Mors ianua vitae: death is the gate of life. This Christian topos found literal embodiment in a group of churchyard portals. Each sported emblems of mortality – skulls, skeletons, and most spectacularly the Last Judgment. Originally numbering just over a dozen, these unusual examples of Anglican architecture parlante are considered as a group for the first time. Their most likely initial source lay in Amsterdam. Hendrick de Keyser’s designs for doors to major new churches constituted over half the plates in Architectura Moderna (1631), compiled by Salomon de Bray. The post-1631 gateway at St Katherine Cree, featuring a recumbent skeleton in the tympanum, is clearly indebted to this book, and was echoed by a lost portal at St Leonard, Shoreditch. A skull-enriched portal was erected at St Olave, Hart Street (‘St Ghastly Grim’, according to Dickens’ 1860 The Uncommercial Traveller), at St Giles Cripplegate (1660), and elsewhere. The acme of the genre appeared around 1680, with a group of highly detailed reliefs of the Last Judgment. These can be seen as the Baroque equivalents of the medieval Doom painting. Examples survive at St Andrew’s Holborn, at St Mary at Hill and at St Giles in the Fields (1687); that from St Stephen Coleman Street was lost during WW2. In few cases are their carvers known. Later, provincial, examples of skull-enriched gateways survive (at Kirkleatham, Ashbourne, Moberley, Ashby-de-la-Zouche). These portals are of note as late examples of the memento mori, and they show how enduring this long-established appeal to repentance was.
Roger Bowdler 2013
Ghastly grim: the 17th century London churchyard gateway
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