The Making of Church Screens

The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe: Making, Meaning, Preserving

by Edited by Spike Bucklow, Richard Marks, and Lucy Wrapson
2017 Boydell Press, 360 pages, $120.00 hardcover
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All Saints Church in Kenton, England

All Saints Church in Kenton, England

The eleven essays collected in this volume study the partitions separating the nave from the chancel or choir. A common feature of medieval churches, they are now mostly lost, casualties of the Reformation and early modern shifts in taste toward more open, unified interiors. Occasioned by a 2012 conference convened by the Cambridge University Medieval Panel Painting Research Center, which brought together scientists, conservators, historians of religion, and art historians, the papers vary widely in their scope and methods. 

Though designed to demarcate and preserve the sacred nature of the space surrounding the altar and control lay access to it, these screens constituted a porous barrier. Extending laterally across the east end of the nave at its junction with the chancel, they typically feature a central opening, often furnished with a gate or door, situated on axis with the main altar and “signed” above by a large crucifix—the “rood” in England. Arguably the single most important representational image in medieval churches, such crucifixes were a particular target of Reformation iconoclasts, usually destroyed and replaced by panels bearing scriptural texts.

The essays reveal the varied terminology for these screens across and within countries, a range that reflects their diverse functions and forms. In addition to separating the nave (the church of the laity) from the chancel (restricted to the clergy), the screen structure also provided an elevated platform for preaching, liturgical reading, and the performance of religious drama. 

“Screens” are an appropriate characterization of the wooden partitions in English parish churches and Dutch churches. The major item of furniture in such interiors, they generally were comprised of a solid dado topped by open tracery or arcading in the upper section and a rood loft. The monumental stone structures discussed in the papers on German and Italian churches were much more imposing: in Italy they are sometimes referred to as “bridges.”

The first seven essays, four of which are technical in nature, concern English rood screens in parish churches. One provides an overview. In addition to the Crucifixion, iconographic programs often included the Last Judgment in the chancel arch and, on the dado, apostles and local saints or saints favored by the patron. Such programs both reinforced church doctrine about the salvific economy and also promoted social cohesion while enhancing the prestige of the donor. 

Other papers examine such features as wood types, moldings and jointing, pigments and paint application in screens. Among the interesting discoveries: costlier materials were used for the creation of the crucifix, and the account books of churchwardens provide a rich source of evidence of material and labor expenses. 

The remaining two essays on English screens situate them within their social and cultural contexts. One interprets the Reformers’ effacement of their images and Latin inscriptions, supplanted by scriptural texts in the vernacular, as an effort to impose uniformity on the textual diversity of the late medieval church interior. The other relates the series of English royal saints depicted in the dado of a Norfolk screen to the late medieval appreciation of genealogical diagrams. 

The remaining four essays turn to Europe. Focusing on a selection of German and French screens, one rejects the charge that they obstruct vision and reframes them as a key factor in the creation of a dynamic environment. The innovative paper demonstrates how the screens were “animated” by the performance of the liturgy and of religious drama, and by the movement of the worshipper during the mass and when walking about the nave.

A paper on Dutch screens notes their survival (sans imagery) through the Reformation and describes how they were adapted for the Calvinist celebration of the Lord’s Supper, held four times a year and restricted to the “truly converted.” Another essay, by Donal Cooper, summarizes recent scholarship on Italian screens, mostly in urban mendicant churches, and the sociological significance of their restriction of access to the altar in which both gender and social status are implicated. The final essay, on choir screens in Scandinavian parish churches before 1300, suggests that thirteenth-century developments on eucharistic teaching influenced the trend toward lighter, more transparent structures.


Geared to specialists, this collection presents a wealth of fresh material, including color photographs, mostly of English parochial screens and their carpentry details. Readers looking for sustained reflection on the theological and religious function of screens, and on how they could serve both to separate and unify, may be disappointed. Of the themes specified in the subtitle, the volume is more satisfactory in exploring the “making” and “preserving” of medieval church screens and less in plumbing their “meaning.”