An index of the carved imagery on the Choir Screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

Here is my systematic list of the imagery of the choir screen at King’s College Chapel,Cambridge.  I am happy to offer this painstaking labour of love as a record for further study and as a guide for visitors to the chapel.

3
I compiled this index during the course of my own research into the little-studied carvings. The screen is studded with ornate symbolism,  including one disturbing image of a strung-up head, screaming in agony (see photos accompanying Index, below).  This was popularly considered to represent the fate of Henry VIII’s wife,  Anne Boleyn, though many times elsewhere she is celebrated as Henry’s rightful queen, and the screen was thought to have been commissioned to celebrate their marriage.

My suggestion is that the screen as a whole is actually an elaborate announcement of Henry and Anne’s Divine Right to rule over the Church of England, and a thinly-veiled, menacing threat to those who oppose their will.

My analysis of the decorative motifs was published in Oxford University Press’s ‘Notes and Queries’, and can be read on-line:
‘A re-appraisal of the iconography of the choir screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’
Notes and Queries (2014) doi: 10.1093/notesj/gju012
First published online: April 16, 2014
Oxford University Press Journals

My analysis of the choir screen is cited in the 500th anniversary book King’s College Chapel 1515 – 2015

Download a PDF of my Index of Imagery:  LucyChurchillsChoirScreenIndex2013

An Index of the Imagery on the King’s College Choir Screen.
The index begins with the West Face of the screen, working systematically from North to South, left to right, top to bottom.

Left (North) side, West Face of screen
Bay 1
Pilaster:  Classical decoration, includes bull’s skull with male cherub
Coving upper left:  Space filled by stonework
Coving left:  HR under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Coving right:  Cipher – HRExAS  (Henry Rex, Sovereign Anne), under imperial crown Coving center:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Upper frieze:  Classical decoration, includes fleur-de-lis
Tympanum:  Shield with RA, under imperial crown
Spandrel, left:  Classical head
Spandrel, right:  Classical head
Lower frieze:  Roundel, man pointing to right
Central panel, above:  Inscription – DIEU ET MON DROIT (‘God and my right shall me defend’). (Fig 1)
Central panel roundel:  HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below:  Roundel.  Man wearing a cowl (worn by monks) with a cabbage on his head. Since the mid-15th century ‘cabbage head’ was a term for an obstinate idiot, this was therefore a mocking jibe. (French Robert Dictionary: ‘cabus’, ‘caboche’ Old French for head (of cabbage); nitwit, blockhead). (Fig 2)

1b1 1 & 2

Bay 2
Pilaster:  Classical decoration
Coving upper left:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Coving left:  Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Coving right:  Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown
Coving center:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Upper frieze:  Classical decoration, includes portcullis
Tympanum:  Henry VIII’s coat of arms under imperial crown
Spandrel, left:  Tudor rose
Spandrel, right:
  Tudor rose
Frieze:  Roundel, Classical man’s head with classical decoration
Central panel, above:  Inscription – SOLA SALUS SERVIRE DEO (‘Our only salvation is in serving God’)
Central panel roundel:  HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below:  Traditional decorative motif – body armour with weapons

Bay 3
Pilaster:  Classical decoration, includes Green Man.  Despite their pagan origins, Green Men were a popular decorative device during the Protestant Reformation and were used on the frontispieces of many Lutheran tracts.
Coving upper left:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Coving left:  HR under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Coving right:  HR under imperial crown
Coving center:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Tympanum:  Henry VIII’s coat of arms under imperial crown
Upper frieze:  Classical decoration, includes fleur-de-lis
Spandrel, left:  Angel’s head
Spandrel, right:  Classical head
Frieze:  Fleur-de-lis (no roundel) flanked by Tudor roses
Central panel, above:  Inscription – Henri CVS 8 (Henry VIII, in an unusual combination of English and Latin lettering with an Arabic numeral)
Central panel roundel:  HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below:  Traditional decorative motif – body armour with weapons Pilaster:  Classical decoration

