In a previous post I discussed a visit to Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-upon-Thames, Oxfordshire. The church contains a rich range of medieval brasses and effigies, although the stones have long lost their colours and the brasses have often long lost their metal. Here I want to discuss the small, narrow but superbly lit display of medieval stonework within the area that once the original south range of the cannon’s cloister. This display was created after the excavations conducted here and directed by cathedral arcaheologist Graham Keevill in 2001 and reported in Oxoniensia.
I cannot recommend enough a visit to Dorchester Abbey if only to enjoy this display (and of course you won’t only enjoy this display, there is much more to see besides). The fragments of sculpture are arranged so as to imply their position and function. Meanwhile, the conventional chronological structure allows the visitor to apprehend changing styles of architectural form and decoration through the Abbey’s history of construction and use up to the dissolution of this Augustinian house.
Now Dorchester Abbey authorities, don’t get angry, but my kids just loved playing in your two fabulous late medieval sarcophagi. There is a small photograph showing that one was found in situ by archaeologists with a body still in it, possibly a bishop of the abbey.
The sarcophagi are superbly lit, perhaps the best lit sarcophagi I have ever seen. Therefore, one can admire every blow by the mason in shaping the outside especially. But, like the effigies discussed in my previous posting, these are not ‘the dead’ – there are no human remains on display – but they are ‘of the dead’. Like the brassless effigies, the presence of the human form is implied, but unlike the effigies in the church here the human form is implied in three-dimensional form with the niche for the head and the empty space. Anyway, I hope this doesn’t get me into trouble, but my kids couldn’t be stopped in wishing to get in and play dead, or at least play at sleeping.
I wonder if sarcophagi and effigies have been considered in this fashion when constituting parts of church displays, because to my mind, they are two sides of the same coin in serving as mnemonic prompts to imagining past lives and past funerals.