Shrines to saints and Pink Floyd

Modern relics

Writing about Becket this month got Sherds thinking about the modern relic industry. These days most people do not expect a miraculous cure as a consequence of contact with a relic, but they have not lost their sense of reverence for relics themselves – Sherds remembers, for example, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s highly successful 2017 exhibition called Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, at which groups of men-of-a-certain-age stood lost in quiet adoration in front of display cases containing silent and immobile bits of electronic gadgetry used by the band Pink Floyd for their various prog-rock albums.

You know you have really made it into the rock pantheon when the Royal Mail issues a set of postage stamps dedicated to your work: the Beatles were so honoured in 2007, followed by Pink Floyd in 2016, and Queen in 2020. There have been commemorative issues devoted to individual artists, too: David Bowie in 2017 and Sir Elton John in 2019. Sir Paul McCartney is now to be honoured with a set of 12 stamps – eight will feature the covers of post-Beatles albums and four are based on photographs of Sir Paul in the recording studio.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2017 exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains drew many visitors, acting almost as a modern shrine to some. Photo: Stephen Kelly.

But stamps are as nothing compared to the news carried recently on the popular Scottish TV channel STV, in which it was reported that a piece of lino from the floor of Sir Paul’s childhood home was causing high excitement in Kirkcaldy. The National Trust donated the sample (measuring 24cm by 9cm) to Kirkcaldy Galleries in 1997, two years after the Trust acquired the property at 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool, where Paul McCartney lived from 1955 to 1964. Museum staff were now trying to work out precisely where it was made.

According to Gavin Grant, collections team leader, the sample is just one item in a 6,000-strong collection of objects ‘in our internationally significant linoleum collection’, which includes photographs, pattern books, catalogues, samples, and workers’ tools. Staff are now searching through pattern books from the 1950s to find a match. The investigation will inform a new venture celebrating Kirkcaldy’s industrial past, which saw factories in Kirkcaldy and the Fife villages of Falkland and Newburgh become world leaders in linoleum production. Their products floored millions of homes, offices, and public buildings in the UK and abroad, and – at its peak in 1914 – the industry employed one in ten people in Kirkcaldy. Forbo Flooring Systems is
the sole remaining factory.

The Antique Breadboard Museum

Competing with Kirkaldy in Sherds’ private collection of museums celebrating humble heritage is London’s Antique Breadboard Museum: ‘an independent micro-museum located in Putney, curating one of the finest collections of antique breadboards and breadknives in the world’. Sherds can’t wait for museums to open again after lockdown so that he can see for himself a museum whose proudly stated mission is ‘breathing new life into antique breadboards’.

Having said that, and despite the invitation on the museum’s website to ‘muster some choice friends and family – and make a day of it!’, the museum is actually only open for two hours ‘most weekends’, though if you want to stay longer you can book a wine and cheese party or a ‘generous cream tea’, served on fine examples of the breadboard carver’s art.

Joking aside, Sherds found himself drawn ever deeper into the museum’s website, which takes a chronological look at the history of carved bread platters, once the pride of every Victorian and Edwardian home, and often personalised. The website page devoted to 21st-century breadboards features the work of contemporary wood sculptor Tom Samuel, whose recent productions include a breadboard inspired by ancient Roman architectural motifs.

The Antique Breadboard Museum claims to be in the vanguard of an entirely new kind of ‘house-museum’. The beauty of this type of museum, say the founders – Madeleine, Rosslyn, and Nicholas Neave – ‘is the personal story, the resident curator, the cosy atmosphere, and the accessibility of the exhibits.’

The shrine of St Amphibalus

On the subject of carving – this time in stone – Sherds greatly enjoyed reading on the BBC website the report about the restoration of the shrine of St Amphibalus, in St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire. Combining newly carved decoration with medieval work, the sculptors have included a figure wearing a face mask to commemorate the fact that the reconstruction took place during the pandemic. The Reverend Canon Abi Thompson, Acting Dean of the cathedral, said: ‘the masked figure reminds us that the history of St Albans stretches forwards as well as backwards, and pilgrims will be able to mark the latest chapter in the history of this cathedral alongside Amphibalus and Alban, who were there at the very beginning.’

The cathedral is unique in having two of Britain’s 13 surviving medieval pedestal shrines – one for St Alban and the other for St Amphibalus – in which the remains of the saints are borne aloft by marble columns allowing space beneath for pilgrims to kneel and pray. You might be forgiven for not having heard of Amphibalus, but his story is an intriguing one. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing c.1135, Amphibalus was a priest and missionary to whom St Alban gave shelter when he was fleeing from persecution. When the Roman authorities caught up with Amphibalus, Alban exchanged clothes with him so that the priest could escape. The Roman magistrate then ordered Alban to receive the punishment intended for the escaped priest, so he was beheaded.

Scholars have since pointed out that the name Amphibalus arose out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s misreading of Gildas: he confused amphibalus, meaning ‘chasuble’ or liturgical vestment, with a personal name. As a result of that mistake, Amphibalus was venerated by the monks of St Albans, one of whom was visited in a dream by St Alban who took him to Redbourn, five miles to the north-west, and pointed to two mounds on the village common. When the mounds were dug, the remains of some ten individuals were found. Amphibalus was identified by the two knives accompanying his burial, consistent with what the monks believed was the manner of his martyrdom.

right The shrine of St Amphibalus in St Albans Cathedral was recently restored. It combines newly carved decoration with medieval work, and the sculptors have even included a figure wearing a face mask to commemorate the fact that the reconstruction took place during the coronavirus pandemic.
The shrine of St Amphibalus in St Albans Cathedral was recently restored. It combines newly carved decoration with medieval work, and the sculptors have even included a figure wearing a face mask to commemorate the fact that the reconstruction took place during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: St Albans Cathedral.

The whole story is told by William of St Albans (fl. 1178) in his account of the martyrdom of St Alban, and modern historians say that the date of the discovery of the remains of St Amphibalus – June 1177 – is significant. Heavily in
debt, the monks of St Albans wished to emulate the success of the cult of Thomas Becket, canonised just four years previously, in attracting substantial donations from visitors to his Canterbury shrine. The shrine of St Amphibalus was destroyed at the Dissolution, but parts were found and reassembled by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1872. The results
of the 2021 restoration by the Skillington Workshop can be seen on the St Albans Cathedral website.

Respect for our ancestors

Museums and sculptors should work more closely with archaeologists and palaeontologists to recreate the appearance of our extinct ancestors, according to a paper published in February this year in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Just as Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, CA’s Book of the Year award winner for 2021, has opened our eyes to the humanity of our Neanderthal cousins (see CA 372), so the two authors of the paper argue that reconstructions are often misleading because they are based more on a sculptor’s intuition than on the fossil evidence. The authors conducted an experiment whereby two facial reconstructions were commissioned of the so-called Taung Child, a 2.8-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull discovered in South Africa in 1924. In one version, the head was much more ape-like; the second version, created while the sculptor worked alongside an anthropologist, gave the Taung Child a much more human appearance.

Rui Diogo, biological anthropologist at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., said that unconscious bias was responsible for the way we view Neanderthals or extinct hominids, pointing to reconstructions in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which portray skin as getting lighter as hominid species become more bipedal, giving the impression that people with lighter skin are more evolved. Diogo’s co-author Ryan Campbell, an anatomical scientist and physical anthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, highlighted the way that Neanderthals are often portrayed as having matted and dirty hair, ‘as if they were stupid and didn’t have hygiene’. Most reconstructions of the past, Diogo says, ‘lack a scientific basis. Our goal is to change the methods and to change the biases to give a more accurate view of human evolution’.