Memorial altarpiece

The parish church of Youlgreave in the Derbyshire peak district, has a rather remarkable and interesting medieval alabaster panel. This rectangular panel is currently set into the wall above the altar at the east end of the north nave aisle, though it has moved around quite a bit and spent some time in the chancel and was before that in the south wall of the south nave aisle. The panel is a monument to Robert Gilbert and his wife Joan and the marginal inscription around it, records the burial of Robert ‘sub lapide’ below the stone (at an unspecified date) and the death of Joan on the 2nd of November 1492. Robert is described in the inscription as ‘generosi’ i.e. gentleman, one step down the social hierarchy from esquire. According to J. Charles Cox, the arms on the monument, are those of Rossington impaling Statham, Joan Gilbert being a member of the Statham family. The Rossington arms are in fact those of Robert Gilbert, who was using this armorial bearing, Cox argues, by virtue ofhis descent from the Rossington heiress.

Youlgreave, Derbyshire

The inscription and shields of arms frame a wonderful panel of figures carved in low relief. In the centre of the figurative composition is a very tender image of the Virgin and Child, sadly a little mutilated. To the right of Our Lady kneels Robert Gilbert and his seven sons, all identically dressed, in civilian clothing, prominent purses and the caps with liripipes. On the other side kneels Joan and their ten daughters, she with a large set of paternoster beads. All the figures are in the attitude of prayer, with Robert and Joan shown in the act of paying devotion to Our Lady. If you look carefully there are the remains of tiny little scrolls in front of them, which would have represented their intercessions rising towards Our Lady.

It is difficult to imagine given the dimensions and the relief carving that this panel functioned as a conventional floor slab covering a burial and it seems likely that the panel served a dual purpose as an altarpiece as well as a memorial. The inscription also records that Robert was involved in some liturgical reordering of the inside of the church. It refers to Robert ‘clausuram hujus capelle’, enclosing this chapel. This is evidence that the panel was situated and Robert was buried in an enclosed chapel, separated off from the rest of the landscape of the church by parclose screens.  The figure of Our Lady may be a clue to the dedication of this space.

J. Charles Cox, Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire, vol. 2, p. 329. 

10 thoughts on “Memorial altarpiece

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  1. Very nice paternoster beads, thanks! It looks like they end in a tassel — I don't see those on the long-loop style of women's paternosters very often. If you took a closeup of that area I'd like to see it.


  2. You also encounter in mediaeval memorial brasses these kneeling figures of husbands and wives facing each other, with their children behind them by gender. The idea was carried through into post-Reformation church monuments; by that time, though, the husband and wife usually faced each other across a prayer desk, rather than having a saint in the background.Simon Cotton


  3. Simon, yes indeed as you say this type of arrangement is not uncommon in brasses and also in stained glass. Another post perhaps? It was the particularly shape of the panel, broader than it is long coupled with the relief carving, that appears to marks this panel out from a conventional floor slab. @ A. Cairns, not Julia in this case. The name is a contracted form of Joan, 'Iohe' being an abbreviation of Johanne.


  4. It looks like Julia, I grant you, but it isn't. It reads 'Joha', and if you look closely there is a tiny little line over the a. This is a contraction mark that indicates a numbher of missing letters. There is a reasonably precise formula for interpreting these marks. In this case it indicates that you read the contracted word as 'Ioh[ann]a' or Johanna , i.e. Joan, noting also that I and J are interchangeable. There are one of two other contraction marks in the inscription, for example corp' is a contraction of corpus, the apostrophe standing in for the 'us'. BTW if you want more information on contraction marks in medieval Latin 'The Record Interpreter' by Charles Trice Martin is a the standard source. Maybe English Heritage need to employ one or two more medievalists so they get their notes right! There is a full transcription of this inscription in Cox's Derbyshire Churches, vol. 2, p. 329:


  5. Thanks for the link! Looks like something else I should be learning!! Great Blog, Allan. I have a couple of ancient churches on my doorstep, though they are largely unknown. They are both Saxon…St. Mary the Virgin in Norton, which has a nice little website here ( and St. Cuthbert's in Billingham which dates from 847AD!Antony.


  6. Late to comment on this, tho' I read and enjoyed when you first posted it. If the carving was originally an altarpiece, it is curious that the inscription along the top of the slab is inverted. Could be an error, of course. Certainly difficult, as you say, to see it as a conventional floor slab. One section of the inscription along the top is apparently a more recent restoration. Any traces of colouring? Roger


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