How can the material culture of parish churches further our understanding of lay devotion to saints in the Middle Ages?

Frances Cook
St Mary, Combs, Suffolk. South aisle window, detail. 15th-century panel of stained glass depicting the baptism of a child.
St Mary, Combs, Suffolk. South aisle window, detail. 15th-century panel of stained glass depicting the baptism of a child.

Two saintly figures preside over the baptism of a child in this fifteenth-century panel of stained glass from the parish church of St Mary, Combs, Suffolk. The panel is found in the south aisle alongside five other panels depicting the life of St Margaret of Antioch. However, the baptism of a baby plays no part in Margaret’s written legend and thus the iconography of the panel has always remained an enigma. Who could the bishop and the woman in the blue mantle represent and why do they appear in this context, allied to the panels showing Margaret’s story? 

Margaret of Antioch was known to medieval people as a formidable dragon slayer, exorcist and patron of women in childbirth. My project considers the reasons for the enormous popularity of this saint through a study of the visual representations of her Life that survive in parish churches across England. Lay devotion is the primary focus and therefore the visual narratives examined are confined to the nave and aisle walls of parish churches, the upkeep and decoration of which, from 1215 onwards, ostensibly became the responsibility of parishioners. My aim is to show how a study of artefacts and their contexts – in this case the Lives of St Margaret – can foreground hitherto neglected aspects of hagiographies and further our understanding of lay devotion to saints in the Middle Ages more broadly.

Investigating the visual representations of Margaret’s story in parish churches brings to the fore an underexplored aspect of Margaret’s significance – that she was closely associated with the sacrament of baptism. Such an association is substantiated in the textual versions of her Life, including the most widely circulated Latin passio of the ninth century or earlier (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina no. 5303) and the vernacular ‘Stanzaic’ Life of the mid thirteenth century.

St Mary the Virgin, Battle, Sussex. Nave, west end of north arcade, font in foreground. Six (of twenty-four) scenes of the late 13th or early 14th-century Life of St Margaret (above arcade arch). Three scenes depicted on lower tier: Margaret overcoming the dragon (left, damaged) and second demon (middle and right).  

Extensive wall painting cycles depicting Margaret’s Life from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries in the parish churches of St Mary the Virgin, Battle, Sussex and St Mary the Virgin, Tarrant Crawford, Dorset offer an initial insight into Margaret’s association with baptism. The visual narratives concentrate on aspects of her story that recall the sacramental rite. For example, one of the tortures Margaret undergoes – immersion in a vat of water – evokes the cleansing of the infant in the water of the font, while her public declaration of her faith, conveyed in a great number of scenes, brings to mind the godparents’ renunciation of Satan and affirmation of belief in Christ on the child’s behalf. 

However, both cycles highlight the moment in Margaret’s story when she overcomes the devil in two guises – that of a dragon and a man – by carefully placing these scenes so that all those who entered the church or gathered round the font would have been able to see them. The triumphant Margaret, emerging from the dragon’s belly unharmed and despatching other demons, reflected Christ’s death and resurrection, which permitted humankind the possibility of salvation. Thus, a deliberate connection between the paintings, the font and the baptismal party appears to have been intended in these churches.

St Nicholas, Charlwood, Surrey. View from the font, looking south east. Early 14th-century Life of St Margaret (far left) and Miracles of St Nicholas (top tier of painting between the window and the south door on the far right).

Two further cycles of Margaret’s story, found by the south door in the churches of St Mary, Wiston (Wissington), Suffolk and St Nicholas, Charlwood, Surrey, reinforce this sacramental association. In parish churches from the twelfth century onwards, the font was predominantly located in the nave opposite the south entrance and the initial part of the baptismal ritual and exorcism of the child took place at the south door. The intended meaning of the mid thirteenth-century cycle at Wiston and the early fourteenth-century cycle at Charlwood is strengthened by coeval images of the miracles of St Nicholas, as both saints were considered protectors of the young and both were frequently depicted on fonts. Thus, around the south door of each church a powerful statement of concern for the welfare of the young was constructed – one which derived a deeper strand of meaning from the saints’ association with baptism. As the ultimate spiritual protection for the young, baptism offered official entry into the community of the faithful on earth and, crucially, the promise of eternal life in heaven. 

Returning to the panel of stained glass at Combs, I would like to propose, on the evidence of the other visual narratives presented, that the female figure is Margaret and the youthful bishop is Nicholas, who was ordained bishop of Myra as a boy through miraculous intervention. These two saints appear to have been associated not just with the physical, but with the spiritual well-being of children. Margaret was, therefore, not simply a Holy Helper, but occupied a fundamental position at the heart of orthodox Christian belief and practice.

By examining these visual narratives in their original context, my work seeks to show how a study of artefacts can offer fresh and unexpected insights into lay veneration of saints in the Middle Ages. 

Frances Cook is a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading’s Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies and has recently submitted her PhD thesis for examination.

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