THE COUNTRY at large is waking up to the importance of a cultural treasure trove contained within the walls of Hexham Abbey.

Indeed, the 80 or so medieval panels are nothing short of unique, said Dr Tom Kelsey, chairman of the Abbey’s conservation group.

“People are beginning to realise just what a national treasure these paintings are – some of them are of quite outstanding quality.

“Some are just ‘survivors’, but they have survived through Puritanism and Henry VIII and that’s the amazing thing.”

The panels are drawing attention now for two reasons.

Firstly, earlier this year the conservation group sent copies of them to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a department of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

“They are the leading conservation specialists in Britain and they were very excited by the pictures we sent them,” said

“The plan next spring is to have the institute do a proper survey of all these paintings.”

Secondly, the research into the medieval Dance of Death being carried out by Prof. Barbara Ravelhofer, lecturer in English literature at Durham University, led her to Hexham.

The author of a book on European spectacle from the Middle Ages to the 17th century, she was keen to establish whether the largely figurative Dance of Death had ever actually been performed.

Four of the Abbey’s panels feature Death circling, in turn, a cardinal, a king, a holy Roman emperor and a pope.

Tom explained: “In medieval times, the Pope claimed superiority in both secular and religious affairs. He was Christ’s representative on earth and we didn’t just live in England, but in Christendom, so he was the boss.

“But people began to question the complete authority of the church and the feudal system, particularly after the Black Death of the 1340s.

“If God’s punishment for sin was the plague, how were bishops and whole monasteries of monks also dying, they asked.”

There are several examples of Dance of Death illustrations still in existence across Europe which have, in time, become symbolic of the rejection of the Catholic faith by Protestants and Lollards (followers of 14th century theologian John Wyclif).

The concept behind the dance was one of social change, said Tom. “A couple of hundred years on and you have a civil war saying ‘we don’t want any kings at all’.

“But there is also the fact there was a shortage of labour after the Black Death and people began to say, ‘I’m worth more than this – I could
double my money if I worked next door’.

“They began to question their own position, particularly when they moved into the towns and became members of the guilds. They began to value themselves.”

There are only two other known sets of Dance of Death illustrations in the country and neither of them are of the quality of Hexham Abbey’s. It is a mystery, really, how all 80 panels have survived so intact.

One theory was that the strength of religion in Northumbria had been such that when their icons were threatened by any form of extremism, such as the Reformation of the Monasteries, people had moved to protect them.

“Some of the panels have been whitewashed to cover them up in the past,” said Tom.

“A few years ago, there was some restoration work done and the conservators said they could actually see small traces of the whitewash.

“Some of the panels have probably been hidden away too. We don’t know for sure, but that would have been an explanation for how they survived.”

Three of the most impressive panels together form the triptych in the Ogle chantry, the bijou oasis carved out of wood in which monks said prayers for the soul of Sir Robert Ogle, who died in November 1409. Our Lord, Our Lady and St John look down on the supplicants.

In the nearby pulpitum, seven prominent bishops who were mostly later anointed saints – among them Wilfrid, Acca and Cuthbert – stand in a prepossessing row, Mary and the 12 apostles serenely gazing out at the world below them.

And then, on the carved wooden screen and arch below the organ, there are detailed scenes depicting the Annunciation – the angel Gabriel complete with sceptre and lilies giving the Virgin Mary the good news –and the Visitation, in which Mary went to share it with her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.

Much as the Ogle chantry panels can be dated to the early 1400s, the era of these last panels can be pinpointed too. “1485,” said Tom.

“The hieroglyphs on one
side of the screen indicate it
was Prior Smithson who had them made, so that dates them quite closely.”

On Saturday, October 22, Prof. Ravelhofer will reveal during a talk in Hexham Abbey’s Great Hall (beginning at 4pm) whether she believes the Dance of Death was ever performed.

Meanwhile, members of Youth Dance Tynedale have drawn inspiration to create their own modern version of the dance and will open Hexham’s Spook Night celebrations on October 29 with a performance at the Bandstand at 4pm.