Central archway from nave to altar (leading from the West Face to the East Face) Left (North) side
Coving upper left: 
 Tudor rose
Coving left:  HR under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Tudor rose
Coving right:  HR under imperial crown
Coving center:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Spandrel, left:  Classical head in roundel

Right (South) side
Coving upper left:
  Anne’s falcon on a flowering Tudor rose bush, under an imperial crown
Coving left:
  HA cipher. Eric Ives noted the ‘curiously formed letter ‘A’, with a stroke through the apex and the normal horizontal stroke written as a ‘V’… Writing the letter ‘A’ in this way also creates the letters ‘T’ and ‘M’, so making the Latin ‘amat’ (‘loves’). The whole therefore means either ‘[Henry] loves A[nne]’ or ‘A[nne] loves [Henry]’, or both’. See Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p. 243. (Fig 3)
Coving upper right:  Anne’s falcon on a flowering Tudor rose bush, under an imperial crown
Coving right:  HA cipher, as above
Coving center:  Anne’s falcon crest under imperial crown
Spandrel, right:  Classical head in roundel, with a bull’s skull in lower spandrel. This image, found repeatedly on the screen, is a visual on the name Boleyn (sometimes written Bullen).

33

Central doors from nave to altar
Pevsner wrote that the woodwork ‘is of an especially high order, and the detail is entirely in accordance with the side panels. Yet the door carries the cipher C.R. and the date 1636,’ concluding that they must be ‘an extremely early case of period imitation.’
Top half:  Partially-pierced fretwork with an English shield flanked by a lion and a unicorn in front of a flowering rosebush. Date 1636 on left door.
Bottom half:  Symbols of harmony and fruitfulness, with one exception; the monk with a cabbage head (roundel on left door) is a reversed repeat of the roundel in Bay 1. This is a curious inclusion if this section of the screen was carved a century later.

Right (South) side, West Face of screen
Bay 4

Pilaster: Classical decoration, with bull’s skull at top
Coving upper left:  Tudor rose
Coving left:  Portcullis under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Tudor rose
Coving right:  Portcullis under imperial crown
Coving center:  Tudor rose under imperial crown
Upper frieze:  Classical decoration, with fleur-de-lis
Tympanum:  HR under imperial crown
Spandrel, left:  Flower
Spandrel, right:  Classical head
Lower frieze:  Roundel,  with a classical man’s head
Central panel, above:  Decorative motif
Central panel roundel:  HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below: A head held up by loops of be-ribboned hair, face distorted in agony (Fig 4).  It has long been suggested that the carving depicts the punishment of an adulterous woman (in reference to Anne Boleyn’s alleged crime – for which she was beheaded in 1536), but I suggest that it more plausibly represents Absalom, the rebellious son of King David.  For the Bible’s description of Absalom’s appearance and fate see:
2 Samuel 14:25-26, 2 Samuel 15:1-6, 2 Samuel 18:9-15).
4 24 & 5

Bay 5
Pilaster:  Classical decoration, with Green Man (Fig 5)
Coving upper left:  Anne’s falcon on a flowering Tudor rose bush
Coving left:  Cipher – HRExAS  (Henry Rex, Sovereign Anne) , under imperial crown Coving upper right:  Anne’s falcon on a flowering Tudor rose bush
Coving  right: Cipher – HRExAS  (Henry Rex, Sovereign Anne) , under imperial crown Coving center:  Anne’s falcon crest under imperial crown, between Tudor roses (Fig 6)
Upper frieze:  Male figure with staff, pointing to God below  (Fig 6)
Tympanum:  A high-relief carving of God surrounded by cherubs, directing sinners downwards.  In the background carved in very low relief is a classical temple with steps.  Pevsner named this depiction ‘the Descent of the Rebel Angels’ (The Buildings of England, 88).  (Fig 7)

