This month’s ‘Picture This…’ is certainly the smallest item we have ever featured, measuring just 6.5 centimetres in diameter. An exquisite piece of miniature sculpture, it is the seal of St Sepulchre’s Priory in Canterbury. Suitable for the season, it depicts an angel seated on Christ’s empty tomb (or sepulchre) on Easter morning.
Christ’s tomb is depicted as a rectangular case with a decorated front. The haloed angel seated on the tomb looks towards us, the folds of his gown and the feathers of his wings shown in clear detail. Above is a domed structure, with the roof seemingly tiled and the interior decorated with cross-hatching (diapering), supported by four columns, all very much in the Romanesque style. The angel’s bare feet appear under the gown’s hem; his outstretched right hand points towards the empty tomb, witness to the resurrection of Christ. Around the edge of the seal is inscribed the seal’s legend: ‘+SIGILLVM ECL’E S’ SEPVLCHRI CANTVARIE’, ‘the seal of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury’. The seal is single-sided, with no counterseal; on the reverse is a trace of a thumbprint left when pressing the soft wax into the matrix.
St Sepulchre’s Priory was a Benedictine nunnery thought to have been founded by St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in about the year 1100. It was just outside the city walls near the road to Dover. Tim Tatton-Brown has suggested that the church there may have been round, modelled on the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The community usually consisted of 12 nuns under a prioress. In 1511, Elizabeth Barton, who became known as the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, joined the community as a nun. She claimed to have had a revelation that if Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon he would cease to be king and die within six months. She was executed under Henry’s orders in 1534, and the priory was dissolved in 1537. Its site passed to the Hales family.
The Cathedral Archives has a handful of examples of the priory’s seal, attached to charters which date from the late 12th century onwards. The style and lettering of the seal indeed suggest that the matrix was made in the later 12th century. Some of our examples are in green wax and some are in uncoloured wax, but the finest example, shown here, is in red wax. It is attached to a charter datable to 1278×1279 (DCc/ChAnt/B/319).
The charter is an agreement between St Sepulchre’s Priory and Canterbury Cathedral Priory concerning woodlands in Blean. The seal is attached with white silk cords which indicate the importance of the document. The charter is in the form of a ‘chirograph’: the text was drafted in duplicate on a piece of parchment, with the word ‘CIROGRAPHUM’ written between the two blocks of text. The parchment was then cut into two in the middle of this word; the two halves could be matched together in the event of any dispute about authenticity. The copy given to St Sepulchre’s, long since lost, would have been sealed with the cathedral priory’s seal.
Canterbury Cathedral Priory is one of the six English religious houses to have used a seal before the Norman Conquest. That seal (the cathedral priory’s ‘first’ seal) was circular and depicted the cathedral church itself. A pointed oval became the most usual shape for seals of monastic houses produced in the 12th and 13th centuries, with a depiction of the house’s patron saint; however, the only seal known to have been used by St Sepulchre’s is this round seal.
The Cathedral Archives has an extraordinary collection of seals, including royal seals, heraldic seals, clerical seals, monastic and institutional seals and personal seals. Seals are fascinating for so many reasons: their craftsmanship, their design, their architectural evidence, their evidence for literacy, their materials, their fingerprints, to name just a few. Perhaps this article will encourage further interest and study, as well as marking the celebration of Easter.
Cressida Williams, Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library
Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett
Tim Tatton-Brown, Canterbury (1994)
PDA Harvey and A McGuinness, A guide to British Medieval Seals (1996)
With thanks to Dr Lloyd de Beer of the British Museum for his comments.