So where does one go to see a genuine archaeologically discovered medieval ornamented grave-slab of the highest quality, displayed upright and in the open air, away from a modern church in a present-day cityscape?
You might be forgiven for thinking: “Professor Williams, nowhere surely. Who would display medieval sculpture outdoors in a city environment? Surely only some crazed Victorian meglomaniac would contend with such a notion, and then by only displaying architecture, and surely not funerary sculpture, in some garden folly on a grand estate, and only then to legitimate their own slender and confused moorings onto history and reality!”
In reply I would say: “Of course, ideally one should display stone sculpture away from potential accidental damage and exposure to the elements, and in the modern world, with a clear explanation regarding its funerary context and its original association with the bodies of dead people”.
The imaginary come-back from you would obviously be: “There you are then, Professor Williams: you ask a question for which you know the answer most assuredly. No one sir, no one I repeat, would do such a thing in the 21st century. Despite all the challenges such monuments face, we are rest assured no one would display such pieces close to busy roads, pubs and hotels in a modern metropolis. Certainly no one would treat funerary art as merely decorative or indicative of a crude period of activity, without more detail or careful explanation as it its significance for death, burial and commemoration!”.
I would then respond once more: “Hang on, have you been to the HQ building in Chester?”
It has taken me a long time to realise just how rare, and just how bizarre the display by Chester’s HQ building actually is.
Built in 2009 and situated between Nuns Road and Nicholas Street, HQ is right next to the roundabout where Grosvenor Road, Grosvenor Street and Nicholas Street converge. The HQ building has a prominent location in Chester’s cityscape: a landmark for all those going to the races, walking around the city walls, or travelling in or out of the city towards Handbridge, Saltney and Wales beyond. It provides offices for CWAC, a hotel, restaurant and luxury apartments. It sits in full view of Chester Castle, the University of Chester’s Riverside Campus, the Cheshire Military Museum and the Grosvenor Museum and overlooks Chester Racecourse.
I personally regard it as a particularly hidious design, attempting so it seems, to allude, but only crudely and cynically, to the historical architectures of the city through vague evocations of circular form and materials. I presumed it was intended to evoke the amphitheatre. I’m advised that this is wrong, the circular form and red sandstone are intended to mirror the adjacent castle somehow.
That notwithstanding, large scale and still unpublished excavations took place ahead of development, revealing what I’m told are fascinating details of the history of Chester from over two millennium.
Beside Nicholas Street and immediately outside the CWAC entrance of the HQ building, there is a weird triangular red sandstone 2m-high block. For many it is simply an impedence, yet it constitutes an eccentric open-air mini-‘museum’.
The vision was clearly to create a public space to display some of the finds from the excavations and to celebrate the history of the location where the new architectural monstrosity now stands. There are Roman artefacts, medieval ones, and even a police helmet, which together evoke in the crudest of terms the history of the site from Roman times to the recently abandoned police headquarters. Some are in display cases inset into the stone, others are open to touch and investigate with eye and hand.
I see the vision but I can’t really get my head around the reality in a sympathetic way. Rather than evoking a history of place, reporting on the contexts discovered and the rich and varied social, economic, political and religious history of the city and this site’s place within it, instead we get a transtemporal pastiche. This is little more than a banal and context-free open-air cabinet of curiosities that shamelessly aggrandises the corporate architecture of the 21st century and its construction facilitated by the rifling of past times. Chester is full of hotels and businesses that peddle this archaeological manure and claim refined and sophisticated connections with the past. The Queen’s Hotel near the station is particularly nightmare-inducing in its use of classical statuary.
Most disturbing to my eye as a medieval archaeologist is the display in this context of funerary sculpture, which I consider ethically problematic to the extreme, especially given that this is a brand-new display not some leftover from Georgian or Victorian aesthetics. One panel features a full-length, fragmented but nearly completely intact late medieval sculpted grave-slab with floriate cross. It is truly beautiful to behold and to be fair it is carefully assembled, fixed in place and covered from immediate exposure to rain.
The text panel is titled ‘Death and Burial’ and tells us this symbolises the ‘Tree of Life’ and that this was found ‘near to where you are standing’. The HQ building stands on what is was the Benedictine nunnery in the SW corner of the medieval city but the relationship of this stone to ‘death and burial’ and to ‘resurrection’ isn’t apparent.
In this location, it is truly ‘public’ and this is to be commended. Medieval art is brought into a fully public domain and in the context of a longer timeline of activity from the Roman period to the present. Yet, to quote Indy: I feel ‘it belongs in a museum’. Shockingly, exposed to the elements and potential vandalism, it does indeed purport to be the real thing rather than a replica. Moreover, it is not the creation of a Victorian eccentric, or a monument left outside because there is no room inside for it to be displayed. Instead, it is a modern creation, a genuine decision of our time to decontextualise and facilitate the erosion of a medieval masterpiece to aggrandise a modern architectural creation.
The mode of display is also problematic. It is displayed upright, not making it clear to the viewer that this was designed for horizontal display. Moreover, the art is not some abstract symbol: this covered a corpse (or corpses). Whether it honoured an abbess or wealthy patron of the nunnery, it was intended to articulate the status and identity of the deceased within an ecclesiastical enviornment, prompting prayers for the soul of the deceased. Such meanings are lost on the viewer.
Chester has a distinctive history of odd medieval mortuary displays. For instance, there is a direct Cestrian Victorian parallel, the vertical wooden coffin installed in the ruins of St John’s with the fake-medieval script painted inside it: ‘Dust to Dust’ (or ‘Duft to Duft’ as it appears to the modern eye). In Grosvenor Park, you can also see ruins from the medieval nunnery, redisplayed as a garden feature with medieval ecclesiastical architecture from elsewhere in the city. The past is turned into ornament.
How many other cities allow for such bold and bizarre outdoor displays of medieval funerary monuments? I can think of others, but I’ll leave this for you to mull over….
Of course, as discussed previously, this will make a lot more sense when and if the excavations that took place ahead of the building of the HQ building appear in the public domain as discussed here. In the meantime, this is a weird, floating, vertical monument, lacking context, even if displayed at the site of its discovery….
Set against these jaundy out-moded Victorian-style displays, the woeful neglect shown for the display of medieval mortuary monuments in the cathedral and St John’s priory is palpable. Hence, this single monument’s open-air display reveals to me just how distorted, and perhaps even perverse, Cestrian portayals of its medieval architecture and monuments really are. This nunnery grave-slab seems to imply Chester languishes with a 19th-century public understanding of the Middle Ages.
Chester is a city saturated with fascinating medieval archaeology and history, including wonderful churches, foundations of buildings including the famous ‘rows’. It also has a long history of archaeological investigations, long able to avail itself of expert archaeological planning advice and guidance on the city’s rich and deep history. Yet it has long fantasised about its Roman origins over all else. The museum contains little on the Middle Ages. It is stripping funding from its heritage practitioners and museums. Hence, again and again Chester reveals its problematic and dim appreciation of its medieval past and its significance in the present. Displays like this make me doubt whether any Cestrian can acquire even the vaguest notion of its medieval history and heritage. Moreover, whilst not containing human remains, one has to ask whether such displays are ethical in their insensitivity towards the funerary context from whence this art was originally produced and deployed.