In 1851, the Gothic Revivalist, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, observed that more rood screens were preserved in Norfolk’s churches than in any other county. One estimate puts the figure at 275, of which nearly 100 are painted . Some, like the beautiful screen paintings at Barton Turf, are treasures of international importance.
Although there are earlier examples, the large, carved wooden screens (rarely stone) that we see today, across the chancel arch, were built around the mid-fifteenth century. These partitions would have been topped by a rood (Saxon for cross), with a crucified Christ flanked by his mother and St John the Evangelist.
As we will see, the upper parts of this complex and by no means standardised superstructure were to disappear during the Reformation and the Commonwealth purges that followed. Despite its erratic history (limewashed, put up for sale, placed in the west end ), the screen at Attleborough, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is now restored to its rightful place at the east end and provides a sense of what used to be. ‘There is not another church in East Anglia that can match this screen for size and completeness’; from wall to wall the screen is 52 feet wide. Above and behind the rare rood loft are painted figures in the typanum once covered by whitewash. Like the majority of its counterparts throughout the country this screen is in Perpendicular style – the style that dominated church building from the latter part of the fourteenth century until the Reformation, when the evolution of ecclesiastical architecture stalled.
To see a more complete tympanum painting we have to exit the county for neighbouring Suffolk and St Peter, Wenhaston. In 1892 this wooden structure was taken down and, famously, left out in the rain, revealing the painting beneath the whitewash. This ‘doom’ painting illustrates the Day Of Judgement when God decides which soul goes to heaven and which to hell. On the Wenhaston Doom the unpainted silhouettes show where Jesus, Mary and John were once attached
Back in Norfolk, at Ludham St Catherine, is a tympanum painting that had lain in the unused rood stair until it was discovered during an Archaeological Society outing of 1879 . The arrows show the doorways at the bottom and top of the stairs that led to the rood loft. It is possible that the painting may have been hastily installed during the brief reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor who worked to reverse the iconoclasm begun during the reign of her father, Henry VIII .
In her Royal Order of 1561, the Protestant Elizabeth I directed that, although rood figures in the loft should be taken down, ‘a comely partition between the chancel and the church‘ should remain (or a new one erected), topped with a suitable crest or the Royal Arms . Elizabeth’s arms can be seen on the reverse of the Ludham typanum, although they now face the altar. The retention of a partition may explain why England has so many screens. And Norfolk may have so many painted dado screens because, during the Civil War, ‘Smasher’ Dowsing applied his iconoclasm to Suffolk and Cambridge.
The 12 painted panels make up ‘one of the best screens remaining in the county.‘ 
The screen had served to isolate the mysteries around the altar from the congregation in the nave – a permeable barrier to remind lay people of the distinction between this life and life hereafter. But by 1638, the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Montague, could communicate a more prosaic view of the function of the screen:
Is your chancel divided from the nave or body of your church … is there a decent strong door to open and shut … with lock and key, to keep out boys, girls or irreverent men and women? and are dogs kept from coming to besoil or profane the Lord’s table? .
None of the rood screen painters left their name but attempts have been made over the years to group their works stylistically. The mirror to which all other paintings are held is the screen at St Helen’s Ranworth, probably the best known rood-screen in the country.
St Michael has been described as ‘debonair’  [and detached  but despite the associated languor he has warmed to his task and already separated the dragon from two of its seven heads. These paintings, over twice the width of those on the rood screen, provide greater room for arm-waving than allowed the 12 constricted saints on the rood screen panels. Stylistically, it has been said that the demi-figures (below) painted above saints in the reredos panels are typical of the elegant feather-suited angels of the fifteenth century Norwich School of Glass Painting whose output can be found throughout the county  (see my earlier posts on Angels’ Bonnets , Angels in Tights  and Norfolk’s Stained Glass Angels ).
