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‘Rood’ is an old English word for a pole, which came in time to be associated with the Cross of Christ in a church. Paintings of the crucifixion came to be known as Rood Paintings, and when paintings or crosses were set up on a screen across the church the screen came to be known as the Rood Screen.
The Rood Painting contains a wealth of Christian imagery commemorating Jesus’ Crucifixion, marking St Michael’s victory in Heaven, and celebrating the lives of the saints; finally it invites us today to see ourselves as Christ’s disciples joining in fellowship with him and with each other at his table.
In the centre is the Crucified Christ; he is flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary and the ‘beloved apostle’ John. At Mary’s feet is her emblem, a lily; while John holds a book (representing his work as an evangelist.) Below him a chalice with a viper symbolises the cup of poison which legend suggests he was challenged to drink by a high priest of Diana at Ephesus.
The smaller figures immediately next to Christ are Mary Magdalene with her pot of ointment, taken (but not used) to embalm Jesus’ body; and John the Baptist with his symbols of lamb, book and cross. (John pointed to Jesus as The Lamb of God; he also preached and pointed others to Jesus; and the cross reminds us that he was himself the first Christian Martyr.)
Either side of Jesus’ hands are the traditional symbols of the four gospel-writers, known as the four ‘evangelists’: clockwise from the top left these are Mark (a winged lion), Matthew (a winged man), John (an eagle) and Luke (a winged bull). The scrolls in their mouths and their hands represent their Gospels.
The dark sky around Jesus recalls the midday blackness of the crucifixion.
The INRI scroll above Jesus’ head recalls the sign nailed to the cross by Pontius Pilate: INRI is short for the Latin ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum’, or ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Above that is the Paschal Lamb, representing Jesus the Lamb of God sacrificed for us.
Above the scroll and the Lamb is a scene of heaven, with St Michael and the Angels, the dedication of this church. The rainbow is the sign of hope given after the Flood, while the Dove in the centre is the Holy Spirit. So the scene is complete with Father Son and Holy Spirit alongside St Michael and All Angels.
Immediately below those standing sit two Guardian Angels holding globes as guardians of our souls. Just below them, at the entry to heaven, are St Peter (with the keys of heaven) and St Paul (the Apostle to the Gentiles.)
Along the frame are the words KYRIE ELEISON, the Greek words meaning Lord have Mercy which are sometimes used in our times of confession. The response CHRISTE ELEISON is echoed faintly on the lower edge of the frame; and with the blood from Christ’s wounds dripping onto those words we are reminded that his sacrifice and our forgiveness are not abstract ideas but are directly intended for us.
On the extreme left beyond the lion and the bull are Saints Polycarp and Irenaeus. Polycarp was a disciple of John the Evangelist and later became Bishop of Smyrna, so he forms an important link between the Apostles and the early Christian Church. Irenaeus was an important early Bishop who studied with Polycarp as a boy: he was instrumental in collecting and preserving many early Christian documents.
On the right are a Franciscan friar and a little boy: the friar is St Antony of Padua, popularly regarded as the patron saint of lost things.
The edges of the central part of the frame show a variety of saints. On the left are four:
- Catherine of Alexandria: patron of young girls, students, the clergy, philosophers, nurses and all craftsmen whose work is based on a wheel. Catherine was tortured on a milling wheel which broke under her, and she is usually depicted with a broken wheel.
- Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. He was noted for a love of all God’s creatures but also for sternness of character and a close identification with Christ’s sufferings. He is shown with the marks of the stigmata, a replication of Christ’s wounds in his own body.
- James the Great, one of the three Apostles (with Peter and John) to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration and his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first Apostle to be martyred, his shrines were immensely popular in the Middle Ages; he is often depicted as here with a pilgrims hat and the scallop shell associated with Compostella.
- On the narrow part of the centre – Walburga, Abbess of Heidenheim: a notable example of the Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns who helped Boniface with his missionary work in Germany. Her feast day, 1stMay, coincides inappropriately with the pagan festival for the beginning of summer – Walpurgisnacht – and symbolic ears of corn come from this confusion. It is supposed that healing oil, represented by the phial in her hand, flows from her tomb.
On the right of the frame there are five further saints:
- Theresa of Avila: virgin and founder of the Reformed Carmelites, she produced many inspired writings on prayer and contemplation. Just discernible to the upper right of her head is an arrow, symbolising the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
- Martin of Tours: a former soldier in the Roman Army whose commitment to Christ was such that in conscience he gave up being a soldier. Legend has him dividing his cloak with a beggar, who subsequently turned out to be Christ. He is sometimes shown with a goose because geese often migrate around the time of his feast day, November 11th.
- Stephen Harding: Abbot of Citeaux, largely credited with the growth of the Cistercian order.
- Monica, the mother of St Augustine. In her patient loving care for him, ending in his conversion, she is seen as a model for Christian mothers.
- St Augustine himself: Bishop of Hippo and a prolific writer whose works have proved more influential in the history of thought than any other Christian writer since St Paul.
In the bottom part of the painting the branches of yew, often found in churchyards, symbolise immortality. Meanwhile the modern rendering of the communion scene, while referring to familiar paintings of the Last Supper, clearly invites us to see ourselves as part of the group. Blood flows from Christ’s wounds into the chalice, echoing the cry higher up of CHRISTE ELEISON – Christ, Have Mercy on Us.