Chichester Reliefs

Chichester Cathedral has two important reliefs, dating to about 1125, in the South Aisle. Possibly part of a series that may have formed a frieze or screen, but unquestionably amongst the finest surviving art from the Romanesque period. This date places them after the First Crusade (1096 – 99) and the first Cathedral fire of 1114.

They were uncovered in 1829 behind panels in the choir stalls where they had probably been hidden to escape the depredations of the Reformation or the Civil War. Either way they were moved to their current positions in time to escape damage from the collapse of the Cathedral Spire in 1861.

The reliefs depict the Arrival of Jesus at Bethany and the Raising of Lazarus. The latter is reckoned to be the finer work of two separate artists. The artist has depicted powerful emotions in the faces and each figure has a different hairstyle. Jesus, as the most important element, is the largest figure. Contrasting with the smallest, the two unhappy gravediggers at the bottom. Lazarus is at the centre, still partially clothed in his grave wrappings.

Originally painted in vivid colours, the eyes would have been set with semi-precious stones or glass. No paint remains. The pink discolouration is due to the second fire in 1187. Some limestone has an iron carbonate content, including Caen Stone from Normandy. This was the fine imported stone brought in by Bishop Ralph de Luffa for the reconstruction and repair work following the first fire. The iron content of Caen Stone is high enough that stone waste can be processed for the extraction of iron. When heated in the fire this created the blush of pink on the two reliefs.

These have been referred to as The Saxon Panels from Selsey’s Lost Cathedral. This seems unlikely because of the quality of the stone used. Sussex has very little quality building stone and the only usable calcareous outcrop was Lavant Stone. It was widely used by the Romans and in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries around Chichester. It is highly fossiliferous and is a major component of the rubble fill in the original walls. Quarr Stone from the Isle of Wight was brought in for the first construction phase from 1075. This does not have an iron content.

Were the stone masons who created the panels brought in from Normandy with the stone? Or perhaps from Germany where there is some similarity with carvings found in Cologne? The figures in the reliefs bear some resemblance to Byzantine art although the representations of structures are more like Medieval European walled cities. It seems likely that the artists would have heard about the experiences and stories of those returning from Crusades. Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy and eldest son of the Conqueror, participated in the First Crusade. There would definitely have been returning knights and soldiers in his entourage, perhaps laden with plundered treasures. We will never know.

What is known, from John 12: 10 – 11, is that when Jesus raise Lazarus from ‘four days dead’, the Chief Priests wanted to kill him because many Jews were leaving them to follow Jesus in response to this miracle. Apparently, following the Resurrection, Lazarus left Bethany.

There are two versions of his onward journey. Did he go to Cyprus where the Church of Lazarus in Larnaca claims to be on the site of his necropolis? Or were Lazarus and his sisters put out to sea by Jews hostile to Christianity, eventually landing in Provence? Lazarus, as Bishop of Marseille, was beheaded under Domitian and buried in Autun Cathedral.

Or maybe both, especially if we are looking at two men called Lazarus! The Gospel of Luke 16: 19 -31 recounts the story of a leprous beggar named Lazarus. Since the Order of Lazarus was founded in Jerusalem in 1119 and ran a Hospital for lepers, it seems likely that the medieval cult of Lazarus combined the two….

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