The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages

With an eye to our local woodworking heritage, we were delighted at the publication of Michael Rimmer’s breathtaking photographs of the amazing angel roofs – 70% of the national total –  which grace around 100 Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire churches.

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The roofs, often of hammerbeam construction, huge in scale and over 600 years old, are eloquent testimony to the skills of medieval framers in laying out, transporting and assembling the colossal timbers which still span the church interiors. The angel carvings, outstretched across the rafters or gazing out from the beam ends, mercifully out of reach of 16th and 17th century image-breakers, are revealed in Michael’s photographs in astonishing detail, some still carrying traces of the brilliant colours in which they were finished. And there are often other complementary types of ornamentation on the roof timbers themselves, offering us rare evidence of the superb skills and sophistication of the medieval craftsmen who created them.

Michael’s work is available on his website, www.angelroofs.com , and also in his new book, from which these pictures are taken. While the variations in framing methods can often be studied from ground level, the carvings are frequently half-hidden in shadow, their features – often highly individual, and of the highest technical quality – remote from the eye and easily passed over. We can now see details which will have been visible to few people in the centuries since the carvings’ creation – the elaborate suits of feathers worn by many of the angels, the items they carry, the cascading locks of their hair, their facial expressions as they watch us, and the years, pass below them.

The book also contains information on the roofs’ builders and carvers, some of whose names are still known, and on the likely links between Hugh Herland, who built the first angel roof at Westminster Hall in 1395, and the Norfolk and Suffolk merchants and businessmen who commissioned these splendid creations. Some undoubtedly did so to celebrate their worldly success or buy a smoother passage in the afterlife; but we particularly liked the words of John Baret, who died in 1467 leaving money for the fabulous roof of St. Mary, Bury St. Edmunds, “for a remembrance of me and my friends”. A result, then.

The Angel Roofs of East Anglia , published by The Lutterworth Press, offers inspiration not just for framers, green oak enthusiasts and carvers, but for woodworkers in general. Enjoy it, then come and see the roofs for yourself – and drop in on us while you’re at it!

Written by David Thornton

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