‘In Your face’ mercantile display – the Greenway aisle at Tiverton

Tiverton, Devon

Now this is something that has always fascinated me, it fascinated me so much that I very nearly did my PhD thesis on this subject, before the stained glass of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire drew me away. At the very end of the Middle Ages, from around 1450 onwards I suppose, we see an increase in overt personal display by patrons of medieval English church buildings. We see an overloading of decoration on buildings and works of art with personal devices that exist to elicit intercession, but also refer to the status of individuals, to their occupation and their family alliances. This sort of display is particularly strong among the mercantile elite, among what you could call the nouveau-riche of the period. This sort of ‘in-your-face’ display is wonderfully represented by this fascinating structure, the Greenway porch and chapel at Tiverton in Devon.

Tiverton, Devon (1)

This chapel and porch were constructed in 1517 by John Greenway (died 1529), the chapel was intended to serve as his mortuary chapel. The first thing you notice as you approach the church is that the chapel and porch are built of strikingly different material to the rest of the church building. The white limestone of the building immediately stands out.

Tiverton, Devon (2)

Tiverton, Devon

As you approach the south door, you find yourself overloaded with information, which tell you more or less everything you need to know about the patron. John Greenway’s coat of arms stands out in the position of honour directly above the doorway. In the spandrels on either side of the door are his conjoined initials ‘J G’ and they appear again twice above his coat of arms. You certainly know where he stands politically, his loyal allegiance to the Tudor cause is represented by two very prominent double roses. The display continues when you enter the porch (see above), for over the doorway into the church appear Greenway and his wife, kneeling at faldstools on either side of the Virgin Assumptive.

Tiverton, Devon

Returning to the exterior of the chapel, for the decoration of the chapel parapet, he has chosen to use decoration that refers specifically to his trade, his trade as a cloth and wool merchant and ship owner. The arms of his trade Gilds, the Drapers Company of London, the wool Staple of Calais, the Merchant Adventurers of Bristol all appear. As do some of Greenway’s fleet. He is known to have had ships working out of Dartmouth and Bristol and here they appear.

Tiverton, Devon

9 thoughts on “‘In Your face’ mercantile display – the Greenway aisle at Tiverton

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  1. It looks as if his initials are carried by the angels to the right of his coat of arms above the door — just in case someone might miss the other examples and wonder whose chapel it was.Any idea why the BVM is shown with uncovered, flowing hair in the English medieval depictions of the Assumption that I’ve seen? Admittedly, I haven’t seen that many, but it seems odd not to show her veiled.


  2. Had read the section on the Greenway aisle in Duffy’s “Voices of Morebath”, so nice to see these scans. Wonder how the carving of the donors with the Virgin made it through.


  3. Thanks for all the comments. It is a glorious space. Davis, I hadn’t made the connection with Warwick – somewhere on my Flickr page there is a photo of the Assumption in the ceiling at Warwick. Billyd, I’m not sure why Our Lady is depicted with her head uncovered, it is pretty invariable in medieval English art. I suspect it was to emphasise her virginity, maidens didn’t cover their heads in medieval England. Roger, it is amazing that the sculpture has survived. It is very fresh, isn’t it, so I wonder if it has been covered in the past?


  4. Alan is quite right Our LAdy does generally appear with her head uncovered and one can see so many Nottinghamshire alabaster images just like this one. There are I think six in the Cluny museum.


  5. Thanks 'unknown' whoever you are. You are nearly right, they are the arms of William Courtenay 1st Earl of Devon, impaling those of his wife Catherine of York, daughter of Edward IV. The Earl of Devon was Lord of Tiverton. Of course that makes the inclusion of the arms in Greenway's work, very, very interesting indeed – those trying to grapple there way up to the top, always try and ingratiate themselves with the powerful!


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