Tag Archives: Medieval

Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)

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The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.


First Recycled Art Materials

There is a lot of interest in the art world about sustainable art practice. I know this from the search engine terms that find my blog. On search engine terms that found my blog was “who was the first artist to use recycled” (materials)?

The question is not an easy one. It does need to be refined a little because due to the nature of art materials, some like bronze or gold are bound to be recycled. Architects have recycled building materials since ancient times. Supports for paintings are also frequently recycled with new paintings painted over the old one; I have even seen a Murillo painted on the face of a South American obsidian carved mirror. In this last example the South American carving was preserved as Murillo used the smooth mirror face as a support for his oil painting, recycling it by repainting. I will presume that the question implies that the use of recycled materials is apparent in the finished art.

Perhaps Medieval reliques with recycled Roman seals cut from semi precious stones would be the answer to the question except these are work of anonymous craftsmen. I will probably ignore a lot anonymous or obscure people who used recycled materials in art or crafts. And I have ignored non-Western artists.

So for the dead white male art history answer: I am tempted to say Duchamp, Picasso or Braque between 1912-14. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel 1913 but I don’t know that the materials were recycled; in later readymades Duchamp purchased the objects from hardware shops. Nor do I know if any of Picasso or Braque’s materials used in their early Cubist collages of 1912-14 were definitely recycled. But it is very likely that one of these artists was the first. By 1917 the Dadaists had made collage and montage part of their artistic practice and by 1920 recycled materials in art were part of the media of art, or at least, anti-art.

There is no photo finish to consult to answer this type of questions. As Epicurus used to say: “Here are some answers, choose one.”


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