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Unidentified bishop (once thought to be St. Denis)/Nativity, with Ox and Ass : Little Wakering, Essex ( ChelmsfordC.12

[Photo:T.Marshall] Little Wakering, unidentified bishop (197KB)

EW Tristram suggested, very tentatively, that this bishop, wearing the rather shallow-crowned mitre typical of some paintings of bishops in 12th century episcopal dress, was St. Denis, (patron saint of France and of Paris in particular) “represented seated, holding his head in his lap (?)”¹

I think the photograph at the left is clear enough to show that the figure is not in fact holding his head in his lap, but has it firmly enough on his shoulders. It is not difficult, though, to see how the confusion came about - inverting this photograph, as at the right, with salient details shown in green, will show what might well be mistaken for a face framed by a triangular mitre, with two ‘eyes’ on the lap of the figure’s robe, as if mirroring his mitred head. But what the figure at Little Wakering is holding seems to be, rather less exotically, a book, and there are traces of an episcopal crozier or pastoral staff at the far left. The “severed head” illusion is adventitious, a chimera.

But Italian-born Denis was indeed beheaded, along with his evangelising companions, in about 250CE. His body was thrown into the Seine, but retrieved later, and the Abbey of Saint Denis was built over his final resting place. Some versions of his legend have him picking up his head and walking away with it, but if this aspect of the story passed into medieval art I can find no examples of it. Denis is usually shown as a dignified, if decapitated, figure holding his head in front of him, as in this carving on the portal of a church in Vendée, France² [photo © Dr Michael Lastinger, University of West Virginia]. Denis is the third figure from the left (and possibly also the figure furthest left, shown before his decapitation), flanked by angels.

In short, I do not think this bishop is St. Denis. He could be Nativity, with Ox and Ass, Little Wakering church, Essex (177KBalmost anyone, but the presence in the opposite window splay of a Nativity, showing a very endearing Ox and Ass looking at the tightly-swaddled Christ Child suggests St. Nicholas as one possible candidate, or perhaps St Martin of Tours.

At all events, it is a very ancient painting in an even more ancient church, and even though virtually all the colour has faded to monochrome in the salt air it is certainly worthy of careful preservation. There are many more paintings of saints, and links to their pages, in the table below.

¹ Tristram 1, p.88

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, DorsetSt Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire NEW
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk
St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : Brookland, Kent NEW
St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon Unidentified saintly bishop (once thought to be St. Denis) : Little Wakering, Essex NEW

August 17 2012

© Anne Marshall 2012