Rochester Cathedral Research Guild

2018: New researches and resources

The Research Guild supports the work of the Cathedral Archaeologist and the Surveyor of the Fabric in researching and recording the building’s architectural and artistic features to aid their interpretation and conservation. In doing so it carries out recording and analytical work that the Cathedral Chapter could not realistically commission within its limited resources. Archive reports, photographs and key plans are made available freely on the Guild’s website:

rochestercathedralresearchguild.org

The Guild’s flagship project over its first year has been the recording of the cathedral’s collection of medieval and Early Modern graffiti. In the 2016–2017 Friends of Rochester Cathedral annual report an overview was provided of results from the photographic survey of a thirteenth-century decorative scheme adorning the piers in the nave and the walls of the quire and crypt, containing over 100 human and animal figures in scenes from the bible. Since that time of writing more figures from the same sequence have been identified and recorded, the most intriguing of these discovered on the west facade (fig. 1). These artist sketches strongly suggest that the west facade of Rochester Cathedral was decorated with elaborate murals, as perhaps were cathedrals elsewhere. The full results from the pictorial and symbolic graffiti survey will feature in the 2018 Archaeologia Cantiana, published in June.

Fig. 1. Fragmentary remains of the thirteenth-century figurative decorative scheme on the west facade, thought to depict (A) the Virgin Mary, (B) the Baptism of Christ, (C) an unknown standing figure in crown/headdress, (D) the eagle emblem of St John and (E) Palm Sunday.

Fig. 1. Fragmentary remains of the thirteenth-century figurative decorative scheme on the west facade, thought to depict (A) the Virgin Mary, (B) the Baptism of Christ, (C) an unknown standing figure in crown/headdress, (D) the eagle emblem of St John and (E) Palm Sunday.

The only other form of graffiti at Rochester which had previously attracted any academic interest before recent surveys is a group of medieval votive ships on the fourth furthest west pier in the south nave arcade (Fig. 2). But the cathedral is rich in surviving examples of most categories of graffiti outlined in Matthew Champion’s 2015 Medieval Graffiti, an overview of recent research in the field. Champion draws upon Violet Pritchard’s English Medieval Graffiti (1967) and the recent work of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. These identifications of common graffiti types have been used in cataloguing and interpreting the collection at Rochester.

 Fig. 2. Medieval ship graffiti on the fourth furthest west pier in the south nave arcade. The clustering of this graffiti has previously been suggested to indicate a nearby altar or shrine to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of those in peril on the sea (see Jones-Baker in Friends’ annual report 1987).

 Fig. 2. Medieval ship graffiti on the fourth furthest west pier in the south nave arcade. The clustering of this graffiti has previously been suggested to indicate a nearby altar or shrine to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of those in peril on the sea (see Jones-Baker in Friends’ annual report 1987).

Early estimates from these recent surveys suggest some three thousand graffiti survive at Rochester Cathedral in total, dating from the mid-twelfth to the twenty-first centuries. The corpus includes 180 arc, circle and multifoil graffiti, thirty-five cross and crucifix, 15 votive ships and a diverse array of other heraldic and pictorial designs, 127 possible examples of cult marks, 117 inscriptions featuring a decorative border and a plethora of other dates, names, symbols and text. Analysed en masse this corpus can provide insight into the art, rituals and beliefs of the worshippers at the site over the last 800 years.

About a third of all symbolic graffiti recorded to date within the building are those described throughout Europe as ‘daisy wheels’, ‘compass-drawn designs’ or ‘hexafoil’. Concentric circles, sexfoil, hexafoil and more intricate designs are all represented in some number. These designs in particular appear in enough numbers that clustering around spiritually significant areas within the building can be observed. Six such clusters have been identified to date. Some thirty examples have been recorded in proximity to the earlier site of the altar to St Nicholas in the nave between its original construction until c.1240. This latter date perhaps provides a terminus ante quem for this cluster. The ashlar piers on which this cluster resides were recased or rebuilt in the 1140s, offering a terminus post quem. St John Hope’s conjectural plan of the Romanesque building suggests the rood screen was located across nave piers N5 and S5. Although relatively spaced out, this cluster sits primarily on the pier also featuring images of monks, a four-legged beast and a small hand. These were likewise created from a kneeling position.

Fig. 3. Cluster of votive geometric designs created from a kneeling position, possibly in proximity to the site of the medieval font for protection against evil spirits.

Fig. 3. Cluster of votive geometric designs created from a kneeling position, possibly in proximity to the site of the medieval font for protection against evil spirits.

There is a very significant cluster of arc, circle and multifoil graffiti on and near nave pier S1 (fig. 3). In contrast to most other clusters of this form identified within the building these were created from a standing height. The radiuses of these designs is also much larger than those in other clusters at Rochester. It seems likely the feature to which these designs were created near was of a different nature than those of other clusters and so were created with a different intention. Alternately, they could have been created with different tools.

Champion describes an observed relationship between apparently apotropaic arc, circle and multifoil designs and fonts (2015a, 39–42). Apotropaic symbols are those created with the intention of warding-off evil spirits and bad luck. Baptism in the middle ages was seen as physical removal of sin and bad spirits, which would then need to escape the church. Some churches still leave the north door of the church open during baptism ceremonies for this purpose, the supposed preferred exit for such spirits. Arc, circle and multifoil designs would then serve as a means of protection from these spirits, presumably for the family members and assembled congregations. Given this relationship between these designs and baptism elsewhere, this cluster may have been created in proximity to the site of the medieval or early modern font.

All photographs, digital traces and key plans are available online on the Research Guild’s website. Interpretation signposts have been placed around the building next to significant clusters of graffiti for visitors to explore. Aside from these reports on the Guild’s recent researches, past technical reports and academic publications have been published online detailing archaeological excavations, medieval paint conservation and a series of transcriptions and translations of texts from the Textus Roffensis by Dr Chris Monk. The Research Guild has also been transcribing and translating an assortment of Latin texts within the Textus and Custumale under Chris’ supervision and almost one half of the Textus has now been fully translated. The Guild also works closely with the Friends of Rochester Cathedral in digitising and republishing the trove of information contained within their annual reports dating from 1936 to the present day.

As well as the creation of these online resources, researches have to date have culminated in an article covering the pictorial and symbolic graffiti for the country’s archaeological journal Archaeologia Cantiana, due for publication in June this year. A short article was produced by Dan Graham and published in the winter edition of Bygone Kent magazine featuring an initial overview of results from the surveys of dates, names and text graffiti. A further article from Dan is due for inclusion in this year’s Friends of Rochester Cathedral Annual Report. Many other features of interest have been uncovered by work over the last year. Keep an eye open for future presentations and publications of the Research Guild’s work.