Stories in Stone: The Medieval Roof Carvings of Norwich Cathedral, text by Martial Rose, photographs by Julia Hedgecoe, Thames & Hudson, New York, (800)233-4830. $19.95, paperback.
When I first visited Norwich Cathedral in the autumn of 1992, our guide asked us to kindly excuse the obtrusive scaffolding and to ignore the somewhat distracting presence of the photographers who, as we passed by, were aiming their lenses heavenward. The cathedral, he told us, was being photographed for a book.
Five years later, I received a review copy of the finished volume, which brought this seemingly insignificant event full circle. Stories in Stone: The Medieval Roof Carvings of Norwich Cathedral, with photographs by Julia Hedgecoe and text by Martial Rose, is the end result of the work-in-progress I witnessed that day.
One of Norwich Cathedral’s most glorious features is its collection of roof bosses–ornamental sculpture that covers the point at which the ribs of the vaulted ceiling meet. Situated, as some are, 80 feet above the floor, these gems of medieval art have remained unappreciated by most who have worshipped there over the centuries. Fortunately, however, their inaccessibility has also protected them from the hands of vandals during the past 900 years since the cathedral’s founding in 1096–including Cromwell’s soldiers who, after the dissolution of the monasteries, stabled their horses there.
The bosses were carved between 1300 and 1515 and their creation can be divided into several distinct phases. The earliest are of single subjects, usually leaves and flowers. The later bosses show individual scenes with more traditionally religious themes–such as the Coronation of the Virgin and the Crucifixion.
But it is the 14th-century carvings that truly distinguish Norwich from other cathedrals. These bosses, viewed in sequence, tell narrative stories. The Passion of Christ is told in five bosses in the east walk of the cloisters; the Apocalypse is recounted in a series of 100 in the south and west walks. After a period beginning in the late 14th century, when the narrative practice was discontinued, the last phase of carving returned to telling stories. Rather than dramatizing events, however, they detailed the lives of individuals such as Jesus and John the Baptist.
Hedgecoe’s photography is exceptional. She captures the bosses in exquisite detail; many are featured in the book’s 70 colour illustrations. Rose, one of Norwich’s foremost medieval historians, describes each in detailed captions, providing Biblical background on the boss’ subject as well as contextual information on the carving itself. The book also contains a detailed floor plan of the cathedral as well as diagrams indicating where each boss is located.
Although I visited Norwich Cathedral and stood in awe of its magnificent architecture, I remained unaware of one of its most valuable sculptural treasures. Now, after having read Stories in Stone, I hope to return to view them in their context, and fully appreciate their glory.
Leigh Ann Berry