The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death by Nigel Andrew - review by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Stony Expressionists

The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death


Thorntree Press 244pp £10 order from our bookshop

This is an odd book. Nigel Andrew is not, unlike most of those who have written works on English church monuments, an art historian or architectural scholar; he is a retired journalist with a special interest in the subject who has both read widely on it and visited a number of the finer parish churches around the country. That might cause one to expect a book about pottering from one chancel to another while sharing random impressions of the antiquities inspected, and to an extent that is what one gets. But one also gets assorted meditations on death and bereavement and their place in our culture, now and in the past. As such, Andrew’s book is one that defies categorisation and says far more about his own preoccupations than it does about its notional subjects.

He has well-formed ideas about the merits of funerary monuments. For him there was a golden age and it covers much of the 17th century. What attracts him to this era is the ‘quite extraordinary’ work of the monumental masons active at the time. There was no more of the ‘stiff and stylised monumental art’ of the Tudors, who presented the subjects of their memorials ‘less as individuals than as social types’. In the early 17th century, Andrew says, the memorialised began to ‘become fully corporeal individuals, naturalistically represented, in movement and at rest, embodied in their own space’. Of course, all good things must come to an end. As the 17th century moved towards, and passed into, the 18th, the monuments became more ostentatious, demanding an audience.

Andrew attributes the improvement in funerary art to the arrival in England of masons and sculptors from Europe, mainly from the Netherlands. Some came as refugees – the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who governed the Netherlands at the time, was told by Pope Paul III in 1547 to stop

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter