A central and bold feature of medieval churches across Norfolk was at the heart of the every religious service – the highly-decorated rood screen.

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Today there are more than 90 surviving examples of the extraordinary talents of artists, sculptors, carpenters, joiners and painters, which are featured in huge detail by a highly talented Norfolk photographer, Paul Hurst.

It is extraordinary that so many survived religious zealots and iconoclasts during the middle of the 16th century.

Working in collaboration with an expert on ecclesiastical heritage, the Rev Canon Jeremy Haselock, this 128-page book celebrates the beauty of this internationally-important art in churches.

They have advanced a theory that a 15th-century workshop or studio, possibly based in Norwich, may have served as a centre for talented workmen undertaking costly church decoration.

As the rood screen was the “must-have” item for every late medieval church, did this fashion spawn a factory producing designs of painted panels to match every purse?

As Norfolk has the largest number of medieval churches in western Europe, it is fortunate that so many chancel screens, which told stories in picture book panels, have survived.

More than 80 churches have images from Apostles, martyrs, scholars, soldiers, angels, demons and dragons and even hunting scenes as at St Andrew, Wellingham, near Fakenham, where a hare can be seen while St George and his white horse slay a dragon.

This book, which has more than 170 full colour photographs from 24 churches, mostly in east Norfolk, aims to “introduce an unsuspecting public to this little-known and hugely under-appreciated record of late-medieval art and faith,” say the joint authors.

Mr Hurst, who lives north of Norwich, near Horsham St Faith, has specialised in cathedral architecture for more than 20 years while the concise text has been written by Canon Haselock, vice-dean and precentor of Norwich Cathedral.

A member of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, he is an advisor to Norwich Diocesan Committee for the Care of Churches on stained glass and rood screens.

At a conference in late September at Bawburgh, organised by the Round Tower Churches Society, Mr Haselock outlined his theory that a Norwich workshop became a creative centre.

By bringing together skilled painters and craftsmen, it enabled best practice to be developed.

Although it was possible that itinerant artists visited churches to complete detailed work, Mr Haselock thought that a workshop/ studio was a possibility.

As the rood screen was an ideal vehicle for a joiner, gilder and painter to demonstrate their skill, it was an opportunity for a wealthy benefactor to show devotion and leave a suitable memorial, especially after death.

Mr Haselock suggests that just as there was competition or community rivalry in church extensions and enlargements, so in late-medieval East Anglia there was huge pride in the size, elaboration and decorative elements of the rood screen.

“If one church was fitted up with a new screen, finer and more beautiful than its predecessor, the neighbouring parish soon sought to outdo this with a new one of their own.

“There is evidence of benefactors stipulating that the new work should be like that in the next-door parish church but better in every respect.”

As a result of better copying, styles were adopted by skilled artists. “One suspects specialist workshops came into being to make screens to a standard but evolving design,” he says.

For example, screens at two east Norfolk churches, St Andrew’s, Hempstead, and Happisburgh have remarkable similar tracery – was it completed by the same workman?

He does sound a cautionary note. There is little evidence from which to draw conclusions about workshop practice and whether a carved, painted screen could be bought off the shelf as a package from a Norwich “church furnishing shop.” But there is some documentary evidence that there was at least one, late 15th century, multi-media workshop in Norwich, which produced monumental brasses, stained glass, wall paintings and painted panels for rood screens.

The so-called Ranworth grouping is the most obvious example with seven screens painted in the 1470s and 1480s. It includes Old Hunstanton, North Elmham, Thornham, Norwich St James and Filby.

These seven share a common stock of models with identical poses, drapery, facial features, hands and feet - for example, St Agatha, now in St Mary Magdalen, Norwich, and St Cecilia at North Elmham. Again, St George, Filby, is closely related to Ranworth’s St George and dumpy figures at Old Hunstanton and Thornham share more than a passing resemblance. A common bank of brocade patterns on robes and stencilled motifs on the background to the figures was used too.

In the Cawston group, there are four screens, each with several panels sharing common stylistic features. They date from just before or soon after 1500 and include Aylsham, Marsham and Worstead churches.

Mr Haselock suggests that the first eight panels were painted circa 1490 and further bequests between 1492 and 1494 saw doors of the screen painted with four Latin Doctors.

Then, the final six panels, with five Apostles and the uncanonised Sir John Schorn were added by a painter in the Continental style.

These were almost certainly painted on sheets of paper or parchment in a workshop and then stuck to the screen.

By careful study and comparison of painting styles, some of the robes of saints, and their faces, hands and hair share patterns.

“This argues powerfully for the existing of centrally located workshops from which the screen could be ordered or from whence the printers and specialist decorators could be sent out,” he adds.

Norfolk Rood Screens, by Paul Hurst and Jeremy Haselock. 128 pages. Phillimore £25.

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