New light has been thrown on one of the most significant buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, following a study of its medieval symbolic decorations by architectural historian Dr Jonathan Foyle. The revelations include the confirmation that amongst the building’s internal wall paintings are the remains of a depiction of the Last Supper; a discovery of international importance.
Fragments of the Last Supper painting can still be seen, located in what is now known as the Master’s Chamber, built as the South Wing in the 1420s. Believed to reflect the fact that this space was used as a refectory by the Guild, on the wall can be seen 13 alternate red and white stripes with stylised sprigs below. Each stripe is capped by a shield of contrasting colour and inside each can be seen the remains of a head with a halo; although their faces were scratched out by religious reformers in the century that followed, the outlines remain. The central one displays the four-lobed halo of Christ and is identified in the middle of the twelve apostles at the Last Supper. In 1441 a new constitution was declared stating that masters and priests should take meals together regularly, which gives an implied date for the work.
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and broadcaster, says, “This places Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall among the many European guilds, confraternities and monasteries who express their religious brotherhood through enactments of the Last Supper. Fine examples of mural paintings of this theme can be seen in the refectories of 15th century Florence, but the most famous is Leonardo da Vinci’s version in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, painted half a century after Stratford-upon-Avon’s simple scheme.”
At the centre of public life for centuries, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall is a building that fulfilled many different functions; its key ones being as a Chapel, Court of Record and School. One of the fascinating aspects about the decorative features is that it was during his tenure as Bailiff (Mayor) that Williams Shakespeare’s father John was responsible for white-washing the Catholic wall paintings that have been the focus of attention of historians today – their work made all the more challenging by the historic attempts to obliterate them.
The intriguing story of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall has increasingly been understood since the work that was carried out to restore and conserve it in 2015/6 and open it up to the public. During this project, primarily funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a major finding was made by the conservation team when a fully formed image of John the Baptist was discovered on the timbers of a large scheme in the Priests’ Chapel; a space where priests of the Guild could say their private prayers. This piece is now recognised as a Category 4 artwork, the highest grade and one which puts it on the same level as the Bayeux Tapestry.
Dr Foyle has undertaken an indepth study of the Priests’ Chapel, where the painting of John the Baptist takes his place as part of the Trinity, with God the father cradling a crucified Christ, stood alongside the Virgin Mary. Above this are displayed the arms of England, representing the King, and alongside these arms that have now been identified as those of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester. The significance of this discovery comes from the fact that the Earl of Worcester lost his life at the Siege of Meaux in France in 1422, just five months before his King, Henry V. Until Dr Jonathan Foyle’s work it had been assumed that the paintings were created in the 1440s, but for their arms to appear together in this way indicates it’s because their souls were being commended, and gives historians the year of creation that has eluded them of 1422. The precise year of 1422 and an association with Henry V, who was to feature in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays marks this as a major advancement in the historical understanding of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall.
To give visitors a greater indication of what the wall painting in the Priests’ Chapel would once have looked like, Jonathan has created an original painting. This will be presented alongside a film that tells of the story of the painting, which at the end enables visitors to see the remains of the original wall painting.
Lindsey Armstrong, General Manager of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, says, “Every aspect of this building is bursting with stories to discover, which we are progressively understanding more about thanks to the work of experts such as Dr Jonathan Foyle. Alongside the fact that we are in the very place where William Shakespeare’s genius was shaped as a young boy, we can step further back into time and reveal more fascinating chapters of history and findings to visitors.”
Jonathan’s work has also involved examining what, until to date, have been referred to as Tudor Roses. These decorative features are also found in the Master’s Room and had been attributed to the time from 1485-1603 after Elizabeth of York (white rose of the House of York) married Henry VII (red rose of the House of Lancaster) in January 1486.
However, roses had been prominent in churches and institutions in dedication of the Virgin Mary in advance of this; representing her son’s blood and conception through the Holy Spirit. That they remain so intact for visitors to see today is thanks to a ceiling that was inserted in the 16th century to contain the heat in winter, which meant they escaped the period of religious reform when shrines to the Virgin Mary were destroyed and burned. They have adapted with new meaning associated with the age of William Shakespeare, but are believed to be creations of much earlier in the 15th century.
The study has taken place over the last 6 months and the results of it are highlighted in new interpretation and original paintings created by Jonathan Foyle so that visitors can get a true insight into how the building would have looked with these, often colourful, pieces of wall art in place. The research and new interpretation that it has led to is one of the key projects that has been made possible thanks to the support of two grants from the Culture Recovery Fund managed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall reopened to the public on Monday 28 June, with tickets bookable in advance here. Entry prices are: Adults £10, Concessions £8, Children (5-16, under 5’s free) £6.50, Families (2 adults & 2 children) £27, Extra Child with family ticket £4.50. Opening hours are 11am to 5pm, seven days a week.
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