One further comparison with glass painting: in his key book on the Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century, Christopher Woodforde pointed out that ermine ‘tippets’ (short shoulder capes), of the kind worn by the demi-figures of angels at Ranworth, were also worn by angels in fifteenth century Norwich School painted glass, suggesting a common inspiration .
The ‘Ranworth style’ exemplified by the flamboyant saints, George and Michael, are a late and refined version of Northern Italian ‘International Gothic’ [15, 10, 11] characterised, wrote John Mitchell , by the ‘melodiously flowing’ garments that fall away from the body almost independently of the underlying limbs. The style may have lingered in Norfolk but Norwich was not an insular place for it had grown rich from trading woollen cloth with its neighbours across the North Sea. The artist who took over John Wighton’s C15 glass-painting workshop, John Mundeford, was a Dutchman and it is reasonable to suppose that the city’s other artists – working on screens, walls, glass and brass – would have been exposed to continental art that was increasingly influencing English religious art in general [10-12].
For example, St George on the Ranworth screen (above) strikes a similar pose to the superb equestrian painting on the wall of St Gregory’s Norwich (below) – both saints united in fighting the dragon with sword instead of the more usual lance . In turn, the mural could well be influenced by prints of paintings by artists such as the well-known Netherlandish Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464), whose works had been in circulation for over half a century.
And as noted by Audrey Baker, the upright white lilies and red roses in the headdress of the Virgin Mary, from Jan van Eyck’s (d 1441) Ghent altarpiece, are mirrored in the garland worn by St Cecilia from the rood screen at North Elmham .
THE RANWORTH GROUP
The concept of a Ranworth Group has evolved over the years [11, 13, 15]. Originally five, there now appears to be a nucleus of seven: Ranworth, North Elmham, Old Hunstanton, Thornham, the apostle paintings at Southwold, Filby and paintings from St James, Pockthorpe Norwich removed to St Mary Magdalene Norwich. John Mitchell considers an unfinished panel of St Apollonia from St Augustine’s Norwich, now in St Peter Hungate and restored by Lucy Wrapson, to be a probable eighth, ‘Within the close orbit of the [Ranworth] shop’ . To this eight Lucy Wrapson adds North Walsham as well as the panels lost in 1891 to fire at Great Plumstead, known only from Victorian illustrations. See if you can spot similarities amongst the core seven.
In a magnificent book on East Anglian rood screen painting, based on her thesis of 1937 , Audrey Baker observed two details found in the Ranworth Group (with the possible exception of North Walsham). The first was the inclusion of animal or bird motifs in the rich brocades – based on Italian designs – worn by the apostles and virgins. On the basis of these rich fabric patterns the Ranworth Group has been called the ‘damask workshop’ .
The second motif identified by Audrey Baker was the ‘counterchanged’ tiles on which the figures stand. In all seven, the saints’ feet have been painted against a background of tiles represented as a two-dimensional vertical pattern . This gives the effect of a skirting board instead of the tiles receding into the painting as they would have done in Flemish paintings of the time; there is no landscape here and there is a strong impression that the artists were working from ‘old-fashioned prototypes’. The tiles are usually set diagonally with a central inset in which two colours are reversed. Here, I have cut vertical strips from rood screens representative of the core seven churches. All contain the characteristic floor tiles but they also illustrate another feature that unites the group: the floral pattern in the background, usually stencilled in gold leaf.
Baker identified two stencilled patterns at Ranworth: one of a bunch of loosely-tied flowers, the other a pomegranate .
Ranworth, Old Hunstanton, Filby, Thornham and North Elmham share the same stencil tool . St James Pockthorpe, Norwich shares a virtually identical pattern while North Walsham is ‘very similar’ (although there are no tiles at the feet of the figures at North Walsham ).
A ninth set of screen paintings in the larger group recognised by Lucy Wrapson is now lost. In 1891, the rood screen at Great Plumstead was destroyed by fire but we are fortunate that artist Cornelius Jansson Walter Winter had made copies in 1859 .