5 66 & 7
Spandrel, left:  Classical head
Spandrel, right:  Portcullis
Lower frieze:  Roundel, with a man pointing to the right
Central panel, above:  Decorative motif
Central panel roundel: HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below:  Green Man motif with classical armory.
Pilaster:  Classical decoration, with Green Man and Green Ram
Coving upper left:  Classical decoration
Coving left:  Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  Classical decoration
Coving right:  Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown
Coving center: Tudor rose under imperial crown
Upper frieze:  Classical decoration, with baby’s head
Tympanum:  Anne Boleyn’s heraldic arms as Royal Consort under an imperial crown Spandrel, left:  Floral design
Spandrel, right:  Floral design
Lower frieze: Roundel, with female head. See Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, plate 35. (Fig 8)
Central panel, above:  Bull’s head (Fig 9)
Central panel roundel:  HR under imperial crown
Central panel, below:  Decorative motif of classical helmet
Pilaster:  Classical decoration
78
8 (2)9

Above the ground floor panels
A parapet running the length of the screen with friezes, balusters, arched panels and two arched recesses containing high-relief carved male figures. The man on the left is naked except for a loose sheet.  He is seen from behind as if in retreat and appears to look up at the figure above the organ pipes.  The figure on the right, by contrast, is richly attired in possibly contemporary dress, and faces forwards.

Above the organ pipes
In the centre is a three-dimensional sculpture of King David holding a harp.  On the outer curves of the organ pipes are two mighty angels blowing horns. Because the existing organ was installed in 1605 it is unclear how, or if, the figure of King David was attached to the choir screen when the screen was installed in the 1530s. However, Pevsner refers to a carving on the screen of King David dating ‘from the time of Henry VIII’.The depiction of King David is very similar to that on the frontispiece of Coverdale’s English Bible (1535), with a noted difference; his lower robes appear more Tudor than biblical in style.  This could be an important example of the transition of Henry VIII’s philosophy which culminated in his depiction as King David in his illuminated psalter (c.1541, now British Library).

Central Archway
This leads from the West Face of the screen to the altar and is wide enough to support the organ above. Internal doors to the North and South lead to the organ loft. Pevsner noted that the decorated ceiling was a ‘memorably early’ example of Tudor plaster work.

East Face of screen
Four return stalls behind a raised parapet, on either side of the central archway. The coats of arms decorating the backs of the stalls on the North and South walls were added later, in 1633. However, the decorations on the East Face of the screen are contemporary with the West Face, and bear many examples of Henry and Anne’s insignia.

Left (South) side, East Face of screen
There are four stalls with seating. The first three stalls are smaller and much less ornamented than the last, which is the Provost’s Stall.

Pilaster decorations and frieze panels above the four seats: RA (in the ‘amat’ form that Eric Ives noted) under an imperial crown, classical man, HR, portcullis, RA (in the ‘amat’ form) under an imperial crown, an imperial crown held by angels on either side, HR, shield with HRExAS . This last is directly above the Provost’s seat.

On the parapet in front of the stall desks are three-dimensional figures and heraldic beasts: Griffin holding a shield with RA (in the ‘amat’ form) Lion holding an empty shield Lion holding a shield with HR Greyhound holding an empty shield.

The Provost’s stall
Coving upper left:  H
Coving upper center:  HR under imperial crown
Coving upper right:  A
Coving center from left to right:  Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown, HR under imperial crown, floral boss, HA under imperial crown, Fleur-de-lis under imperial crown.
Coving lower left:  H
Coving lower center:  A cross, flanked by floral decoration
Coving lower right:  R
Tympanum:  A high-relief depiction of God. It appears as if he is pointing with one finger upward to Heaven – and to Henry and Anne’s initials directly above. However, the other fingers have been broken off and it is likely that two of the fingers would have pointed upwards in a gesture of benediction.  (Fig 10)
Spandrel, left:  Empty
Spandrel, right:  Empty
9 10

Central panel, upper section, Provost’s stall
Two naked, muscular men reclined on the roundel’s frame. The man on the left holds a pronged staff entwined with two snakes (Fig 11). The snake-entwined staff could represent the Old Testament story of Aaron and the supremacy of his faith over that of the Pharaohs (Exodus 7), or it might refer to the classical god Hermes. His staff, Caduceus, symbolised an eloquent messenger and was therefore used as a printer’s mark in the 16th century. This might therefore refer to the support that Henry and Anne gave to the proliferation of translations of the Bible.

