Under the axe

Main picture: a late 15th-century wood carving of Jesse, found at St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny. The one `unarguably great' wooden figure to survive intact from the wreckage of the Reformation, it offers a subtle grafting of primitive pagan fertili
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The Independent Culture
Only one unarguably great wooden figure survives intact from the wreckage of the British cultural revolution. It is the figure of a prophet which occupies one of the side chapels of St Mary's, a priory church in Abergavenny. This is the most impressive wood carving to have escaped the bonfires of the Reformation in Wales, and it is a work of stirring strangeness. A figure of Jesse, father of David and ancestor of Jesus Christ, it was carved out of the trunk of an oak tree sometime in the late 15th century.

In the theology of medieval Catholicism Jesse was thought of as the root from which Christ will grow. The severed stump that projects upwards from the Abergavenny Jesse's groin was once a tree of other carvings - other figures and tales - twisting and growing up the wall to reach its climax in a carving of Christ's life, death and Resurrection. The Tree of Jesse was one of the commonest of late medieval symbols, an image which linked the prophecies of the Old Testament to their fulfilment in the New Testament, and which also poetically figured one of the central metaphors of the Christian story by envisaging Christ's Resurrection as a divine version of the diurnal miracle by which green shoots sprout, every spring, from the bare trees of winter.

The Abergavenny Jesse is an image with roots that clutch. The tree was an ancient focus of fertility cults stretching from Athens to Snowdonia, and the Christian Tree of Jesse was an attempt to appropriate one of the oldest and most powerful pagan symbols and turn it into an agent of the Catholic Church. The memory of that appropriation is strong in Abergavenny, where the power of the image that survives has been enhanced by the lopping off of all the exfoliating branches of Christian story and allegory. There is something mysterious and pagan about this great wooden image of a prophet from the East. The huge stiff wooden folds of his clothing give him bulk and power, while his face is carved in a startlingly different register of brilliantly achieved naturalism. Lined and slightly wizened, this Jesse is the master of occult secrets, but he is keeping them to himself. He is strong and inscrutable and he may have magic powers. The realism achieved by the woodcarver is daunting, but looking at his work we find ourselves worlds away from anything as cool as observation. This sculpture belongs still to a landscape of belief where ancient rites and sacrifices, propitiatory gestures to the gods of fertility, the spirits of the forest and the field and the river, may still, in certain corners, be taking place. The Abergavenny Jesse knows the power of the old myths and fears and hopes. Once Britain had its totems and its fetishes too.

Despite the diversity of the evidence and the fact that only fragments survive, there is some consensus on at least one distinct characteristic of British art, namely its tendency to a certain excessiveness, a habit of breaking the rules, overstepping the mark and inventing curious proliferations of image irrelevant or somehow superfluous to theological doctrine. Evidence for this is to be found in the grinning gargoyles, the weird creatures that we find carved in stone capitals and in the seats of misericords. Many medieval churches still boast the odd gurning imp, or melancholy monkey with padlocked testicles...

The baboonery appears to have been invented in Britain, and baboonerism is indeed one of the most powerful characteristics of the British temperament. There is an uncontainability, an irrepressible, vigorous eccentricity at the heart of the national imagination. Nikolaus Pevsner noticed it in the Englishness of English Art, and suggested that it explains the English fascination for genre subjects (Hogarth and Frith being his chief examples). But baboonerism is more profoundly a part of the British inheritance than that. The unruliness of the great British imaginative creations, the unwillingness of the native genius to conform to genres or conventions, is a large contribution to the culture of the West. It makes of British art and literature a series of proudly irregular, anti-academic counterblasts to the more rule-bound traditions of the classically minded cultures of the Mediterranean South.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the plays of Shakespeare are the most powerful literary instances of the tendency, being works of art so lively, so filled with the vitality and the freedom of the untethered artistic imagination, that they overflow their own structures, unmaking the poetry of pilgrimage and the conventional dramaturgy of tragedy and comedy as they make themselves. This dangerous capacity of the British imagination may also, at least in part, have been responsible for the vigour of the backlash against it during the Reformation...

