Painted coffin

In the late 1960s and early 70s the central tower of York Minster was in danger of collapse and a vast programme of repairs was initiated to prevent it.  In a remarkable feat of engineering, the tower, which was built upon the foundations of early buildings including the Roman legionary headquarters, was underpinned.  As part of this work opportunity was taken to repair the monuments in the transepts including that of  Walter de Gray, archbishop of York between 1215 and 1255 in the south transept. 

Gray’s monument is spectacular piece, the recumbent effigy of the archbishop dressed in full pontificals and carved from purbeck marble, lies under a hefty pinnacled canopy supported on slender purbeck shafts.  The canopy is so substantial you could be forgiven for thinking it the feretory of the shrine and before the twentieth a number of antiquarians argued that de Gray was in fact buried in it.   He was not.


Having dismantled the canopy and removed the effigy, the Minster authorities made a quite remarkable discovery.  They came across a layer of rubble set in mortar and when that was removed they found the coffin of archbishop de Gray. 

Walter de Gray, York Minster

The lid of the coffin was painted with a lively and colourful image of de Gray (above) set against a black background.  Again de Gray was shown dressed in full pontificals holding an archiepiscopal cross staff, his hand raised blessing.  The image was painted with expensive materials, including a vibrant ultramarine and highlighted with gilding.  Sadly the image had become damaged through contact with the wet mortar of the rubble base and had left an impression on this mortar which was also recovered for the most part during the work (photo below). 

Walter de Gray 2

Matthew Sillence has argued, rather convincingly I think, that this coffin lid was intended as a more permanent memorial to de Gray and that the larger monument was an afterthought erected after the transept became filled with other burials and became less visually prominent.  It is probable that painted coffin lids were quite a common feature of medieval memorialisation, but because of their fragility they do not survive.  How lucky this example did. 

Walter de Gray 1

When the lid was removed the remains of de Gray were found, he had been buried in linen vestments his head supported on a woven cushion and the coffin including the usual episcopal grave goods, but perhaps more about those at a later time.

Further reading
There is full account of the disvovery of the coffin lid in Archaeologia 102 (1971) and the recent article by Matthew Sillence is: ‘The two effigies of Archbishop Walter de Gray (d.1255) at York Minster’ Church Monuments 20 (2005), pp. 5-30.

5 thoughts on “Painted coffin

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  1. Fr Coat, this is new to me thank you. How close it is to the de Gray effigy, so close it could it might even be by the same hand. Remarkable. Fr Tallis, it is remarkable how vibrant the colours arr and to all intents and purposes the pigments used are the same as those used by the Egyptians. A reminder of how vibrant medieval polychromy was.


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