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18 September 2014
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The Early Church: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Screens and roods

Image of the intricate choir screen at Attleborough church in Norfolk
Intricate choir screen at Attleborough church, Norfolk ©
An area that is left ambiguous by the Salisbury statutes is the responsibility for providing a screen across the chancel arch.

Screens in general were an important part of the late medieval parish church and were in common usage throughout England, as they were used to partition sections of the church for a particular use, and separate the clergy from the laity. Most screens were lost during the destruction of the Reformation, and some of the best surviving examples come from East Anglia and the West Country.

'The celebration of mass was a ceremony that the congregation participated in rather than sought to comprehend.'

There are one or two 13th-century screens still existing, such as that at Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire, but it is only in the later 14th century that widespread usage appears to have become popular. Two elaborate examples, dating from the late 15th or early 16th centuries, can be seen at Trull, in Somerset, or Attleborough, in Norfolk. Although the screen did separate the laity in the nave from the clergy taking the mass in the chancel, it was meant to enhance, not hinder, people's appreciation of the holy mystery of the mass.

The celebration of mass was a ceremony that the congregation participated in rather than sought to comprehend. At the heart of the process was the consecration of the host, which was conducted silently by the priest with his back to the people.

'Images carved onto the screen provided a devotional focus for the lay people in the nave ...'

At the point of transubstantiation - the holy moment when the bread and wine is said actually to turn into the body and blood of Christ - the priest elevates the consecrated host so that the congregation could see, and a sacring bell was rung to ensure that no-one missed the drama of the occasion. The combination of the ceremony, the imposing building and the filtered light meant that the architectural features of the building contributed to the intensity of the ceremony.

Images carved onto the screen provided a devotional focus for the lay people in the nave while the mass was going on in the chancel. Normally a rood surmounted the screen, which was an image of the crucifixion flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.

As well as providing a visual reminder of the mass, other images could be used to reinforce the dangers that faced sinners - at St Thomas's Church in Salisbury a doom painted on the wall behind the Rood reminded worshippers of the torments they faced in hell if they were not good Christians.

Published: 2005-02-02



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