V&A Search the Collections

Boss

  • Place of origin:

    St Albans (made)

  • Date:

    1308-26 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved wood

  • Museum number:

    W.51D-1914

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 9, The Dorothy and Michael Hintze Gallery, case WW

  • Public access description

    Bosses were placed where the ribs of a vault (or ceiling) met. The back of this boss has four deeply carved channels, forming a cross-shape, which would have accommodated the ribs. Bosses often had a decorative role as well as a functional one. This example is carved with a pattern of swirling hawthorn foliage, reflecting an interest in nature characteristic of the time it was made.

    Bosses from cathedral vaults could be made of wood or stone. They can be very large in scale and because they were placed so high the carving needed to be bold in order to be seen from ground level. This boss is smaller than other examples from St Alban's Cathedral (Hertfordshire) which indicates that it occupied a secondary position in the vault from which it came. The boss was removed from St Alban's about 1890 during restoration of the cathedral.

  • Physical description

    Wooden boss from the roof of St Alban's cathedral, carved with a pattern of swirling hawthorn foliage. The size of this boss suggests that it was in a secondary position in the vault. The overall profile of the boss is hemispherical

  • Dimensions

    Height: 25 cm, Diameter: 36 cm, Weight: 5.62 kg

  • Object history note

    This boss is one of a group of thirteen acquired by the Museum, which were removed from St Alban's Cathedral, Herts. during the restoration of the Abbey about 1890. Some have since been returned to the cathedral. The boss is of early 14th century type and can be associated with the building activity of Abbot Hugh of Eversden (1308-26) who was responsible for the roofing of both Lady Chapel and retrochoir.

    The flat ceiling in the retrochoir and the vaults of the Lady Choir must have been made at much the same time. A large number of bosses would have been required for the Lady Chapel and retrochoir ceilings. They could have been carved by a few master carvers over a fairly wide time span (say, five years) or by a larger team over a shorter period. Some of the bosses are quite naturalistically treated and, therefore, early in type. Others are reminiscent of the conventionalised Decorated style of carving of c.1315 as is exemplified at Chichester Cathedral on the vault of the Lady Chapel and the misericords of the choir-stalls. These differences may have been due to the presence of older and younger men employed in the same workshop.

    Several types of foliage commonly used in the early 14th century are present on the V&A's bosses, such as hawthorn, oak, maple and 'stiff-leaf' survival. In some the treatment is still naturalistic with two or more leaves springing from the same stalk. Fruit and flowers are also present and the technique of juxtaposing leaves back and front is found. The leaves were originally gilded and the interstices painted red.

    Some of the carvings are pierced right through over a large area and the profile of the whole boss is hemispherical. On one of the bosses, the underside provides evidence for the surplus material having been removed on a turning lathe. At Winchester Cathedral the same regular grooving can be seen inside the finials of the choir-stalls reflecting the use of the same technique.

    Note from acquisition register:
    Stated to have come from St Alban's Abbey, and to have formed part of the roof of the nave. Removed in the course of the late Lord Grimsthorpe's restoration. The contractor was under contract to take away the old material (which was too much decayed for use) and these fragments were given by him to his daughter. She was Mr Willson's [the vendor] predecessor in the house at Cricklewood and when she left, the bosses being too unwieldy to take away, she disposed of them to Mr Willson who was an old St Alban's resident.

    Historical significance: This is a good example of a Gothic roof boss from a major church.

  • Historical context note

    Bosses like this were placed where the ribs of a vault met. They could be made of stone or wood. Bosses also had a decorative function as well as a structural one. Bosses that were made for cathedral vaults needed to be carved and decorated boldly in order to be visible from the ground.

  • Descriptive line

    Wooden boss from the roof of St Alban's Cathedral, England, early fourteenth century.

  • Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

    Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), cat. no. 18
    Boss, one of six (W.51-1914, W.51d-1914, W.51e-1914, W.51f-1914, W.51i-1914, W.51j-1914), from a roof, circular, carved in openwork with conventional foliage (PLS 7-10)
    Oak. Early 14th century
    Diam. 50.8 cm
    Mus. no. W.51d-1914
    These bosses were removed from St Alban’s Cathedral, Herts during the restoration of the Abbey about 1890. Thirteen in total were acquired by the museum, seven of which have been re-turned to the cathedral since the last edition of the catalogue. The large bosses, one with spiral pattern, the other with regularly arranged foliage stem and leaves, now on display at St Alban’s, are from the choir vault. This must have been erected towards the end of the abbacy of Roger of Norton (1260-90). The large boss displaying the lion gnawing a bone, and another now at St Alban’s also showing a lion's head, must have been keystone bosses. All the others, smaller in size, must have been in secondary positions on the vault. The museum’s bosses are of early fourteenth-century type and are to be associated with the building activity of Abbot Hugh of Eversden (1308-26) who was responsible for the roofing of both Lady Chapel and retrochoir. Several types of foliage commonly used at this time are present, such as hawthorn, oak, maple and ‘stiff-leaf’ survival. In some the treatment is still naturalistic with two or more leaves springing from the same stalk (cf the boss in the museum from the Winchester Cathedral choir-stalls of 1308 et seqq., mus. no. 236-1897, PL. 35). Fruit and flowers are also present and ‘the technique of juxtaposing leaves back and front is found. The leaves were gilded and their interstices painted red. Some of the carvings are pierced right through over a large area and the profile of the whole boss is hemispherical. Interestingly, the underside of W.51j provides evidence for the surplus material having been removed on a turning lathe. At Winchester Cathedral the same regular grooving can be seen inside the finials of the choir-stalls reflecting the use of the same technique. Most of the bosses probably come from the wooden vault of the Lady Chapel. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to recognise the large carving with the lion gnawing a bone from pre-restoration photographs of the ceiling. But it is difficult to imagine from where else this could have originated.

    The flat ceiling in the retrochoir and the vaults of the Lady Chapel must have been made at much the same time. The bosses in the retrochoir must have all been about the same size and their style, as illustrated by ]ames Neale, The Abbey Church of St Alban, Hertfordshire, London, 1877, PL.52, is very like some of the museum's carvings. The presence of a boss from the choir vault in the original collection suggests that both Lady Chapel and retrochoir could quite possibly be represented.
    A large number of bosses would have been required for the Lady Chapel and retrochoir ceilings. They could have been carved by a few master-carvers over a fairly wide time span (say, five years) or by a larger team over a shorter period. Some of the bosses are still quite naturalistically treated and, therefore, early in type. Others are reminiscent of the conventionalised Decorated style of carving of c.1315 as is exemplified at Chichester Cathedral on the vault of the Lady Chapel and the misericords of the choir-stalls. These differences may have been due to the presence of older and younger men employed in the same workshop.

    Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), cat. no. 5
    Boss one of five (119-1865, 120-1865, 121-1865, 123-1865, 124-1865) from a roof, carved in high relief with conventional foliage, with a figure of a crouching lioness. (PL 2c, FIG. 3).
    Given By H.M. Office of Works. Oak. 1335-40. H. 49.5 cm, Diam. 49.5 cm
    Mus. No. 119 -1865
    These bosses are from one of the first floor chambers of the extension to the Bishop of Exeter’s palace erected by Bishop Grandisson (1327-69). The new apartments were added to the extreme west end of the existing complex of buildings, substantially the work of Bishop Brewer (1224-44). The conjectural plan by H.M.R. Drury is reproduced in ].F. Chanter, The Bishop’s Palace Exeter, London, 1932.(p. 27). During his episcopate (1292-1307) Bishop Bytton had added some private rooms for his personal use to the west of Brewer’s Great Hall with a lesser hall above. By the early fourteenth century the palace was fully up-to-date in terms of amenities. Bishop Grandisson must, however, have shared his predecessor's aversion to the communal life of the great hall. He annexed the last piece of ground remaining at the west end of the complex to construct a self-contained hall for himself including an inner parlour with south-facing bay windows, and kitchens below on the ground floor, and two spacious chambers above. The addition had a frontage of over twelve metres, and a total depth of eighteen and one third metres. Unlike the rest of the palace it consisted of three storeys. Grandisson’s extension was demolished in the mid-nineteenth century. However, Charles Tucker, the cathedral’s architect, recorded the fact that one of the first floor chambers had been furnished with a floor of decorative tiles and a fine oak roof of ‘ornamental cross beams’ (Charles Tucker, ‘Notes on the bishop's palace, Exeter’, Arch.Jnl, v, 1846, p.224-25.). In particular, he mentions the bosses of this roof, one of which displayed the carving of a mitred bishop, wearing amice and chasuble. Another showed a female in a hood and both were surrounded by foliage. Two adjoining cross beams carried the arms of Grandisson and Montacute on separate shields. Tucker suggested that the bosses were portraits of Bishop Grandisson and his mother, who was of the Montacute family. He mentioned a third boss in the form of a crouching hound (this is presumably the museum’s lioness), and three other bosses of foliage only. He stated that there were traces of red, black and white paint, and gilding remaining on the sculpture. There can be no doubt that the V&A’s carvings are the ones described by Tucker. They accord well enough with the descriptions and the dimensions given.
    There is no documented date for the extension to the bishop’s palace. This is not surprising since the fabric rolls for Grandisson’s episcopate are far from complete (Audrey M. Erskine, ‘The Accounts of the Fabric of Exeter Cathedral, 1279-1353', Part II: 1328-53, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, N.S.. Part II: Vol.26, 1983.)
    Given the pattern of lacunae in the records it seems likely that the building work was undertaken between 1335-40. If so, the wooden roof would have been designed by the master-mason, Thomas of Witney, in collaboration with the master-carpenter. From an inspection of the cathedral wages lists (Audrey M. Erskine, ‘The Accounts of the Fabric of Exeter Cathedral, 1279-1353', Part I: 1279-1326, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, N.S..Part I: Vol.24, 1981;p.175-211 and Audrey M. Erskine, ‘The Accounts of the Fabric of Exeter Cathedral, 1279-1353', Part II: 1328-53, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, N.S.. Part II: Vol.26, 1983. p.293-310) it does not seem that any of the craftsmen involved in making Bishop Stapledon’s choir furniture or structural woodwork was employed on the roof of his successor’s new palace extension. William of Membiri, the master-carver, was paid off when the work on the throne was completed. Robert of Galmeton remained as the cathedral master-carpenter until 1321.
    Nonetheless, the drawing of the heads on the bosses can be compared to that on the bishop’s throne. The angels and the man and woman on the cusp-ends of the great ogee arches of the throne share much in common with the later work. The treatment of the heads with broad and flat foreheads, sharply-cut brows, prominent cheek-bones, flat and widely spread noses, cleanly modelled upper lip and thin wide-spread lips are common to both series. The putative Montacute portrait exhibits a particular way of drawing the edge of the upper eye-lid, by means of a prominent raised band, which is also found on the throne heads. The foliage on the palace bosses is akin to that on the throne. The leaves on the head bosses are of the most common type used on the earlier monument. The boss from the palace with a spiralling stem giving off budded shoots is also characteristic of much of the foliage on the throne. Finally, the tiny head of Stapledon on the tabernacle high up on the northern gable of the bishop’s throne provides an instructive parallel to the image of Grandisson, carved, presumably, some twenty years later.
    Of about the same date as the throne are the stone lion roof bosses in the east bay of the nave (FIG.3). Their carving style is very close to the treatment of the lioness from the bishop's palace. Again, however, the possibility of continuity of craftsmanship is ruled out by the fact that Richard Digon, who carved these stone bosses left Exeter to work at Wells Cathedral soon after 1313.

    John Alexander & Paul Binski (ed), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1987) Catalogue Entry 591, p464
    J F Chanter, The Bishop's Palace, Exeter and its story (London: S.P.C.K, 1932) 225.B.25
    C Tucker, 'Notes on the Bishop's Palace, Exeter', Archaeological Journal, V, 1848, pp224-5
    For a general survey of English church roof bosses, see C. J. P. Cave, Roof bosses in medieval churches; an aspect of Gothic sculpture. Illus. with telephotos (Cambridge, 1948)

  • Collection code

    Furniture and Woodwork Collection