Glastonbury Abbey Symposium 9 June 2011 Abbey Shield

The Cloister of Henry of Blois at Glastonbury Abbey, by Dr Ron Baxter

Research Director of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland

The most spectacular of the Romanesque carved stones in the abbey store are forty shards of blue lias, finely carved with vegetal ornament in a crisp, precise style with a polished surface. The first of these came to light in the abbey precinct in 1826 and went into a private collection, but when a similar unprovenanced double capital appeared in the museum in Salisbury in the 1860s it was assumed to have come from Old Sarum - a misattribution that was to last for over a century.

It was not until a large quantity of similar carved fragments had been excavated on the Glastonbury Abbey site in a series of digs under the direction of Frederick Bligh Bond (1908-21), Theodore Fyfe (1927) and especially C A Ralegh Radford (1951-64) that the Glastonbury provenance of the Salisbury capital was generally accepted. For art historians the real unveiling of the stones, and their association with the documented cloister of Henry of Blois, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1126 until his death in 1171, came at the blockbuster exhibition of English Romanesque art held at the Hayward Gallery in 1984. Professor George Zarnecki of the Courtauld Institute of Art was the driving force behind the exhibition, and he selected seven of the blue lias cloister fragments for display. The sheer volume of Glastonbury material and its prominence in the exhibition and the catalogue marked an important watershed; the Glastonbury material at last took its rightful place alongside the sculptures from Reading, Hyde Abbey and Norwich as a paradigm of English Romanesque cloister sculpture of the highest quality.

Blue lias is a hard, fine-grained stone that allows for detailed carving, but it is also extremely friable, and most of the stones in the Abbey museum are small fragments. Many are parts of capitals, including double capitals, and there are a few pieces of shafts decorated with spiral or chevron designs. This allows us to draw a few tentative conclusions about the original form of the cloisters, and to suggest that they might have had an alternating arrangement of single and paired shafts with capitals to match, carrying the arcades. Such an arrangement can still be seen in the infirmary cloister at Canterbury cathedral, constructed around the same time.

The blue lias stones at Glastonbury are very similar in style to other works associated with Henry of Blois, both in stone sculpture (carved shafts from his Bishops' Palace at Winchester, and the Gundrada tomb slab from Lewes Priory), and in other media (ivory book-covers from the period of his bishopric of Winchester and manuscripts made for him). This type of predominantly vegetal carving of great detail and high quality can be seen as the climax of an essentially English carving style traceable through the twelfth century in major works at Canterbury, Reading Abbey and Hyde Abbey, Winchester.

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