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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Cawston, Norfolk (†Norwich) Early C.15

Virgin enthroned, with donors?

Virgin enthroned, with donors?, Cawston

A devotional painting of the Virgin seated on a throne, with two priests kneeling in adoration in front of curtained niches. The Virgin has a gold robe and a large halo in the same colour. Almost certainly there were once other, standing, figures above the two still visible – on the left, above the kneeling priest, the hem of a robe and the feet of another person, perhaps an attendant saint, show faintly.

The Virgin’s right hand is raised in blessing and she has an open book on her lap. I have tried in vain to read what is written there¹ – others may have more success, so an enlarged detail is now reproduced below at the left. The Magnificat from Luke 1:46-56 is a distinct possibility.

Virgin enthroned, Cawston, detail, book

We know who the kneeling priest at the right in the main picture is – Jon Bridale, vicar of nearby Wood Dalling at the end of the 14th century. His name is actually inscribed below his figure at the lower edge of the painting (main picture, bottom right) and although it is now barely visible and illegible it can still just be made out on the wall. Bridale and the other priest at the left were presumably the donors of this large painting, which is of high quality and would have been an expensive commission (Bridale’s name, seen in situ, has the appearance of a signature, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the priest himself was the painter). The physiognomy of the donors is particularly well observed and executed – that of Bridale’s companion more so than his own.

The painting is in the south transept, which is dedicated to the Virgin. It is the only one remaining in the huge church, which was built by Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk at the beginning of the 14th century, but there are many other medieval features, among them the punning inscribed ‘Spede the plow’ beam, a very fine hammerbeam roof with angels and large standing figures, and a Rood screen by Flemish artists showing Doctors of the Church, Apostles and others, including a bespectacled St Matthew and the elusive local saint Master John Shorne.

Website for St Agnes’, Cawston

¹The book is (I think) held out for the onlooker to read – it would be upside down from the Virgin’s viewpoint. The first word on the third line of the left-hand page might be the contraction ‘dns’, for ‘dominus’