101111 & 12

The Herculean man on the right clenches either several animals in his fist or else one creature with several heads  (Fig 12). The fact that he points with his right hand to the one in his left hand indicates that the symbolism is significant, although obscure to the modern viewer. One possible explanation is that the delicately-featured animals might be ermine, and therefore indicate an aggressive stance towards the Church of Rome. Ermine was linked to the Papacy because the animal had come to represent purity, and since the 12th century had been used by Popes to trim their red caps and capes.

9a13
Central panel, roundel, Provost’s stall
A dramatic, high-relief carving with intensely modelled and elongated forms that appear more Mannerist in style than Renaissance (Pevsner made this comment when pointing out the rider’s billowing cape that flows over the roundel’s frame) (Fig 13). A rearing horse is depicted, whose armoured rider raises his right hand (now broken off, as is the horse’s right hoof) to strike a strange dragon-like beast writhing below. The creature has a muscular, human-like torso, four stunted limbs ending in webbed feet, a long neck, and small fantastical wings. In the background, carved in shallow relief, is an elegant palace or city displaying many towers. Though battles with dragons are mentioned several times in the Bible, it seems highly likely that the rider portrayed here is St George (and not St Michael, or the slayer of the Fourth Beast in the Book of Daniel). On the breastplate of the horse is a horned skull – possibly that of a bull, in reference to Anne Boleyn.

Central panel, lower section, Provost’s stall
A naked woman, loosely draped, reclines in a landscape (Fig 14). A child suckles at her breast while another tugs fearfully on her arm. A tablet is lying by her feet. In the distance a third child is being eaten by a lion (Fig 15).  The significance of this disturbing image is not obvious to the modern viewer. The signage at King’s College Chapel says: ‘Below is [St George’s wife] Sabra who has just borne three boys, one of whom is being carried off by a lion. This romantic addition to the legend was current in the 16th century.’ However, further research is advisable as I have been unable to find any mention of the saint having children.
1414
15 15
The quantity of detail and the three-dimensionality of the carving in this bay set it apart from those on the west face of the screen, as do the subjects depicted. The placing of these vivid images at the Provost’s seat indicates that the topics were of high importance. I suggest that the iconography, not just in the roundel but that of the figures above and below, should be further investigated.   At present their significance, and how they relate to the iconography on the west face, is unclear.

Below central panel, Provost’s stall
Lower frieze:
 Cipher – HRExAS (Henry Rex, Sovereign Anne) (Fig 16)
DSCN928216

Right (North) side, East Face of screen
There are four stalls, the first being larger and with more ornate coving than the other three Stall 1
Coving left:
  HR
Coving upper center:  HR
Coving center:  Tudor rose
Coving right:  HA

Stalls 2- 4 Coving decorations: Tudor rose, HR in a shield, Tudor rose

Pilaster decorations and frieze panels above the four seats:
HA (in the  ‘amat’ form) in a shield, HR, fleur-de-lis, RA (in the  ‘amat’ form) under an imperial crown, portcullis, HR, fleur-de-lis, RA (in the  ‘amat’ form) under an imperial crown

On the parapet in front of the stall desks are three-dimensional figures and heraldic beasts:
Griffin holding an empty shield
Lion holding a shield with HR
Greyhound holding a shield with HR (Fig 17)
Griffin with a crown and chain around his neck, holding a shield with RA (in the ‘amat’ form)(Fig 18)
15a 1617 & 18

Photographs of the screen are included by the permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College Cambridge

Lucy Churchill, Cambridge, December 2013

Download a PDF of this index:  LucyChurchillsChoirScreenIndex2013          
See examples of my own carvings here: www.lucychurchill.com

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8 thoughts on “An index of the carved imagery on the Choir Screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

  1. Thank you so much for all this information. I found it fascinating and will certainly try and incorporate some of the details when showing the screen to visitors, Jill Young (VIC tourist guide)

    • Dear Jill,
      I very much appreciate your feedback! I’m sure it will encourage visitors to look more closely at all the carvings, not just the screen.
      (And if one less group of tourists is told that the suspended head represents Anne Boleyn or an adulterous wife, then my work is done).
      With thanks and best wishes,
      Lucy

      • Here’s another Tourist Guide highly appreciative of this level of explanation and interpretation! Thank you!

