The Warning to Sabbath Breakers from St Neot Church
This month’s Panel of the Month is perhaps the only surviving representation of the Warning to Sabbath Breakers, or Sunday Christ, in stained glass anywhere in northern Europe. Before its discovery it was widely thought that this unusual subject was depicted only in wall paintings of the period. The panel, which is now on loan to the Royal Cornwall Museum, belongs to the parish church of St Neot in Cornwall, England’s most westerly county.
The Warning to Sabbath Breakers belongs to a group of images often referred to as ‘moralities’ or ‘warnings’. It shows a semi-naked Christ surrounded by everyday working tools and various objects associated with gambling. It warned Christians not to work or gamble on the Sabbath day, as to do so would injure Christ and incur damnation for the sinner. Its similarity to images of Christ as the Man of Sorrows was probably deliberate, with both designs stressing his suffering. In some instances, as in a wall painting at the parish church of St Mary at West Chiltington (Sussex), the tools, in this case a pair of shears, literally cut into his body. [Fig. 1]
The image relates to other didactic subjects found in medieval painting. The Warning to Gossips – found in wall paintings and in a 14th-century panel of stained glass from the church of St Nicholas, Stanford on Avon (Northamptonshire) – shows devils surrounding chatterers, especially those who tittle-tattle in church during services. The Warning to Blasphemers – known only in wall paintings – depicts sinners who swear by Christ’s body parts, carrying his blood-dripping limbs as if they had been freshly wrenched from his body. [Fig. 2]
Although around 23 wall paintings of The Warning to Sabbath Breakers are known in England, the St Neot panel is the only extant example in stained glass. Nothing similar in any form has been found either in Germany or northern France. While comparable murals do exist in central Europe, e.g. at Bádok in Hungary and on the external walls of Austrian parish churches in Umhausen, (Tyrol) and Saak im Gailtal (Carinthia), no examples have been found in stained glass. The St Neot panel seems to be unique.
The panel has been trimmed and currently measures 98cm (38.6 inches) x 35 cm (13.7 inches) and shows Christ standing in a loin cloth surrounded by the usual assortment of trade tools and other implements. It is mainly painted on white glass with yellow stain. Christ’s loin cloth is murrey pot metal.
When installed, the panel was originally in the most westerly window of the south aisle where the window lights are 15 inches wide. It appears to date from around 1510 and its position in the window closest to the south door ensured that all those leaving the church would see the image. High-impact murals in the county, by contrast, usually appear on the north wall. The subject may once have been very popular in Cornish churches. The local tradition of not working on Sundays lingered long after the Reformation had whitewashed such medieval images from public view. In 1896 artists painting in Newlyn on a Sunday, for example, had their easels overturned by fishermen in protest. [Fig. 3]
A drawing of the St Neot panel made before it was removed from its original position and cut down in size allows most of the tools to be identified. Some seem to have a local resonance. Working clockwise from the bottom left corner are a sack, a bow and part of an arrow, scales, a dice, six coins (under Christ’s arm), an unidentified tool which might be a small axe, four tallow candles, a brace, a sword, a horseshoe, a playing card, three incomplete tools, a sheaf of corn, a wheel, a lantern, a saw, the handle of another tool, a ladle, a pick, a shovel, an andiron (or fire dog), a trivet, a fire poker and perhaps a tin ingot. The last seven items relate to the large number of people in this inland moorland parish who worked as miners or tin streamers. In addition, two pieces of tin ore may be shown on the shovel. [Fig. 4]
Tools and playing cards also appear in wall paintings of The Warning to Sabbath Breakers in the Cornish parish churches at Breage, St Just in Penwith, Poundstock and formerly at Lanivet. For example, tallow candles appear at Lanivet and a playing card of the five of diamonds can be seen at the church of St Breaca, Breage. However, none of the surviving images are identical; they may have been adapted to suit local circumstances and occupations. Thus, that at St Just in Penwith also includes tinners’ tools, notably a pick and shovel, while a boat appears there and an anchor at Breage, reflecting the maritime location of these parishes. [Fig. 5]
Although the St Neot Warning to Sabbath Breakers panel survived a wave of iconoclasm in 1651 it was not mentioned in the earliest antiquarian accounts of the stained glass windows. The first description occurs in or after 1805 when the brothers Samuel and Daniel Lyson, visited Cornwall as part of their ambition to write a county by county history of Great Britain. Arriving at St Neot, they noted a figure of ‘Our Saviour surrounded with various instruments of torture and among which is a row of candles – and a card – the 5 of clubs’. Originally this had been written as ‘surrounded with the symbols of the crucifixion all kinds’. Some years later, C. S. Gilbert, a Plymouth chemist and antiquary, preferred the former explanation in his 1820 account of the St Neot windows while another contemporary, George Cornelius Gorham (an upcountry vicar and antiquary), merely described ‘a naked figure crowned; about which are various designs; viz a sword, a horse-shoe, a wimble, an adze, a hammer, candles, scales, a lantern, a bow and arrow, a whip, a saw, money, the 5 of clubs, dice, a spinning wheel, a sheaf of corn, a scythe, pincers etc.’.
