‘We were coming down the steps from Magdalen hall,’ Tolkien recalled, ‘long ago in the days of our unclouded association, before there was anything, as it seemed, that must be withheld or passed over in silence. I said that I had a special devotion to St John. Lewis stiffened, his head went back, and he said in the brusque harsh tones which I was later to hear him use again when dismissing something he disapproved of: “I can’t imagine any two persons more dissimilar.” We stumped along the cloisters, and I followed feeling like a shabby little Catholic caught by the eye of an “Evangelical clergyman of good family”1 taking holy water at the door of a church. A door had slammed. Never now should I be able to say in his presence:
Bot Crystes mersy and Mary and Jon,
Thise am the grounde of alle my blysse
– The Pearl, 383-4;
and suppose that I was sharing anything of my vision of a great rood-screen through which one could see the Holy of Holies.’
Tolkien wrote this thirty years later, when other events had soured his recollections. In the early days of the friendship such moments were rare, and for the most part he was profoundly grateful for Lewis’s conversion. In October 1933 he wrote in his diary that friendship with Lewis, ‘besides giving constant pleasure and comfort, has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord’.
|15th-century rood screen from the chapel of St Fiacre at Le Faouet Morbihan. Note the saints beneath the cross.|
We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. ...Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock)
|St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, Washington DC|
|Lower screen detail from St Michael's Church, Barton Turf|
The screens were first and foremost Christological images, proclaiming the centrality of Christ's atoning death. The early sixteenth-century Rood-screen rail at Compsal near Doncaster had an inscription along it which hammered the point home:
Let fal down thyn ne & lift up thy hart
Behold thy maker on yon
Remembir his woundis that for the did smart
Gotyn without syn and on a virgin bor.
Al his hed percid with a crowne of thorn
Alas man thy hart ought to brast in two
Bewar of the dwyl whan he blawis his horn
And pray thy gode aungel convey thee fro.
These familiar facts are worth insisting upon when considering the saints painted on the dados or loft-fronts of Rood-screens, for they represent a powerful iconic and liturgical gloss on the perception of the role of the saints... The saints stood, in the most literal sense, under the cross, and their presence on the screen spoke of their dependence on and mediation of the benefits of Christ's Passion, and their role as intercessors for their clients not merely here and and now but at the last day. The whole screen was therefore a complex icon of the heavenly hierarchy, and many screens where clearly designed to underline this symbolism... representing... a sense of being surrounded and assisted by the "whole company of heaven."
Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 158
|Rood-screen of Croyland Abbey|