Editorial Feature

Why I Love… This Headless Statue

Susan Harrison, Curator at English Heritage, on her favorite object from the collection

I love this ‘Christ in Majesty’ statue. It’s a stone sculpture of a seated, or ‘enthroned’, Christ figure, and is almost 700mm tall. Christ is dressed in long robes, tied at the waist by a knotted belt, and his toes are just visible. His hand was originally raised in blessing, but this has been damaged, along with the head which has been completely removed. The statue would have also at one time been painted.

It was made in the late 13th century and was an iconic statue in the abbey church. It’s one of the finest sculptures to be recovered from Rievaulx Abbey and shows the quality of craftsmenship being commissioned by the community to build and decorate the monastery at that time.

The story of how it lost its head tells us about an important time in British history: the dissolution of the monasteries. In the early part of the 16th century, Henry VII had run out of money from all of the wars he was fighting, so he began to disband monasteries and convents and strip them of their assets in order to sell them off, which also chimed with public opinion at the time that these religious institutions were too wealthy and powerful. Having previously established himself as the head of the Church of England during the Protestant Reformation, Henry was also removing traces of Roman Catholicism from the country.

Portrait of Henry VIII of England, Hans Holbein the Younger, Around 1537 (From the collection of Museo Thyssen - Bornemisza)

So the statue is headless because it was decapitated and the metal fittings extracted from it in order to be sold. I’m particularly interested in the statue because it offers a window into what happened after the dissolution of the monasteries, and what kind of objects were valued at that time.

The story goes like this: the statue would have been removed from the abbey church by King Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1538 following the signing of the deed of surrender, which pensioned off the monks and made sure they left the premises. They then needed to render the buildings useless for worship (to ensure the monks did not return), and send valuable items like church plates and non-religious books to the King, and sell off the remaining possessions and materials for cash. The commissioners worked for the King and employed local men to render the abbey useless for worship, extracting as much value as possible from the site in the process.

Rievaulx Abbey, John Wootton, ca. 1745 (From the collection of Yale Center for British Art)

It’s most likely that the statue was first removed from the church intact, and moved into the abbot’s lodging for safe keeping, but then it was subsequently damaged, either deliberately or accidently – although the type of damage inflicted suggests a deliberate iconoclastic act, as in, it was decapitated on purpose. Amazingly, apart from its head being removed, it’s largely undamaged.

The statue was later excavated in 1931 from the abbot’s lodging. The men who excavated the archaeological site were locals, originally many were First World War veterans, though their numbers were reduced by the 1930s. Some were paid from government unemployment relief funds. They removed thousands of tonnes of debris from the site in total. Finds made during the clearances, like the Christ statue, were recorded in a site finds book and placed in a shed, which later became the first site museum.

The shrine of St William (From the collection of English Heritage)

The 'Christ in Majesty' statue now takes pride of place as the star exhibit in the Rievaulx Abbey museum today.

You might also like:
-Why I Love... The 'Finds Book’
-Why I Love... This Rembrandt Self Portrait
-Back to English Heritage

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In this series, we ask curators to chose their favorite object from an English Heritage site.

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