Nestled in the green, wooded hills of the North York Moors lie the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. English Heritage has recently opened a new museum on the site, more than doubling the number of artefacts on show. Lucia Marchini discovered how the state-of-the-art displays explore over 400 years of Cistercian abbey life.
Founded in 1132 by 12 monks from Clairvaux in Burgundy, Rievaulx Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery in northern England and its population and prominence quickly grew, with a community of 650 men already living there by the 1160s. Over 300 objects tell the abbey’s history from its foundation to its suppression in December 1538 and subsequent destruction.
Every artefact in the new museum comes from Rievaulx itself. The vast majority of these are damaged and incomplete, reflecting the ruined state of the abbey and the dramatic end to monastic life at the site. Set in some unassuming farm buildings, the museum’s simple and modern interior contrasts elegantly with these medieval artefacts and the ruins outside, leaving the focus very much on the exhibits, which are arranged thematically into eight main areas of interest, such as work and prayer, patronage, and change.
Decking the halls
On entering the museum, visitors are greeted by a statue of Christ in Majesty dating from c.1260-1290 – a finely sculpted but heavily damaged headless and forearmless Christ seated on a throne. Neatly encapsulating in just one work the successes of the abbey and its later suppression, the quality of the craftsmanship reflects Rievaulx’s status as a medieval monastic centre, while its incompleteness is emblematic of the rest of the abbey and its collections.
High quality carvings are in abundance throughout the museum. A sculpted capital from the infirmary, dating from the 1150s and the abbacy of Aelred (who attracted many new monks and lay-brothers to the abbey and was later venerated as a saint), demonstrates some of the founding principles of the Cistercian order. All features of the building were to be austere so as not to distract. Though the infirmary capital on display is simple, its well-crafted scallops show that it is not entirely without ornamentation. The important thing is that the decoration is not superfluous or distracting.
Also from the infirmary hall, is a narrative frieze dating from c.1400. This shows a clear change in decorative technique from the austere style of Aelred’s day. One part of the frieze depicts two hunters stealing a tiger cub. As they make their escape pursued by a tigress, they throw down a mirror, which stops the animal in her tracks as she mistakes her reflection for her cub. This frieze is more involved than the scalloped capitals of the 12th century, but the decoration is still not superfluous as the scene depicted is an allegory taken from the Bestiary warning against deception by the devil.
The museum’s not all about Cistercian stonework. Coins, jetons, weights, seals, and pottery all chart how the abbey’s population, wealth, and geographic influence changed over the centuries, with a particular emphasis on trade. A rare set of fragments of painted wall plaster shows change of another kind. The infirmary hall was converted into the abbot’s lodging (one of the largest in the country) by the late 15th-century abbot John Burton (whose rebus is also on display). This lavish living was the sort of behaviour later condemned by Henry VIII. Decorated with foliate designs, the pieces of plaster, which curator Susan Harrison believes come from the abbot’s lodging, mark a point of transition with abbots exhibiting their importance. This is not necessarily a gratuitous flaunting of wealth, however. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a time when the Cistercians are generally viewed as losing their austerity and piety, the abbot did hold a critical position in a vast trade network, a status that it would have been useful to project.
Monastic life at Rievaulx came to an end with Henry VIII. After the Dissolution, the building was quickly rendered unusable. Valuable materials extracted from the abbey and the tools used to strip it bare are on show. The extent of this extraction is at its clearest in one large object. A half-ton fother (a unit of lead) cast from the abbey’s roof lead and marked with the king’s stamp is one of 140 made at Rievaulx. Four of the fothers were still on site when the building collapsed and were not recovered until the 20th century. Three of them were gifted to York Minster for reuse in their Five Sisters Window, and the other is the one on display at Rievaulx.
Another star item from the abbey is also metallic. In a case exploring prayer as an essential part of monastic life is a scourge, made from plaited copper alloy wire and used for self-penance. It is the best example of a scourge in the UK, but it is impossible to date with any greater precision than saying that it is from the medieval period. This is symptomatic of a problem that affects a substantial part of the abbey’s collection, which was largely uncovered and recorded during the clearance and consolidation of the site carried out from 1919 onwards by His Majesty’s Office of Works (later the Ministry of Works).
Contexts, often imprecise due to the large grid-squares used, were written onto paper labels stuck onto the finds. These disintegrated over time, losing a great deal of information. Although some items like the scourge remain undateable, over the last few years curators have re-examined the original findsbook and tried to re-establish many of the lost locations of the finds, shedding light on their uses and the movement of material after the Dissolution. This new research has had an important part to play in creating the new museum, which places a special emphasis on contextualising exhibits as much as possible in relation to the abbey ruins looming outside.
All images: © Historic England / English Heritage Trust
Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rievaulx-abbey for more details about the abbey, opening times, and ticket prices.