Discovering hidden treasures
This week, I want to tell you about one of those moments that makes my job so unpredictably special. Before I start, however, I feel I must warn you that this article contains a large number of superlatives so, if you’re on an adjective-free diet, look away now.
It started simply enough as part of our spring cleaning routine. As per a previous blog we’ve ‘Henry’d’ the windowsills, including some that haven’t been free from the dust of ages for, well, ages.
The next big task was the misericords. These are in the area of Beverley Minster known as the quire or, sometimes, the chancel, and are one of our treasures. We have the country’s greatest collection of these 16th century tilting seats (68, thanks for asking – Lincoln Cathedral has only 64 so yah, boo to them) and these are magnificently robust hunks of oak.
We’ll come to these another time, but for now my main interest is the carvings in the tabernacles (an area or box covered by a canopy) above the misericords.
Some 15 feet off the ground, these intricately-carved figures were created between 1911 and 1914 by one Robert Baker, and what a master craftsman he was. The detail of these two-foot tall creations is superb and largely hidden from view.
The only people with a chance to study them are the virgers, and even then only when we climb up on our annual dust and polish trip. But when you’ve got another 40 more to clean before the job is done you tend to overlook their finer points.
We’re rather more concerned with not knocking off any bits of the statuary with the duster, which is difficult enough when you’re already twisting like a ballerina to avoid other decorations.
But yesterday John discovered that the statues are merely screwed to their platforms and, being a former joiner, he had the technology to remove them which made cleaning them a whole lot easier.
And so for the first time in decades, perhaps nearly 100 years, the statues came down to earth and were properly buffed and polished to a high gloss, then inspected. It was breathtaking, a true eureka! moment.
They are magnificent, the texture of the clothing or armour captured superbly in wood, the faces with real expressions, hair natural and fine details wherever you look. Everyone who saw them was stunned and I felt uplifted as I examined them.
I cradled the figure of St John of Beverley in my arms and took it into the nave. There it had a completely different view to the one forced on it throughout the 20th century.
“You won’t recognise the old place,” I promised the figure, and I was right. It was speechless – but I’ll swear it was smiling.
We’re not selfish, we want to share these marvellous works of art and craft with everyone so we’re hoping to dismount them and stage an exhibition some time later this year. There are various permissions we need to get first but the Minster, as a church that was commissioned as a showcase for the finest art and skills available, surely demands that its treasures should be admired by the widest possible range and number of visitors.
If everyone agrees with us then I’ll let you all have more details when they’re available and, I promise, you’ll be as overwhelmed as we were.