Views from the Vicarage...

Doorways half way up a wall?

Ordinations normally take place at this time of year. Indeed, at the end of September, the following were ordained in our Cathedral Church of St. John the Evangelist in Brecon. Priests: Meinir Ronicle (Gwastedyn), Peter Letson (Glan Ithon), Sam Aldred (Central Swansea) Janet Day (Buallt -Builth), Gill Todd (Brecon St Mary and Llanddew) Sr Marian Thomas (Sketty), Sally Rees (Crickhowell w. Cwmdu and Tretower) and Samuel Patterson (for the Diocese of Monmouth by Letters Dimissory of the Bishop of Monmouth). Deacons: Sue Northcott (Pontardawe), Biddy Wigley (Llwynderw), Lucy McKeown (Glan Ithon), Sue Waite (Three Cliffs), Jon Howard (Ystradgynlais), Annabelle Elletson (Vale of Grwyne). Indeed, next year, will see our own Sarah Harris being Ordained to the sacred ministry (God willing).

For those who have visited Brecon Cathedral, whether for an Ordination, or for any other reason – have you noticed the two doors high up on the wall, with no apparent means to reach them, or no obvious purpose? Well, that part of the ancient Priory church contained a Rood Screen. This was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

So what is a Rood Screen? The word rood is derived from the Saxon word rood or rode, meaning "cross". The rood screen is so called because it was surmounted by the Rood itself, a large figure of the crucified Christ. Commonly, to either side of the Rood, there stood supporting statues of saints, normally Mary and St John, in an arrangement comparable to the Deesis always found in the centre of an Orthodox iconostasis (which uses John the Baptist instead of the Apostle, and a Pantokrator instead of a Crucifixion). During the late Middle Ages, the priory (now Brecon Cathedral) was known as the Church of the Golden Rood (Cross) because of its magnificent golden cross atop a massive rood screen. Pilgrims came from far and wide to visit the cross. 

 

Latterly in England and Wales the Rood tended to rise above a narrow loft (called the "rood loft"), which could occasionally be substantial enough to be used as a singing gallery (and might even contain an altar); but whose main purpose was to hold candles to light the rood itself. The panels and uprights of the screen did not support the loft, which instead rested on a substantial transverse beam called the "rood beam" or "candle beam". Access was via a narrow rood stair set into the piers supporting the chancel arch. In parish churches, the space between the rood beam and the chancel arch was commonly filled by a boarded or lath and plaster tympanum, set immediately behind the rood figures and painted with a representation of the Last Judgement. The roof panels of the first bay of the nave were commonly richly decorated to form a celure or canopy of honour; or otherwise there might be a separate celure canopy attached to the front of the chancel arch.

The carving or construction of the rood screen often included latticework, which makes it possible to see through the screen partially from the nave into the chancel. The term "chancel" itself derives from the Latin word cancelli meaning "lattice"; a term which had long been applied to the low metalwork or stone screens that delineate the choir enclosure in early medieval Italian cathedrals and major churches. The passage through the rood screen was fitted with doors, which were kept locked except during services.

 

The rood screen was a physical and symbolic barrier, separating the chancel, the domain of the clergy, from the nave where lay people gathered to worship. It was also a means of seeing; often it was solid only to waist height and richly decorated with pictures of saints and angels. Concealment and revelation were part of the mediaeval Mass. When kneeling, the congregation could not see the priest, but might do so through the upper part of the screen, when he elevated the Host on Sundays. In some churches, 'squints' (holes in the screen) would ensure that everyone could see the elevation, as seeing the bread made flesh was significant for the congregation.

While Sunday Masses were very important, there were also weekday services which were celebrated at secondary altars in front of the screen (such as the "Jesus altar", erected for the worship of the Holy Name, a popular devotion in mediaeval times) which thus became the backdrop to the celebration of the Mass. The Rood itself provided a focus for worship according to the medieval Use of Sarum, most especially in Holy Week, when worship was highly elaborate. During Lent the Rood was veiled; on Palm Sunday it was revealed before the procession of palms and the congregation knelt before it. The whole Passion story would then be read from the Rood loft, at the foot of the crucifix by three priests.

 

So let us all hold in our prayers those recently ordained in our Cathedral churches throughout the Principality – particularly in these bizarre times. We pray for their ministries and the parishes in which they will serve.

 

Your Friend and Vicar

Canon Phillip

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