When first installed in the first or second decade of the 16th century the Warning to Sabbath breakers was the first light (or most easterly) of a four light window. An Annunciation filled the tracery lights above and the other subjects in the same window can be identified fairly confidently from antiquarian descriptions and surviving fragments as: the Virgin Mary flanked by her sisters Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome and their children. The first of these latter panels is now, inappropriately, resited as part of a crucifixion scene in the third window in the south aisle at St Neot and the second is now displayed alongside the Warning to Sabbath Breakers panel in the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro. We do not know why these images were chosen to share the same window or whether the idea of ‘sharing’ was of any importance. [Fig. 6]
Between 1824 and 1829 the St Neot windows were restored by the Exeter-based architect John Pike Hedgeland (1792–1873). One by-product was that many of the windows were moved from their original locations and rearranged. As part of this process the Warning to Sabbath Breakers panel was drawn by Hedgeland and then removed and cut down in size to fit a new dormer window in a prestigious position above the pulpit. Unfortunately the drawing was not illustrated in his published volume of hand-coloured engravings depicting the final scheme: A Description Accompanied by Sixteen Coloured Plates, of the Splendid Decorations Recently Made to the Church of St. Neot, in Cornwall, at the Sole Expense of the Reverend Richard Gerveys Grylls by John Pike Hedgeland, published in 1830, Printed for J. P. Hedgeland (London). Nor was it included in the framed copies exhibited in the church.
In fact, the drawing only came to light when it was discovered around ten years ago among a number of unpublished annotations and additional leaves in Hedgeland’s own copy of his book which had been fortuitously acquired in 1946 by the Courtney Library in Truro as part of the S. H. Brooks Collection (Shelf number: 729.8:270.2).
The displaced (and publicly unrecorded) Warning to Sabbath Breakers panel remained in its new position above the pulpit until the church was restored again around 1880 when it appears that the dormer window was blocked up and the glass moved for the second time in less than fifty years. However, on this occasion, it was never reinstated into the church, and was subsequently omitted from surveys of extant stained glass in Great Britain such as those by Philip Nelson (Ancient Stained Glass of England, 1913); June Osborne (Stained Glass of England, 1981) and Painton Cowen (A Guide to Stained Glass In Britain, 1985).
In 1974 when writing of the St Neot glazing scheme, Patricia Bourke, a local historian, claimed that:
‘Of warning at St. Neot’s there is no trace. There is no doom such as there is at Fairford, nor even a token judgement such as there is at Doddiscombsleigh in Devon …. Perhaps there was one once which has disappeared.’(1)
At my suggestion in 1999, Jill Thomas, a local historian, went looking for the missing panels mentioned by Rushforth. They were eventually found, wrapped in blankets, in an otherwise unused wardrobe in the vicarage. Collecting boxes for the poor dated 1738 and a leather chalice case of 1610 were found with them. All these items were then borrowed for the Millennium exhibition ‘A History of Christianity in Cornwall’ held in 1999–2000 at the Royal Cornwall Museum in the county capital of Truro. They have been on display there ever since. [Fig. 7]
– J.Mattingly, ‘Stories in the Glass – Reconstructing the St Neot Pre-Reformation Glazing Scheme, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 2000, 9–55. This article contains a full list of the St Neot references cited above
– C. Thomas and J. Mattingly, A History of Christianity in Cornwall, 2000 exhibition guide
– A. Reiss, The Sunday Christ: Sabbatarianism in English Medieval Wall Painting, 2000
– R. Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches, 2008