the feet of Ralph, Lord Cromwell (c1470), at Tattershall, Lincolnshire, probably represent the untamed nature of man, and the two dogs fighting over a bone at the feet of the priest, Laurence de Saint Maur (1337), at Higham Ferrers, Hampshire, suggest the early medieval view of the dog as a symbol of evil. The small, belled lap-dogs found so often at the feet of ladies, however, seem to represent fidelity and companionship.

The dragons, wyverns, sheep, even an elephant and a hedgehog that appear on brasses, tend to have a secular significance, as do such birds as the eagle and crane, but occasionally others, like the Pelican-in-her-Piety, are distinctly religious. The pelican, for example, was thought to feed her young with her own blood, and hence symbolic of God’s love for mankind.

Many flowers adorn brasses, especially at the feet of some figures, but particular ones are emblematic. Not surprisingly, the rose, worked into orphreys of copes and chasubles and in the design of numerous canopies, appears as a symbol of love, especially of the love of God and of the love of the Virgin Mary—and it is often depicted with four petals, suggesting the cross. The lily, the traditional symbol of purity, is stylized into the fleur-de-lis, especially on the finials of crosses, but also appears in a more natural form on brasses, such as the Annunciation scene on the brass to George Rede (c1500) at Fovant, Wiltshire.

As one might expect, the mortality of man is symbolized by skulls, crossbones, skeletons, shrouds, the dance of death, and hour glasses. But, we can move from the emblems of the secular, the sinful, and the mortal to those of faith and the eternal. One of the important features of many brasses is the placement of the symbols of the Evangelists in the corners of the stone slab, either as incidental details or joined by bands of marginal inscription, as on the brass of Eleanor Cobham at Lingfield, Surrey.

The mystic symbols are these: Matthew is represented by an angel or winged man; Mark by a winged lion; Luke by a winged ox, and John by an eagle. The biblical origin of these symbols comes from the Vision of St. John in the book of Revelations (Chapter 4, verses 6-8):

6) . . . and round the throne were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind,
7) and the first living creature was like a lion, and the second . . . like a calf; and the third . . ., having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying;
8) and the four living creatures had each of them six wings . . . . And they rested not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.

These symbols have had varied associations. One view was that they represented the Divine Kingdom: the lion symbolic of the wild animals, the ox of domestic beasts, the eagle of birds, and man of mankind. This is illustrated by the cross on the memorial to Roger Cheyne (1400) at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire. Here the symbols are placed on the limbs of the cross with the effigy of God the Father at their intersection.

A more popular interpretation, however, and that more relevant to most brasses, came from a popular medieval dialogue between the rich man Dives and the Pauper, in which the Pauper explains that the symbols have a protective quality "against tempest and wicked spirits." The corner positions of these symbols, then, both offer protection and confer a blessing.

On the more elaborate brasses, one may find effigies of saints, perhaps on the orphreys of a priest’s cope or as part of the side-shafts of a canopy. Take, for example, a section of the tabernacle at the top of the canopy of the brass of Laurence de St. Maur (1337) at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire. A close look will reveal that each saint pictured has an appropriate symbol. To the far left is St. Andrew, identified by the X-shaped saltire cross he bears, for he was believed to have died on such a cross which has since become the symbol for martyrdom and humility. To the right is St. Peter with the key of Heaven. The book and the sword of the spirit are symbolic of St. Paul, and to the far right, St. Thomas holds a spear, his symbol, probably derived from the tradition that he went to India to preach the Gospel and was there stoned, shot with arrows, and left dying until a Hindu priest ran him through with a spear.

The central group, however, is the most interesting for it is related to words inscribed in Latin on the canopy just below these figures. Translated, they read, "Receive me, O Christ, who calls me, / And Angels lead me to Abraham’s bosom." And this is just what we see—two angels holding up in a shroud the naked soul of the priest, returning it to Abraham’s bosom.

In addition to figures of saints and crosses are the religious scenes, often from the life of Christ—the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, the Crucifixion, the Pieta, and the Resurrection. Numerous Trinities appear on brasses, and even shields are turned occasionally to religious purposes. On the brass to Bishop Samuel Harsnett (1631), a shield with the figure of the Lord seated with a sword in his mouth impales the Harsnett arms; that on the brass of John de Campeden (1382) displays a verbal Trinity and a second shield depicts the emblems of the Passion: cross, crown of thorns, spear, nails, rod and sponge, hammer, whipping post, and scourge.

Although this discussion has only begun to cover the iconography of brasses, perhaps it does reveal that all details, from effigy to inscription to Trinity make a statement that is both secular and religious, the kind of "statement" elicited by the huge, elaborate brass of John Sleford (1401) at Balsham, Cambridgeshire. A priest who held a number of benefices, Sleford was Master of the Wardrobe to Edward III, Chaplain to Queen Philippa, Canon of both Wells and Ripon, Archdeacon of Wells Cathedral, and vicar of the Balsham church. Under a magnificent triple canopy, his effigy lies clad in richly ornamented processional vestments. On either side near the bottom of the figure his monogram is displayed on roundels, and appears also on the morse or clasp of his chasuble. Two upper shields display respectively the arms of Edward III and Queen Philippa, and to the right of his head another shows the arms of the See of Ely. If such details are part of "secular" statements, other emblems call attention to the religious aspects—the saints displayed on the orphrey of Sleford’s chasuble, the symbols of the Evangelists in the corners of the marginal inscription, the two seraphim between the finials of the canopy, the angels ascending with the soul of the deceased, and, at the very top, the Trinity.

The inscription, too, is part of the statement, here presented in a free translation:

John Sleford, called to be rector, the world forsook.
He lies here beneath pictured slab, approver of all just,
Staunch conqueror of vice.
He was beloved of King Edward to the slow, sad end:
Keeper of his wardrobe.
He built this church, thereafter shone no more.
These stalls he made with free and bounteous hand.
Canon first of Wells, and of Ripon last,
With a virtuous end, he departed on the feast day of St. Edward
In the one thousand and four hundredth year, and one.
Christ, of Thy gentleness, I pray that he may enter Heaven,
There know no grief.

So here, as on so many brasses, the two basic themes meld—the worldly status and accomplishments of the deceased, and the prayer for the passage of the soul to a better life beyond.

(1) The author is indebted for much of the material in this section to Malcolm Norris’s Monumental Brasses: The Craft and Jerome Bertram’s Brasses and Brass Rubbing in England.

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