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The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus : Chippenham, Cambridgeshire (‡Ely) C.15

Photo:T.Marshall Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, Chippenham, Cambs, complete [48KB]The complete scene, shown at the left, looks very unclear, but the photographs of details below should make it easier to see what is going on here. Erasmus (also called St. Elmo or Telmo), was a real person, and he may have been a third-century Syrian bishop tortured and eventually martyred under the Emperor Diocletian. He has always been connected with the sea and sailors, hence his association with the ‘St. Elmo’s fire’ phenomenon observed at sea.

Hence also his emblem the windlass, the drum-shaped device on which large and heavy ropes and cables can be wound, especially at sea. As in the case of St. Catherine’s wheel or St. Sebastian’s arrows, this attribute of his martyrdom was not the instrument of his death - like those two saints he was eventually beheaded - although not until he had been tortured in various ingeniously gruesome ways, the final one of which was the winding-out of his entrails onto the windlass which became his attribute.

Below at the right is the lowest part of the painting, showing Erasmus, wearing a bishop’s mitre and with a halo, lying calmly across the horizontal space, with the long narrow ‘rope’ of his intestines pulled upwards onto the drum of the windlass. His arms are tucked behind his back, presumably fastened there (his bent left elbow shows at the bottom edge of the painting). There are some confusing details here, not least the faint remains of the short doublets and legs of two torturers doing the unwinding that eviscerated the saint. But the windlass itself is clearer, with a large red detail in the centre of the actual mechanism, from which the winding-arms radiate outwards like the spokes of a wheel, one of them much longer than the others, presumably to enable maximum force to be exerted.

In the central section above this (shown below left), three richly dressed men stand beyond the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, Chippenham, detail, Erasmus & the windlass [48KB]windlass, apparently watching the scene with interest. The man in the centre is wearing some sort of crown, as is the one on the right, who also has something very reminiscent of a fool’s pointed cap, complete with a bell on the end, emerging from the circle of the crown. He holds some kind of staff in his left hand. The man on the left, the clearest figure, also has odd headgear - a large, strangely-shaped hat, possibly again with a crown over it. He poses with his right hand on his hip, and dangling from his fancy slashed sleeve is something that again resembles a bell. With such a fragmentary painting it is impossible to be sure, but I think there may be a moralising comment here on the ignorant foolishness of those who persecute the saints.¹

At the top of the painting Erasmus’s soul is received into Heaven. This is shown (furthest right, below) in a way traditional in art across medieval Europe but seldom found in English wallpainting. At the top is a rayed glory, radiating downwards towards a boat-shaped white swag. This is a napkin, held by the corners at each side by angels, and standing in it, very hard to see now, is a Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, Chippenham, 3 men looking on? [65KB] small figure representing the soul of the saint being carried up to Heaven. There are faint traces of the two angels, shown in horizontal flight, with the wings of the one at the left just detectable.²
A rayed glory of a similar type and in a similar context appears again at Gisleham, some 60 miles away on the north Suffolk coast. I tentatively suggested a Continental painter’s hand or influence there, but perhaps this is, rather, an iconographical detail peculiar to East Anglia. With so much now lost, no definitive conclusions about this sort of thing are possible. Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, Chippenham, detail, Erasmus's soul received into Heaven [30KB]
There is also a St. Christopher (forthcoming) at Chippenham, and other fragments of painting, including some illusionistic brickwork and what may once have been a St. Michael in the chantry chapel.

¹ Or, as I am becoming more and more convinced, these details might be remnants of a painting of the Three Living and Three Dead, now hopelessly confused with the St. Erasmus subject despite being contemporary with it. The three figures look very similar to many of the Living in such paintings.
² Kelly’s Directory of 1929 reports that in about 1896 a painting was found of ‘two angels censing’ - probably those escorting Erasmus’s soul to Heaven at the top of the painting. Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Gazetteer of 1831 records the rebuilding after fire of the church on proceeds from a sale of Indulgences in the 15th century. If Lewis’s information is accurate the paintings were almost certainly part of the refurbishment following this rebuilding. More information online at Cambridgeshire History.

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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Anne Marshall 2001