Bishop of Exeter, Edmund Lacey died in 1455 at his episcopal palace at Chudleigh and was buried ‘in the north wall of the choir of his own church’. Following his death, miracles happened at his tomb, attracting pilgrims. Clearly this was a cult of saints in the making cut short by the Reformation. He may have had his own pilgrim’s badge.
As part of our exhibition – Speaking with the Dead – at the Chester Cathedral until this Sunday, we have some replica artefacts on display found concealed within Lacey’s tomb. These are fascinating fifteenth-century ex votos wax images found in Exeter Cathedral in September 1943 and reported on in the Antiquaries Journal vol. 29 in 1949.
These replicas are not valuable but are a means of complementing the poster displays and giving visitors something to handle and think about acts of medieval devotion at tombs in cathedrals.
They were found during repair work following the May 1942 air raid in which the cathedral received significant damage. They had been concealed in a wide open joint of the masonry behind the cresting of the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey.
The wax artefacts were found together with splinters of stone, oyster shells, slaked lime and broken pieces of glass. They were clearly cast in moulds and there was no sign of painting. They were also string and some had holes, suggesting that these were for suspension from the railing enclosing the tomb. Perhaps these were suspended from the tomb and then tidied away are regular intervals, with some, for reasons unknown, hidden in this crevice. They comprised of:
- horned cattle
- feet (bare)
- a foot in a pointed shoe
- a complete female figure
Of equal interest to the project is how these have been written about. In her Antiquaries Journal article, Radford describes one of the female figures in the following evocative terms:
‘She stands on a base made by the fluting of her long skirt; her hands are joined piously over her buttoned bodice, her hair falls over her shoulders and is covered by a veil behind; as she leans graciously forward, her wide-open eyes have looked into the future for almost 500 years. Young, eager-faced men and old men with beards once kept her company; she has companions exactly like herself as well as two ladies in an elaborate Henry VII head-dress.’
Wax is a fabulous substance; at one level simply a cheap means of moulding and ‘mass-producing’ a portable three dimensional artefact. At another level, wax was key votive material with many sacred uses and associations. Its materiality is powerful. It is ephemeral yet enduring, soft and warm like the human body, its scent, being potentially moist and vibrant. I need to read more about medieval perceptions of wax as a material and associations with corporeality; any suggestions?
Radford, U.M. 1949. The wax images found in Exeter Cathedral, Antiquaries Journal 29: 164-68