plate made of brass
, depicting a person whom it commemorated, and let into the surface of a tomb
or the pavement
of a church
. The art began in and flourished from the 1200s and died out by the 1700s.
It is mainly found in the Low Countries, England, and northern Germany. It was found in northern France as well but their brasses were largely destroyed in the Revolution. Virtually none exist in other countries of the British Isles.
The material used was latten, a kind of brass in the proportion 2:1 of copper to zinc, with a bit of lead and tin. Another name sometimes used was Cullen plate, as if from Cologne, but most English brass was made in plate from places like Flanders and shipped over.
This material is virtually undamageable. It survives intact when a church is burnt to ashes, and no vandal has ever carved their initials in with a pen-knife. Even the earliest pieces are very little worn; compare to stone memorials of the same period, now often sadly reduced to faceless and characterless shapes. As brasses often have dated inscriptions, they are therefore precise records of fashions in clothing, armour, heraldry, and lettering, and can be used to date associated tombs and pictures.
A few had enamel to depict the colours on a shield, but mostly they were coloured with less permanent materials such as plaster. The latten was polished bright to represent the heraldic colour or (gold), and lead was inlaid to represent argent (silver).
The earliest known monumental
brass still existing is one to Bishop Ysowilke
, in the church of St Andrew at Verden
, near Hanover
, dating from 1231. The earliest in England is from 1277, that of Sir John Daubernoun
at Stoke D'Abernon
in Surrey. The earliest to a woman in England is Margaret, Lady Camoys
, in 1310.
But ones before that are known by repute and lost: that of Hugues de Pierrepont, Bishop of Liege till 1229; and the earliest of all was in England, in 1209, that of Sir John Beauchamp, the Earl of Bedford, in St Paul's Church in Bedford. It is unknown what this looked like since it was physically lost before antiquaries could depict it.
These early ones were based on the stone effigies of Crusader knights that were also used to augment their tombs. That of Sir John Daubernoun the Elder, for example, is full size, showing him lying down. He is in full chain mail with a loose surcoat over it, and a sword belted from it. He carries a shield of the shape now called "heater"-shaped, i.e. like the base of a flat-iron, or just plain shield-shaped, with his arms: Azure, a chevron or. A spear with a pennon of his arms stands upright by his other arm, with a lion at his feet gnawing at his base. Knights often had lions, or they and their ladies had dogs, in quite playful poses. The inscription is "Sir: John: Daubernoun: Cheualier: Gist: Icy: Deu: De: Sa: Alme: Eyt: Mercy", or "Sir John Daubernoun, Knight, lies here: God on his soul have mercy".
There was often a large canopy around the figures, typically in the form of an arch of a Gothic church, with the associated opportunities for depicting shields, crosses, and angels.
While lords, knights, and abbots had big tombs of their own, and their brasses were on the upper surface, the lesser people, the gentry and burghers and monks, could afford smaller ones laid directly into the floor of the church, in aisles or by the altar. They can still be found here in many parish churches, under an inconspicuous piece of carpet.
Over the course of the 1300s the mail coiffe
gave way to the bascinet
, but I am not here to discuss styles in armour
. The brasses gradually shrank from life size. The inscription around them in a rectangle tended to be replaced by inscribed plates at their feet.
By the mid 1400s a lot of artistic power started to be lost. Figures were stylised, and reduced to mere clothes horses. We see their costume and their arms accurately, but there is no longer any sense that the engraver knew or saw or cared about the original person depicted. Children were brought in: four boys and three girls would be just so many undifferentiated tiny figures praying by the side.
Instead of lying as if on a tomb the people were now depicted kneeling in prayer. This was particularly useful to show the ornate butterfly head-dress of the ladies.
Two curious practices came in in the later periods: skeletal or shrouded depictions, meant as a memento mori, and engraved during their lifetime. The other innovation was the showing of babies in swaddling clothes.
The troubles that came over all other aspects of England touched the brasses too. The religious fanatics under Henry VIII
and Edward VI
smashed church figures that looked like idol
s, and destroyed inscriptions or parts thereof that looked like intercession
: the formula Ora pro nobis
(Pray for us) was chiselled out on many. Then in the next century the Civil War
did so much more; then the modernising efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries to sweep away all the inconveniences of older styles. Whereas about 7500 now exist in some form in England, it is estimated that there might have been as many as 100 000: though mostly poor-quality repetitive ones of the Tudor period.
The last armoured figure depicted is from 1681. The last brasses of all are from the Greenwood family of St Mary Cray in Kent, poor scratched-in things: the last woman shown is Mrs Philadelphia Greenwood in 1747, and the last man Mr Benjamin Greenwood in 1773.
These days there's no way you're going to get to the original brass of Sir John Daubernoun, who is safely under perspex, but some of the important brasses have copies specifically for brass rubbing
. With minor ones in the parish church you just ask the vicar
for permission. The Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields
in central London has a good collection of replicas for tourists.
The substance traditionally used to make rubbings is heelball, a mixture of wax and lampblack used by cobblers to give a gloss to the sides of soles and heels. The earliest antiquaries to start collecting rubbings, from around 1780, tried filling them with ink and printing them!