Last edited 12 Dec 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The Angel Roofs of East Anglia

The Angel Roofs of East Anglia, Michael Rimmer, Lutterworth Press, 2015, in collaboration with the Churches Conservation Trust, 127 pages, numerous colour and black and white illustrations, paperback and as e book.

While masterpieces of stone vaults or decorated west fronts were being created in places such as Exeter Cathedral, and stained glass was reaching elaborate displays set in perpendicular tracery at Gloucester Cathedral, builders and craftsmen were busy using wood and paint in East Anglia for the adornment of great churches.

These arts flourished in our churches in the 1400s and, in at least one case, did not cease until several years after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, 1529–34. The reformation period that soon followed brought attacks on this fabric. It was not until several hundred years later, with consequent decay and accidental loss, that this heritage would once more be fully appreciated (viz EH Crossley’s pioneering English Church Woodwork, 1912.)

Now another scholar has devoted an entire, if concise, book to the largely neglected topic of angel roofs. These are the generally hammerbeam constructions in which a carved and winged angel projects forward horizontally and thus appears to hover in space over the church nave.

With modern aids, not least among them advanced techniques of digital photography, Michael Rimmer has devoted his travel and studies to this rich heritage, mercifully now more adequately cared for. It is worth beginning on page 25, where the author sets out briefly his own photographic techniques for the capture of images of the angel carvings and the oak or sometimes chestnut roofs that support them. The roofs look down from high above the ground with the light of clerestory windows often blinding us (and our cameras) to the beautiful and intricate carving stretched across the length and width of the church. Rimmer has conquered this basic problem. He supplies numerous images of the angels in close-up and of the entire roofs that house them.

Yet this is not just a book of pictures, for Rimmer’s pioneering study addresses all questions regarding the purpose, design and construction of these richly decorated roofs. Regarding the distribution of angel roofs, for example, he shows how Suffolk has the greatest number of any single county, with 49 out of a national total of almost 170 survivors. The so-called ‘greater East Anglia’ in turn accounts for 84 per cent of the national total.

The region had wealthy individuals who were willing to pay for such elaborate craftsmanship. One was John Baret of Bury St Edmunds, who left in his will of 1467 funds for the angel roof of St Mary’s in Bury, one of England’s largest parish churches. Illustrating the same roof’s details, Rimmer’s photo of an angel with a large candlestick has a few strands of cobweb stretching down from the head to the shoulders of the figure. Such is the marvellous detail of these long-range shots.

The book will be appreciated by all whose work touches on the region’s architecture and ecclesiastical history, or on the conservation of churches and by those who wish to increase their knowledge of late-medieval art generally. Its true value, however, lies in the original and thorough survey work and scholarship contained within its pages. With its unique illustrations and well-focused text, Angel Roofs will also make a splendid gift.

This article originally appeared as ‘Angels of the East’ in Context 142, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2015. It was written by Graham Tite, a conservation officer working under contract.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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