Similarities and differences in the roof bosses

As we begin to become more familiar with the carvings at St Mary’s – you might begin to have a sense of deja-vu. When we look at the roof bosses as a collection, we begin to see not only similar images, but the same carvings repeated in different areas. The question is ‘why’?

Important imagery repeats

The first reason you might see the same people and symbols over again in the church is they were important in some way. This might seem obvious – but as we explored in blog 2 the church represents the town, its people and its own identity through the decoration inside. Like a logo for a company, artwork can be used again and again to show everyone that certain things matter more than others.

For example, the face of Christ is repeated throughout the church and is shown in essentially the same way each time – the head is shown on its own with long hair and a beard. The image is therefore easily recognisable even when its created in different periods as it uses the same traits.

King Athelstan and St John of Beverley can also be seen throughout St Mary’s and the Minster. These images act as a shorthand for the retelling of a legend which gives the town spiritual significance and historical importance. The myth goes that after King Athelstan visited St John’s tomb in Beverley Minster a miracle occurred when he won the Battle of Bruanburh in 938. As a sign of thanks, the king then granted the Minster certain privileges throughout the land – giving them more rights and power. This story is important as it gives the Minster legitimacy and imbues its saint with divine powers. The sculptures normally show Athelstan and St John together with a scroll or ‘writ’ being held between them which represents the gift of the king.

Another image which is repeated in the church for its political importance is the emblem of Richard II. This looks like a white stag, normally shown with a crown around its neck and golden antlers. In some of the bosses at Beverley you will also see a blank scroll which would have had the king’s name written on it. Once more, this symbolises an important part of the town’s history. Richard II was involved in a series of arguments between Beverley Minster and Archbishop Neville of York (1340-1392). The series of letters back and forth survive but mainly focus on a squabble on the archbishop’s rights of visiting the Minster. Eventually the king intervened by siding with the town and commanding Neville to leave in 1381. These roof bosses repeated throughout St Mary’s mark this important political victory for the town, solidifying their rights and power as a community.

Templates and problem solving

But this doesn’t explain why some of the bosses look as if they’ve been copied from one another – not just showing the same content but showing it in almost exactly the same way. A good example of this is Richard’s white stag – which if you start to compare together, we can start to see that some of them, well, look a bit better than others.

So why does this happen? Were the medieval crafts people lazy? Well first we need to remember how much work went into every single one of these roof bosses. Although they might look small from the ground, each one is around a foot square and would have needed to be painstakingly carved or chiselled out of wood or stone. They would then be painted and set into the ceiling. There are over 600 of these in the church today, so this would have undoubtedly taken a while. Of course, this would have been done in phases across many years as the church expanded – however there are areas of the church where the craftsmen would have been extremely busy. For instance, when the tower fell in 1520 the nave ceiling had to be rebuilt.

To make this enormous task easier, the crafts people would have been organised into dedicated workshops. They would have also used templates to create the sculptures. By being able to reuse designs they would have made both their work more efficient and provided the opportunity to repeat images which mattered most to the people around them.

Different carvers would have worked on each roof boss, which is why we see such differences between two images from the same template. It’s also quite clear that some carvers were more talented than others. The more detailed and ornate sculptures are found in the centre of the nave, the most visible and important part of this area of the church. Whereas the less sophisticated bosses are almost hidden away in the nave aisles. This differences placement and general quality of these images could be the result of apprentice carvers which is why we might see such a difference in, er, talent levels. 

Are there any roof bosses which you’ve seen repeated in the church? Why do you think that is?

The third 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.