As we see, the tiles and stencilled background were also present at Great Plumstead. The facial features of St Martin – the narrow face and that ski-jump nose – is a stereotype found in some, but by no means all, of the Ranworth group. Bear in mind that details may have been lost or exaggerated during restoration; the Pockthorpe figures, in particular, have been heavily overpainted.
The similarities between these and other satellites of the Ranworth Group suggest that a workshop, of painters used studio cartoons as is known to be the case for Norfolk stained glass painters . The use of stock figures is particularly obvious at North Elmham where all the female saints are painted from the same model – some reversed – and only differentiated by the attributes they carry (e.g., St Barbara with her castle).
A Norwich School of Painters?
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Norwich was a regional centre for glass painting . Around 1500, Alderman William Heyward’s workshop was preeminent and there is good evidence that it produced inscribed monumental brasses as well as painted glass, probably south of the river around what is now the redundant church of St Peter Parmentergate. When Heyward had been apprenticed to Thomas Goldbeater as a glazier, Richard Steere was apprenticed as a painter, again suggesting that drawing skills were used in more than one medium . Indeed, David King [17, see also 13] has argued that Heyward ran a multi-media workshop that may also have been involved in painting rood screens and walls – perhaps even the mural of St George and the Dragon in St Gregory’s Norwich .
Please note, I shall be taking a short break from the blog in order to write another book based on these posts.
© 2022 Reggie Unthank
- Lucy Wrapson (2013). East Anglian Medieval Church Screens: A Brief Guide to their Physical History. Hamilton Kerr Institute, Bulletin number 4, pp33-47
- DP Mortlock and CV Roberts (1985). The Popular Guide to Norfolk Churches No 3, West and South-West Norfolk. Pub: Acorn Editions, Cambridge.
- DP Mortlock and CV Roberts (1985). The Popular Guide to Norfolk Churches No 1, North-East Norfolk.
- https://hungate.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/rood-screen-trail-6-1.pdf. Do read the excellent Hungate Rood Screen Trail booklets. For PDFs press link.
- Tom Muckley (2005). Rood Screens in East Anglia. In: http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norfolkroods.htm
- Christopher Woodford (1950). The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century. Pub: Oxford University Press.
- David King (2013). Medieval Art in Norfolk and the Continent: An Overview. In, East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages pp. 82-119.
- John Mitchell (2000). Painting in East Anglia around 1500: The Continental Connection. In, England and the Continent in the Middle Ages. pp368-373.
- Lucy Wrapson (2015). A Medieval Context for the Artistic Production of Painted Surfaces in England Evidence from East Anglia c.1400–1540. In T. Cooper, A. Burnstock, M. Howard and E. Town, Painting in Britain 1500–1630, Production, Influences and Patronage, London, 2015, pp.166-175.
- Lucy Wrapson (2015). Ranworth and its Associated Paintings: A Norwich Workshop. In, Medieval and Early Modern Art, Architecture and Archaeology in Norwich. Pub: Maney.
- John Mitchell, personal communication March 2022.
- Audrey Baker (2011). English Panel Paintings 1400-1558: A Survey of Figure Paintings on East Anglian Rood Screens. Pub: Archetype Pubs Ltd.
- Allan Barton. https://medievalart.co.uk/2018/11/01/neglect-apathy-and-fire-a-lost-norfolk-screen/
- David King (2011). ‘The Indent of John Aylward – Glass and Brass at East Harling’, Monumental Brass Society, Transactions, XVIII (3) pp. 251-267.
Thanks: I am grateful to Lucy Wrapson, David King and John Mitchell for their generosity in sending me reprints and answering my questions; Bea Leal and Sophie Cabot, Trustees of St Peter Hungate, kindly opened the church for me; Reverend Selwyn Tillett and caretaker Mike Preston arranged for me to see the rood screens at St Mary Magdalen, Norwich.