This post is by Peter Hewitt who is a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.
This carved oak figure of an angel is one of four surviving sculptural fragments from the grand interior decoration of the Guild Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Guild was a social and religious organization for lay people who wanted to build a community around the basic daily business of almsgiving and prayer. Membership fees ranged from 20d to 20 shillings, and when a member died, the guild arranged a solemn procession, a requiem mass, a burial and feast. Poor townspeople (and non-members) were also cared for. Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon was shaped by the efforts of the guild whose influence and prosperity can still be seen today.
Three important buildings survive: the Guildhall, the hub of guild business where members met and feasted; the alms-houses next door built in the 1430s and the stone-built Guild Chapel, which was their most significant building. Proctors from Stratford made the long journey to Rome to obtain a Papal Bull to allow the Divine service to be held there in 1424/5. Two years later, a new ‘awtyrstone’, or altar stone of alabaster, replaced a temporary altar within the Chapel. In 1449/50, rafters and scaffolding were purchased to build a new chancel, and in 1451/2 further bequests of money were made to furnish the new structure.
It is possible that these wooden sculptures were installed about the same time – although it is difficult to fix their actual location. The winged angel, who holds up his hands in supplication, was probably attached to a central beam in the roof of the Chapel, whilst the other two larger figures may have stood in niches near the east window, or high up above one of the altars within the Chapel. The Chapel possessed at least three altars; two were dedicated to patron saints – the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist – whilst a ‘light beam’ stood before the ‘High Cross’. This beam may have been an elaborate rood screen, or upper part of a rood loft, or perhaps a simple structure upon which burning lamps stood, lighting the magnificent Doom painting depicting the Second Coming of Christ. It is likely that John Shakespeare, as Bailiff of the Stratford Corporation, was responsible for the removal of these images in 1563/4. Luckily for us, they were only white-washed over.
Two of these solemn figures, whose wings have been neatly broken off, hold shields, one of which bears faint traces of red paint. It is very likely that these bore the arms of wealthy benefactors, probably those who paid for the new stone building. The smaller squat figure, with a bulbous belly, may have been part of a scheme of angels on corbels around the windows.
These objects were not mere decoration however, but an important material presence within the Liturgy or Mass, performed in the Chapel from 1425. The Guild, in fact the entire Church, saw itself in terms of community – not just of the living and dead – but the angels too. These angelic images staring down from the roof represented what was generally believed, that within the liturgical prayers of the Church, choirs of angels could also be heard, glorifying God.
Together with the faded fragments of the painted scheme, these wooden sculptures are all that is left of the objects and imagery within the Chapel. A fantastic project is underway to reconstruct and visualize the Chapel in all its former glory –some of their findings can be seen by browsing their website, Visualising the Guild Chapel, Stratford-upon-Avon: digital models as research tools in buildings archaeology.