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Outlook
News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 4 Winter 2007

Dark jewels with sacred meaning

Following the interest in our recent article about flint symbols, we are now privileged to publish a longer feature on Flint Flushwork, written especially for us by Dr Julian Luxford, a leading authority on the subject. Dr Luxford, who teaches Art History at the University of St Andrews and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, knows St Marys Church well and has studied its flushwork in detail. His recent book, The art and architecture of English Benedictine monasteries 1300-1540: A patronage history, was Highly Commended in the Longman / History Today Book of the Year Prize 2007.

FLINT FLUSHWORK is a form of external decoration applied to buildings in East Anglia. Relatively few examples exist outside this region, and what there is lacks the sophisticated treatment found in the eastern counties. In the main, flushwork is an ecclesiastical art: only a handful of secular buildings have it (e.g. the guild halls at Kings Lynn and Norwich). Monastic churches (e.g. Leiston, Great Walsingham) and gatehouses (e.g. Butley, Dunwich Blackfriars, Norwich Cathedral, St Osyth) were among the first buildings to carry it, and the prestige radiated by these institutions may have helped to establish the medium as a mainstream form of decoration. Overwhelmingly, however, it was an art of the parish church.

Magnificent north porch
From a technical point of view, flushwork is uncomplicated. Dark pieces of split flint are embedded face-outwards on mortar-covered rubble walls, along with pieces of white or creamy freestone sculpted in various shapes, such as the pointed arches found on the magnificent north porch at St Marys at Woodbridge. Both flint and freestone are set upon a single plane (i.e. set flush). The decoration is thus two-dimensional, as opposed to the three-dimensional relief sculpture used in regions where easily-carved freestone was readily available. (East Anglia has no indigenous freestone other than clunch, a hard form of chalk which tends to crumble when exposed to the elements.) From its popularity, it is clear that flushwork was considered highly fashionable in the period between c.1320 and c.1550, and was thought to reflect well the pride, sophistication and piety of its patrons. Most obviously, it manifested a desire to beautify buildings consecrated to the worship of God, His mother and His saints.

flushwork on St Mary's North Porch

Fig 1.

During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries there was a vogue for square flushwork panels representing sacred monograms, trigrams (IHS) and saints emblems. These were displayed wherever they would be seen to advantage: on plinths, buttresses, crenellations and walls. Woodbridge has a wonderful set, very finely executed and in good condition (some have been restored). The flints have blanched with time and exposure, but we must imagine them as they originally were: lustrous and shining in the daylight like dark jewels with sacred emblems set in their midst. Most of the emblems are crowned to express the regal aspect of holiness. Letters are in Lombardic script, which was also used to denote sanctity in flushwork. On the north face of the porch, where all of the flushwork looks original, we find a monogram composed of the letters IS (the S reversed), which may stand for Ihesus Salvator, Sanctus Iohannis, or both (there is no need to identify a single meaning here, because such symbols could have multiple meanings: see Fig. 1); another, higher up, comprising the sacred trigram IHS (Ihesus Hominum Salvator: later to become the symbol of the Jesuit order); and a motif in which one can make out all five letters of the name MARIA (see Fig. 1). This monogram in honour of the Virgin Mary is common in the late medieval flushwork of Norfolk and Suffolk, and occurs in other media as well. It was perhaps intended to elicit from viewers the prayer Ave Maria, which most of Woodbridges fifteenth-century parishioners would have known by heart.

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