I want to write a short post praising the fabulous museum at the English Heritage site of Rievaulx Abbey. This goes hand-in-hand with my positive appraisal of the Hailes Abbey museum. I’ve been to Rievaulx multiple times before, but recently was the first time I got to see the new(ish) museum.
Within, one finds a rich range of artefacts and architectural sculpture is on display and effectively lit and explained, allowing the visitor to explore a wide range of themes regarding monastic life in this large Cistercian monastery from its foundation to the Dissolution.
There are so many fascinating fragments to view in this exhibition, from items of personal devotion (a wire scourge for self-penance through to jet, ivory, bone and amber rosaries) and items associated with writing (styluses, pens, pencils and prickers as well as pigment trays) and reading (book fittings and chains).
I liked the votive model of a shoe to articulate a pilgrim’s aid for a foot condition (or maybe the act of pilgrimage itself). Of course, there are also pottery, chess pieces, rings, coins and tokens, and so much more.
The architectural dimensions similarly are varied, from painted wall plaster of the 15th century to bosses, corbels, capitals and arches, plus the awesome fragments of the pulpitum screen. My favourite frieze is the scene with donkeys and a windmill.
I was particularly struck by the items that provide material testimony to the actions of the commissioners at the Dissolution in 1539. The window glass reveals both the splendour of the building and its destruction. Similarly lead salvage, nails and iron fittings were extracted, and tools found maybe those used in the dismantling of the church tower. Meanwhile, the lead fother – a half-ton bar of lead stripped from the abbey, and stamped with Henry VIII’s emblem, the exhibition claims ‘symbolizes Henry’s triumph over the monasteries’.
From an Archaeodeath perspective, the sculpture is also amazing, from Christ in Majesty and an inscribed retable. The shockingly restricted survivals of funerary monuments and devotional sculpture were of particular interest. I’ve discussed the outside fragments in a previous post.
In funerary terms, there is a tomb effigy of an unidentified lady. Other funerary dimensions include fragments of tomb sculpture, brass letters and fragments of tile grave-covers. There is also a votive model shoe thought to be deposited by a pilgrim seeking a cure from the shrine of St Aelred.
Through Hailes Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey, one gets a pairing of rich museum displays that shed light on both life and death in medieval monasteries.