Why are roof bosses important? What can they tell us?

The ceiling at St Mary’s has a grid pattern with each boss representing a keystone.
The first in a new series of fortnightly blogs exploring St Mary's curious carvings.  Written by Bryony Wilde, a recent Art History graduate of the University of York. The focus of Bryony's master's dissertation of 2020 was the roof bosses in St Mary's nave.

If you stop and take a moment to look upwards in St Mary’s Church, you will see hundreds of strange little carvings set into the ceiling. These ‘roof bosses’ have a functional purpose but also pose many questions for anyone able to see them…

They inhabit a strange world which jumps between recognisable religious imagery to suddenly showing lewd jokes and monstrous creations.  

So perhaps the first question to ask in a discussion of these is: ‘why bother?’. As we crane our necks and twist backs to view the beautiful ceiling at Beverley, we should ask ourselves if it’s worth the little aches and pains.

What’s the point of a boss? Why are they in St Mary’s ceiling?

Firstly, the most obvious way these sculptures are important is that they help hold the roof up! For instance, if we look at the nave ceiling or ‘vault’ we can see a grid patten of beams. The roof bosses cover each of the points where the horizontal and vertical lines meet – marking the point of the keystone at each cross. They therefore act as a decorative but essential part of the church’s fabric.

Part of the difficulty and the power of these art works is their location far above the viewer’s head. We know very little about them – one of the reasons why is that we’ve only recently been able to see them in any detail with modern cameras.

However, the fact they are so hard to access also meant they typically are very well preserved. This is especially important as it is rare for this kind of variety in medieval sculpture to have survived in other parts of the church. This is generally due to the ravages of time, but also the effects from the multiple ‘iconoclasms’ which swept through England. At various stages in history the debate over whether images and artworks should be included in churches surfaced, with the result often being the smashing or defacement of pieces. Therefore, much of the original church decoration and shrines are not present today. If you notice some of the empty niches in St. Mary’s, such as the two framing the west door, these represent some of the lost artworks.

Surviving paint fragments can be seen in the nave sculptures.

After the Reformation and the formation of Protestantism, church interiors also dramatically changed. Our concepts of austere stone walls and simple clean lines would have greatly contrasted with the colourful and elaborate medieval church. Most surfaces would have been highly painted in striking pigments. Large wall paintings representing the Last Judgement and other biblical stories are likely to have covered archways throughout the church. The remains of some paint fragments can even still be seen on some of the sculptures in St Mary’s nave. Therefore, although the bosses have been repainted during historical conservation, their vivid colouring gives us a clear insight into how the church of the past would have looked.

What can the bosses tell us?

The confusing and seemingly jumbled imagery is also an important aspect of the boss. Their location throughout the ceiling would have meant they were visible to anyone at any time if they didn’t mind a bit of squinting. Unlike other art forms such as altarpieces or shrines, these sculptures could be more flexible and show a greater variety of subjects.

For instance, they appear to represent people from the community and the important areas of industry in the town such as merchants involved in trade. Alongside these more domestic pictures we can also see images of great important to the church as an institution and highly sacred imagery such as the wounds of Christ. Lastly, we have carvings of what could be jokes or monsters intended to teach moral lessons to those looking.

Through the bosses we are presented with a fascinating insight into the medieval mind, showing how they viewed the world around them and how they wished to be seen by others. This may be why the imagery is so chaotic and jumps between demons, saints, ordinary people and delicate wildlife. In this jumble the complexities of life are represented – showing us the good, the bad, the boring and the inspirational in a complete narrative.

While at first these artworks appear overwhelming and without any real importance – these amazing art works are layered and have a huge potential to tell us more about the people who made them. What other meanings do you see them you look up at them?

This was the first in a series of explorations focused on the meanings behind the roof bosses. Throughout the coming weeks there will be blogs and Instagram posts delving into everything from ferocious mythical monsters, bawdy jokes and medieval belief in the afterlife. If you’d like to learn more make sure to follow the church on social media!