No-one talks about big breasts in the serious academic study of church monuments.
Why not? Inspired by this lacuna in the literature, I want to write a blog about this ever-popular (with me at least) dimension of female anatomy.
In doing so, can I get away without appearing to be smutty and unprofessional? Probably not. So I might as well firmly embrace big breasts (metaphorically) and proceed. Thus my title parodies a British tabloid headline to the extreme in order to introduce a truly giant pair from Bunbury, Cheshire.
The church and churchyard of St Boniface’s, Bunbury has many fine assets, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the largest and most important of Cheshire medieval churches’. However, the curvaceous carving in question is one of three prominent memorial effigies in the church and the only one of 18th-century date (and the only female one). The memorial commemorates Jane Johnson who died aged 25 on 6th April 1741. Jane was the wife of a dancing master Henry Johnson from Nantwich. The memorial also commemorates Jane and Henry’s two sons: Hamilton and Joseph.
I suspect some in Bunbury want to downplay this monument since the church’s Wikipedia entry ignores it and focuses on the other two: the 14th-century effigy tomb of Sir Hugh Calveley and the 17th-century effigy tomb of Sir George Beeston. Still, the parish newsletter from 2004, when describing the movement of her monument, affectionately refers to her as ‘Busty Jane’ and muses whether her new-found prominence will have a corrupting affect on the local youth.
The Cheshire Pevsner guide won’t have any of this sort of frivolity. It describes the monument in dismissive terms thus:
‘Jane Johnson d. 1741. A shockingly bad upright portrait, badly preserved from having been buried in the churchyard’ (Hartwell et al. 2011).
If there was any mention of her bulging bosom in the original write-up, it was edited out. Jane’s breast is clearly not magnificent enough, or high-quality enough, for the Pevsner guide.
The story goes that the memorial was originally beside the altar. However, the ‘bulging udders of Jane’ disturbed the rector so much he buried it secretly near that location within 30 years of her breasts first being on show, sometime in the 1760s. It was only discovered again in 1882 and subsequently installed back on display near the tower. In 2004 ‘Busty Jane’ got moved again to a more prominent location for all to see at the west end of the nave on the north side. In summary, her body has been on the move; first on display, then a ‘boob-burial’ (I claim this term as original and mine), then exposed by the Victorians, and then displayed in at least two locations within the church ever since.
Jane’s breasts are certainly enormous, and she stands in awkward erectness holding a dove. It certainly isn’t ‘high art’ like the finest memorials of the mid-18th century to be found in Britain’s great cathedrals. Still, I wonder whether this portrait can be dismissed as ‘bad’, or a somewhat rustic attempt to render a big-busted lady with some degree of accuracy. And is it really just that her breasts being so vast, or also her head being rendered so small? Is she really big-busted or simply pin-headed? Or perhaps, to an artist of restricted ability, this is a way of articulating her beauty, personality and/or her young female identity at the time of her death in a broader sense. After all, unlike so many naked small boys and naked women on neo-Classical statuary of that century, at least Jane is the subject of the tomb, a tragic case of a woman who died young with no surviving offspring. Moreover, she is a subject without a ‘protecting’ male presence. For this is surely the real identity being projected: a relatively rare case of a woman of relatively low social standing who is afforded an incredibly prominent monument that focuses on her female body without a male body to accompany her. Therefore, perhaps her chest was simply a short-hand for broader objections to the monument… There is more research to be done here I feel.
Anyway, as someone interested in the biography of monuments (perhaps almost as much as female anatomy), this is an interesting case study. Biographical approaches to monuments are now well-established in archaeology. Instead of simply exploring their original design, location and use, biographical approaches consider how monuments shift their significance and are altered, removed, reused, buried, exhumed and so on, including archaeological interventions and products.
Busty Jane’s monument biography shows us how monuments can quite rapidly be decommissioned for a variety of reasons, in this case the ‘distraction’ it caused to the incumbent and perhaps also to his duties and the congregation. It might perhaps also reveal how the human form, even after death, and rendered in cold stone, can provoke reactions akin to a living person. I propose above, it might be the case that the isolated female form was ‘disturbing’ as much as her chest-size.
I’m really not sure why there is a miniature brass canon on the monument: but that is perhaps another dimension to Busty Jane’s explosive memorial bodice.