St John's Chalice and The Golden Legend
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
The brass effigy of Sir Simon de Wensley (d. 1394) is still situated in Holy Trinity Church (Wensley, North Yorkshire), where he was rector. I was drawn to this monument by it's exquisiteness and fine detail. As of writing this, I'm finishing up the carving phase, and look forward to painting it over the next couple of days.
I decided not to replicate the ornamentation in full resolution,
since I am finding that as I progress through this group (and the technique of oil on carved wood in general), I find that simplified renderings allow the materiality of the wood to interact with the paint medium in a way that results in a more cohesive composition. With too much ornament, as well as a prominence of opaque pigments over the translucent choices, the wood itself almost becomes a simple ground for a painting (despite the relief work), which frustrates my goal of truth to material. One feature in particular that drew me is the chalice on Sir Wensley's breast and the position of his hands beneath it. The chalice in this context, of course, represents the Eucharist. But while working on this piece I found myself looking into other depictions of chalices in medieval art. I noticed a number of chalices had an emerging snake, which I found curious.
The following explanation of this symbol is found in the book "Our Christian Symbols" by Friedrich Rest:
"The serpent issuing from the [chalice] is St. John's most unusual symbol. There is an interesting story connected with it that an attempt was made to poison John, but the attempt was unsuccessful because the poison vanished in the form of a serpent."
This in turn lead me to a medieval work, The Golden Legend, which is the origin of the legend of St John's chalice. I finally purchased my own copy of this work when I learned just how important it is as a resource for understanding the medieval world view, as well as much of the strange symbolism that one finds in depictions of the saints.