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Court rules for Corpus to be displayed at Cathedral

22 July 2016


Ancient: Coombes Parish church, which existed at the time of the Domesday Book

Ancient: Coombes Parish church, which existed at the time of the Domesday Book

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Chichester has granted a faculty for a Corpus figure from a medieval crucifix to be removed to Chichester Cathedral on long-term loan, instead of being returned to the parish church that had displayed it until it was stolen and subsequently found by the police.

The Corpus figure, which is described as being “of exquisite craftsmanship”, is less than ten centimetres in height. It is a crowned figure of Christ, made in copper, hammered, engraved, and originally enamelled and gilded. Although damaged, it retains traces of the original gilding, and tiny fragments of blue enamel on the loincloth. It originated in Limoges, in the first half of the 13th century, and was made for attachment to an altar or processional cross.

It was found in the churchyard of Coombes Parish Church in about 1877. From that time, it was displayed high in the window arch of the church, until it was stolen about four years ago.

It was found by West Mercia Police, and, in November 2015, arrangements were made to return it to the parish church. The parish, however, was reluctant to place an item of such value in the church, where it would be vulnerable to further theft. The church is Grade I listed, Saxon in origin, and relatively isolated. It has no electricity supply; so installing an alarm would not be straightforward. The church is kept open for prayer and for the public to visit, particularly to view its series of 12th-century wall-paintings.

In December 2015, the Archdeacon of Chichester, the Ven. Douglas McKittrick, made a place-of-safety order sanctioning the removal of the Corpus to an undisclosed location. The matter was then referred to the Consistory Court, and the Priest-in-Charge and churchwardens petitioned for a faculty for the figure to be made the subject of a long-term loan to Chichester Cathedral.

The figure was examined by a former senior curator of metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Marian Campbell, who said that it was “not simply a mute testament to a long-lost crucifix, but a rare evocation of the artistic links between England and France in the Middle Ages”. The damage to it was “suggestive of some violence, and may not simply be accidental, but may reflect its fate at the time of the Reformation.”

The Church Buildings Council (CBC) drew the court’s attention to the policy that “church treasures belong in churches, and should only be removed in exceptional circumstances”, but that “there are some circumstances where a loan arrangement may constitute an acceptable solution.” The CBC, however, did not “object to the principle of a permanent loan to the Chichester treasury”.

The Diocesan Chancellor, the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, said that the discretion to permit the disposal of church treasures was one that should be sparingly exercised, but what was proposed by the parish was the lowest level of disposal: namely, a long-term loan to the cathedral treasury, which would allow the figure to be held securely within an Anglican foundation where it might readily be viewed and appreciated by the public at large.

Although the presumption against disposal remained, it was more easily displaced in circumstances where there would be no change of ownership, and the object would remain on public display in an ecclesiastical setting.

For all those reasons, including the fact that between 1877, when the parish acquired the figure, and its later theft, it had not been used for sacramental or liturgical purposes, but had merely been exhibited as an item of historical and aesthetic interest, and because of its vulnerability to further theft if it were returned to Coombes Parish Church, the Chancellor “unhesitatingly” concluded that the presumption against disposal had been rebutted.

A faculty was granted permitting the figure to be removed from its current place of safety and deposited in the treasury of Chichester Cathedral on a ten-year loan, renewable for successive ten-year periods. The figure continues to be subject to the faculty jurisdiction, and may not be moved or made the subject of any scientific or other investigation without the court’s prior permission.

The parish was ordered to set up a suitable photographic record within Coombes Parish Church of the figure, its history, and its removal to Chichester Cathedral. The court ordered that the figure must be made available for public viewing at the cathedral during normal public opening times; and that the Dean and Chapter must provide an explanatory note describing the provenance of the figure and its subsequent history, and must maintain adequate insurance.

The Chancellor said that Dr Campbell’s observation on the wilful vandalism of objects such as the Corpus figure at the time of the Reformation made fascinating reading, and, with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s activities in Wittenberg falling next year, the Reformation would be firmly within public consciousness. That might afford the Dean and Chapter “an excellent and timely opportunity”, the Chancellor said, “to capitalise on its new acquisition as part of the cathedral’s educational function, which it discharges to such good effect”.

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