Brass of the Month

June 2003: All Saints Derby, John Lawe, c 1480

This month's brass of the month feature is an incised slab, rather than a brass.

All Saints church Derby was one of that important class of establishments known as Collegiate Churches or Secular Colleges, which in the later Middle Ages came to outnumber monasteries, and to displace them as the most common setting for religious community life. Members lived together and celebrated the eight-hour Divine Office in choir together, like monks, but unlike monks they had a pastoral and teaching role in the local community, and were permitted to own private property in moderation. The canons, fellows, chaplains or other members of these colleges particularly favoured brasses and incised slabs as memorials.





Although the church building at Derby was completely replaced in the eighteenth century, two important monuments of members of the College survive, a unique wooden effigy, and a very fine incised slab. The slab shows John Lawe, who was sub-dean of the College -effectively the superior, since the title of Dean was held by the Bishop of Lincoln. He is vested in the usual dress of members of collegiate churches: a cassock, surplice and an almuce, the fur cape with tasselled edge, and two long pendants hanging down in front. Unusually for an English monument, he is shown holding a chalice, and with his right hand up in blessing. This posture is extremely common in Germany, but known in England only on two brasses, one in Oxfordshire and the other not far from Derby at Walton on Trent.


 


Derby incised slab

 

In the canopy above John Lawe are two curiously dressed figures, one looking like a Sister of Charity , but with wings, the other in an alb and biretta. They hold scrolls, reading D(omi)ne Jh(es)u Ch(rist)e fili dei Miserere mei (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me ), flanking a small figure of the Risen Christ.


In the shafts of the canopy are four more figures, another one apparently in alb and biretta, one wearing a cappa, the usual outer garment of collegiate clergy during winter, and holding a covered ciborium, and two in lay dress. These six figures probably represent the funeral procession, which is commonly found in equivalent positions on French and German slabs, but nowhere else in England.

 The border inscription reads: Subtus me iacet Johannes Lawe quondam Canonicus ecclesie colegiate omnium s(an)c(t)or(um) Derbey ac subdecanus eiusdem qui obiit anno d(omi)ni mill(es)imo CCCC cui(us) a(n)i(m)ep(ro)picietur deus amen. (Under me lies John Lawe, once Canon of the Collegiate Church of All Saints, Derby, and subdean of the same, who died , A.D. 14--, on whose soul may God have mercy. Amen.) There are many peculiarities about this inscription: it begins at the bottom left comer instead of the top left as usual, the phrase 'under me' is unparalleled, and the concluding line is cut to be read from the outside rather than from the inside like the remainder. This makes it easy to read now that the slab is mounted on a wall, but it was surely originally horizontal. The date of death was never filled in -the gap for day and month is hardly wide enough -but the slab must have been made in around 1480. It is possible that the inscription has been renewed; certainly the slab has been restored and patched in places.

Despite its peculiarities, and the oddly Continental touches, the slab is local English work, in alabaster. Greenhill suggests it may have been made in Nottingham (Incised Effigial Slabs I, p. 23; se also his fig. 19a).

 The wooden effigy at Derby probably represents Robert Johnson, subdean, 1527, and shows him wearing an almuce and cappa; on the south side of the tomb chest, also wood, are bedesmen praying for his soul and beneath it is a shrouded cadaver (Illustrated in A. Fryer, Wooden Monumental Effigies in England and Wales (1924), pl. VXXV, p. 91). Both slab and effigy are important evidence for the costume and style of members of the largely forgotten institute of Collegiate Church towards the end of its existance; these Colleges were all doomed to be suppressed under Edward VI, along with the overwhelming majority of free schools attached to them. Only a very few, in Oxford and Cambridge, survived to preserve the name of College and give it its modern meaning.

Text and photos by Fr. Jerome Bertram

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Page last updated 24 July 2003