Desecrated and hidden for centuries, the effigy of the priest regains its glory | Sculpture


His stone face was smashed by the soldiers of Henry VIII during the Reformation. His alabaster hands, when joined in prayer, were cut off and the angels cradling his head were beheaded. Subsequently, its broken form was hidden for centuries behind an old pipe organ, invisible, forgotten and shrouded in filth.

Today, in a discovery that Conservatives have described as “exciting beyond our expectations,” this desecrated effigy – believed to be that of a local priest, John de Belton – is first unveiled in a medieval church from Derbyshire.

The newly discovered monument dates back to 1350, making it the oldest alabaster effigy of a priest that exists in the UK. It also has more medieval painting on it than any other effigy of the era, including significant traces of gold, as well as exotic minerals such as cinnabar and azurite.

“It would have been a very shiny and blingy type of statue when it was first created – so far curators have found paint in dark red, bright blue, black and green as well as gold.” said Anne Heathcote, the caretaker of St Wilfrid’s Church in Barrow-upon-Trent, who made the discovery. “He wears priestly robes, which were very intricately carved by someone who was obviously a master sculptor.”

While serving the parish in 1348, De Belton is said to have lost his life to the Black Death. “We have two Black Death graves in the cemetery and because it is a Knights Hospitaller church, we believe the Hospitallers took care of the plague victims and buried them. It was part of their job.

St Wilfrid’s Church at night. Photograph: Ian Hodgkinson / PictureIt Media

After the Reformation, the effigy was hidden behind caisson benches and then, in the 18th century, a pipe organ. Heathcote is one of the few people who know of her existence: “I know she’s been here forever – since I was three or four. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were church keepers before me, and I used to climb behind the church organ as a child. I could see that there was some kind of statue there, but I didn’t pay much attention to it – I didn’t know what it was.

Then out of the blue, four years ago, she received a phone call from the Church Monuments Society. “They said, we know from a Victorian book that recorded monuments in churches, that you have a priest’s image in there.” She confirmed that was the case and emailed them a photo of the statue. “It was dirty but I immediately got an email back, full of excitement, saying: it looks like a very important effigy. I was stunned.

After successfully raising £ 10,000 to clean, analyze and preserve the statue, she is finally ready to unveil it to the rest of the village this week – but is unable to open the church for fear it will spread the Covid- 19.

Considering that De Belton may have been infected with the Black Death in the line of duty, she finds “very ironic that we have put him back out there in plain sight, as well as we can get him, the same year that we have another pandemic.

His death, and his effigy, could potentially be taken as a warning to the villagers: “Don’t play with the plague.

But she also thinks that the discovery of the effigy carries a message of hope: that this pandemic, too, will be over one day. “A lot of people in our village have NHS rainbows on their windows that say: Remember the storms are passing. And that’s right, they do. And when they do – when this pandemic does – we will celebrate with vengeance in the church. “

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