by Dayna Woolbright
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things…
I do love kittens but one of my favourite things that I have come across since working on the Shine a Light project is a Church Rood screen from St Gregory’s chapel in Norwich. St Gregory’s is located in the centre of Norwich on the historic Pottergate Street.
The Church is now open to the public but during a period of redundancy some of the important historical artefacts have been removed and loaned to the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology service, where they benefit from the care of trained conservators. Other than the screen NMAS also possess a brass lectern in the shape of an eagle, a 14th century door knocker in the form of a lion’s head devouring a man and most notably a 16th century pall which is one of the oldest pieces of textile in our collection.
The architecture of St Gregory’s is very impressive and mainly dates from the 14th century but various alterations have been made. The most notable being the demolition of the spire in 1840 and the clearance of the grave yard in the early 20th century which now forms the scenic square. During its day the interior must have looked pretty spectacular as St Gregory’s boasts one of finest late medieval wall paintings in the country which depicts St George and the dragon. The screen is thought to date to the 15th century. This is only a fragment consisting of two and a half painted panels, in its complete state it would have been a lot larger. The Rood screen is a common feature in late medieval Church architecture, it would have originally been situated between the chancel and the nave and surmounted by the Rood beam on which sat the Great Rood, a sculpture or painting of Christ on the cross.
Unfortunately the fragment is the only piece that remains of the St Gregory Rood. The figures portrayed are that of an angel, Saint Barbara holding a tower and who I believe is John the Baptist but this is yet to be confirmed. The figure on the screen is not very clear but a drawing of the screen fragment made in 1861 by Cornelius Jansson Walter Winter (1821-1896) clearly shows a man holding a book and pointing at lamb, symbols which are typically associated with John the Baptist. The surrounding decoration is typical of Church screens of this age.
As part of the Shine a Light (SAL) project all objects located in the Superstore are given a surface clean using a dry brush and vacuum. This is a task undertaken by the SAL project team with the supervision of NMAS conservators. By gently removing any dust and debris we can better preserve the objects ensuring they last for future generations to enjoy, but needless to say working on something this precious requires a delicate hand! I was given the task of cleaning this object and I was defiantly up for the challenge! During the cleaning process I had a chance to scrutinise the construction of the screen and its decoration and noticed some interesting additions. The figure of whom we think is St Barbara had suffered at the hand of a historical graffiti artist who had carved their name across her body! There were also a number of other markings scratched into the wood surround. While these were not made by the same hands that delicately crafted the gilded flowers these added extras have become part of the object’s story and are as important to its biography as the paintings themselves.
After 5 hours of cleaning the screen was finished and I was immensely proud of my efforts but my work was far from done. In order to best preserve the object conservator Dave Harvey and I decided to create a storage crate to protect the object. We did this by recycling an old storage crate typically used for oil paintings which was a perfect fit! The base was layered in plasterzote, a special type of foam which acts as a buffer between the screen and the wooden packing crate and with the help of three strong and willing volunteers the screen was lifted in. The edges were filled out using layered plasterzote to prevent movement and finally a tyvek cover was stapled to the top of the crate to keep the painted surface clean and out of direct light which can fade paint if left exposed.
The finished product looked great and I’m sure Saint Barbara’s smile grew that little bit bigger!!
If you would like to see the St Gregory’s Church screen it will be on display in the conservation lab during the History Fair event at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse on Sunday 21st April, for more details see http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/Whats_On/index.htm