The fear that lay behind much Reformation activity was fear of one of the primal powers of art: the ability of the image to seem as real as a real person, to come to life, and not only become an object of worship in its own right, but perhaps do evil to those who oppose it. This fear of the dangerous, potentially animate qualities of art may be detected in the methods of the destroyers. Defaced images often had their eyes scratched away, as though, by breaking visual contact between image and viewer, the suspect power of the image might be defused. The potent realism and the beguiling presence of the most affecting art of the pre-Reformation period may partly explain the violence of the reaction against it. Destruction can be seen as a kind of back-handed compliment. To deface or smash an image is to acknowledge its power.

The idealistic Protestants saw their destruction as a means of disproving the power of images and loosening the chains of superstitious belief which they felt had tightened around the minds of the laity. During the most extreme phase of the Reformation, the Puritan moment of the 1640s, the abolition of Christmas and the destruction of Stonehenge were temporarily discussed as ways of furthering the cause. The pagan festival and the pagan stone circle were to be done away with because, just like the images of the Catholic faith, they were part of the dangerous, misleading, ancient superstitious history of the nation, a history that needed to be unwritten.

But there was, also, much resistance to the Reformation throughout the long century of destructions. There are many stories of doors locked against the destroyers, of bands of devout Catholic women barring the entrances to their churches, of treasured images being hidden or buried against the day when the Catholic faith might, just might, return. The imagery that does survive, in the churches and museums of Britain and elsewhere, was almost invariably saved by such acts of conscientious objection to the iconoclasts. Among the most remarkable is a stone Tree of Jesse (right), carved sometime in the 1470s, which was hacked to pieces by the Reformers in the 1560s. The pieces were swept up by an anonymous sympathiser in the hope that, one day, someone might attempt the jigsaw puzzle which would restore them to their former glory. Their original colouring is remarkably intact, and it enhances the pathos of these vibrantly alive heads of stone. They still await restoration and are still almost unknown, these English prophets with their faces of Hellenistic dignity. The unexhibited and apparently unwanted property of the Church of England, they have long been kept in several old wooden vegetable crates marked, inaptly, "They're fresh, they're British"...

In other paradoxical cases it seems that Catholic recusants ensured the survival of images by defacing them, but just a little. The half-hearted act of iconoclasm, the act of going through the motions of Reform by tamely scratching out part of the figure but leaving the rest intact and reparable, proved among the most effective methods of resistance. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish between failed iconoclasm and deliberate partial defacement.

Even the annals of the final, Puritan phase of Reform, the last mopping up operation of English iconoclasm, are full of stories of local resistance to the visitations of the destroyers... The parishioners of Ufford in Suffolk saved the great wooden font-cover in their church by the simple expedient of pretending to lose the key to the church door when the Church's agent charged with its destruction arrived in the village. He left, cursing, vowing to return, but somehow never got around to it. But although the process of Reform was resisted, the logic and the vigour that lay behind it proved ultimately irresistible and the man locked out at Ufford was to have the last laugh.

His name was William Dowsing and he was one of the most vigorous of the last English iconoclasts. A man with a pickaxe in one hand and a pen in the other, he kept a tally of his destructions as he went along. Dowsing's record of his image-smashing activities in Suffolk in the early 1640s is the baldest and also the most haunting account of the progress of the iconoclastic movement. His diary is the record of a vanishing, a curt tale in which, behind the proud officious enumeration of tasks accomplished, we can hear tearing and smashing and can see the fabric of medieval culture going, going, gone under the hammer of a new faith.

Dowsing, rapacious devourer of art and enumerator of his own conquests, was both the Don Giovanni and the Leporello of the English Reformation. He was particularly active in January 1643. He wrote:

"Sudbury, Suffolk. Peter's Parish... We brake down a picture of God the Father, 2 crucifixes, and pictures of Christ, about an hundred in all; and gave order to take down a cross off the steeple; and diverse angels, 20 at least, on the roof of the church.

"At Clare... we brake down 1000 pictures superstitious; I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 cherubins to be taken down; and the sun and the moon in the east window, by the King's arms, to be taken down."

n Andrew Graham-Dixon's `A History of British Art' is published on 25 April at pounds 25 (copies can be ordered, post free, from 01624 675137). His BBC2 series of the same name starts this Sunday at 7.30pm

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