        Amused at presence of Green Man and Cabbage Head…

        Do we know why the anguished head with sword is of Absalom? -Or why there are other theories about this image?
        With, again, many thanks,
        Angela Brown

      • Hi Angela,
        Thanks for getting in touch. There are actually several Green Men, (and a Green Ram too). As well as being an ancient pagan symbol Green Men were a popular motif in the Protestant Reformation.

        I’m not sure if you are thinking about a different head… the one that I suggest is Absalom doesn’t have a sword as part of the design, just ribbons entwined in his hair. Because of these long be-ribboned tresses people assumed that the head belonged to a heavily-featured woman, not a hansom man. However in the Bible much attention is given to describing Absalom’s elegant appearance and the extra-ordinary length of his hair (which ultimately sealed his downfall).

        Viewers unfamiliar with this story could easily assume that the long-haired head must belong to a woman, and I think people jumped to the conclusion that it represented Anne Boleyn because she was so famously beheaded (although obviously her death came after the screen was commissioned, so this is theory is colourful but daft, as is the idea that it represented an unfaithful wife).

        I’m sure there are many other images on the screen whose meaning have become obscure to contemporary viewers, and are therefore dismissed as mere decorative motifs. I have put up this index in the hope that their meaning will be revealed through further research.

  2. Lucy Churchill ~
    Thank you so much for all of this. I can see that I have a great deal of Homework now to do!! [As Guides, our task in this respect, is endless!] I was especially curious about the Green Man and Green Ram figures; I first encountered the former when I had responsibilities as a heritage education officer for Mediaeval/Tudor sites just outside Manchester. ‘Green Rams’ are new to me – so even more Homework…
    All good wishes for your work and expositions of it ~
    Ange Brown

  3. Hello Lucy – thank you for this fascinating catalogue of detail. The tourist guides were told the story of the ‘adulterous woman’ so it is very interesting to hear that the story is really about Absalom! Is this documented somewhere? (I had rather fancifully dreamed up the theory that maybe the carvers of the panel – supposedly continental Catholics – had made their own comment on the Act of Supremacy in 1534 coinciding with the date when the work on the screen was being done. What would they have thought of the Pope being replaced by Henry VIII their employer? A depiction of infidelity might have seemed appropriate.)
    Best wishes
    Min Dinning (TIC Tourist Guide)

    • Hi Min, thanks for getting in touch. While this might have been in the carvers mind, I doubt very much that they would have got away with such artistic rebellion- especially in such a prominent position.

      A screen of such grandeur and importance would not have been installed without royal approval. Based on other work commissioned by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn it is clear that they were both aware of the power of image, knowing how to impart and reinforce a message through symbolism (Their daughter, Elizabeth I, also later excelled at this). I am therefore sure that the very specific motifs that appear on the screen are not the random fancy of the artisans who made it, but the result of detailed instructions from Henry and Anne.

      I believe that I am the first to make the connection with Absalom, as I have not found this idea discussed elsewhere. However, if you consider the features of screen’s carved head with the Bible’s description of Absalom’s appearance – and his fate, this suggestion seems apt (See: 2 Samuel 14:25-26, 2 Samuel 15:1-6, 2 Samuel 18:9-15).

      Moreover, Absalom was the rebellious son of King David. Henry’s identification with King David became increasingly evident during the latter part of his reign, and has been much discussed since (see the footnotes to my article ‘A re-appraisal of the iconography of the choir screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’. Free access code: http://tinyurl.com/kingscollegescreen). As Henry’s staunchly Catholic daughter Mary became a popular focus for disenfranchised Catholics, reference to Absalom’s unsuccessful rebellion and violent death seems to be a very clear and real warning to those who refused to accept the Act of Supremacy.

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