Worcester – The Commandery

We spent Saturday 25 May in Worcester, and went to the Commandery, a Civil War museum that we hadn’t been to for many years. They had events on for Oak Apple Day, but the place was not exactly buzzing. They could do with having a trip to the Civil War centre in Newark and getting some new ideas how to liven the place up. Two things lifted the place for me – (1) an excellent café, (2) the painted chamber.

Before we look at those, here is the funeral pall that is supposed to have covered the coffin of Prince Arthur, first husband of Katharine of Aragon and brother of Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). He died in Ludlow in 1502, and is buried in the Cathedral here in Worcester.

The Painted Chamber is in the wing of The Commadery which was originally built as the infirmary to the Hospital of St Wulfstan. People in medieval times relied on prayer and the good will of God for their spiritual well being and their physical health. You can imagine people being carried to this room to pray for healing and forgiveness as their lives drew to an end. They would have recognised all the saints, and would have prayed for their intercession. The work came to an end at the Reformation, and the wall paintings were hidden with whitewash and the building sold to a private owner. They were re-discovered in 1935 – and I hope their colours will last now they are on view.

The first picture depicts the martyrdom of St Erasmus. He is lying on a trestle table with his hands tied behind his back, wearing only a bishop’s mitre. His intestines are being wound onto a windlass (apparatus for moving heavy weights) Four onlookers stand behind Erasmus, the third bears a sceptre and could be Emperor Diocletian. Erasmus was the Bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy and was martyred in 303 – he’s also known as St Elmo (as in fire). The patron saint of sailors (he continued preaching after a thunderbolt landed beside him, so protects sailors out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a storm), and he’s good for prayers when you’ve got abdominal problems. I think it is Peter with his keys next to it.

The martyrdom of Thomas a Becket is next to him. I shall never forget a wonderful candlelit tour of Canterbury Cathedral on an evening of the Precentors’ Conference, with members of the Cathedral choir, and an opportunity to pray by the place of his martyrdom. I didn’t make a note of who the next picture shows.

Next is St Michael weighing human souls, and the Blessed Virgin Mary next to him is adding her prayers, her rosary, to the scales to save a soul. Imagine lying here, waiting for your End, knowing that judgement follows in the next few hours.

Then we have images of Christ.

St Etheldreda is pictured wearing a crown, carrying a crozier, and with a book in her right hand. She was daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, eventually became a nun and founded the monastery at Ely. She died from a tumour on her neck – no doubt others did likewise in this room.

Finally, St Gudwal was a C7 ecclesiastic from Brittany – so he is dressed as an archbishop wearing a mitre, and carrying a staff capped with a patriarchal cross (with two horizontal bars). St Dunstan, Bishop of Worcester 957-960, brought his relics to Worcester from the monastery in Ghent where they had been taken for safe-keeping during Viking raids on Brittany.

In a world where we are obsessed with Brexit,  ignoring the millions living in poverty and relying on food banks, you do wonder if we’ve learned anything. Henry VIII got rid of the monasteries without replacing them with anything to care for the poor and destitute. We wouldn’t be that stupid, would we?

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