The story of Bath Abbey's Jacobean ceiling continues from the nave into the north aisle...

In contrast to the nave ceiling, the plaster ceiling of the north aisle is on a much smaller scale, more delicate and we can assume by our findings, more cluttered with a variety of decorative motifs.

This could well relate to the differences in height. Small lion masks, acanthus leaves and fleur d’ lys would never have been visible to the naked eye, way up on the nave ceiling.

The nave aisles are considerably lower and such additional decoration would have been clearly visible.

An acanthus leaf detail in the plasterwork Fleur d'lys plasterwork detail

Stylistically, the nave and north nave aisle do differ in their design. It may be possible that two different makers constructed these ceilings. Maybe Montagu employed a master craftsman for the nave, and cut costs slightly for the nave aisles by employing a more local maker who was more used to creating plasterwork for domestic interiors. This does seem possible when we consider the similar ceiling in The Grapes. The fragments from the north aisle also show no signs of having been painted with blue, black and red. They do appear to have been painted at least twice with an ochre yellowish wash, the earlier wash being darker and more orange. An ochre yellow wash decorating the nave aisle ceiling would have also been considerably cheaper to undertake than tromp I’oeil.  

Unfortunately, no surviving building records from the period have so far been discovered which could possibly name a maker or makers of the ceilings. There are several 18th-century prints that show the interior of the Abbey. They give us a tantalizing glimpse of what these ceilings looked like, but they all differ slightly and appear to have been open to artistic interpretation. They are also undetailed.

Print showing plaster work detail in the Nave's North Aisle Print showing plaster work detail in the Nave's North Aisle

Prints of the interior of Bath Abbey, showing decorative plasterwork detail in the Nave's North Aisle. Courtesy of Anna Riggs, Bath Abbey Archive 

Some aspects of the decorative layout however can be explained. We have found two fragments where a lion mask is still attached to the more pointed boss and a small section of rib-work. The lion masks and pointed bosses were clearly a repeating decorative motif intersecting the geometric rib-work. This is further clarified when we look at the decoration on the ceiling in The Grapes, the decorative motif being identical.

Another identical comparison between the north aisle and The Grapes plasterwork can be seen in the more rounded, fluted bosses and acanthus leaves. Within the Abbey we only found them in a fragmentary state, with nothing attached, but on the Grapes ceiling they are still in situ; they clearly went together.

Lion mask still attached to the ceiling boss Lion masks and boss in situ at the Grapes
Fluted boss and acanthus leaves from Bath Abbey Fluted boss and acanthus leaves in situ at The Grapes

We have discovered such a bewildering diversity of decorative motifs that it is virtually impossible to clarify with any certainty where they appeared on the north aisle ceiling. Personally, I think that there were several different design motifs, decorating the rib-work intersections, and potentially flower rosettes decorated the spaces between the rib-work creating a spangled effect. At Tottenham Priory fleurs-de-lys were used to decorate the truncated fields around the edge of the plaster ceiling. It is possible that the fleur-de-lys we have discovered were used in a similar way.

Plasterwork fleur-de-lys

The architect John Wood described the north aisle tracery in the 18th century as ‘debased and inelegant’. By the 18th century ideas about what was fashionable and stylish had changed dramatically. John Wood was obsessed with Palladianism, and creating architecture in the Neo-Classical style, so it is not surprising that the Jacobean plaster-work would have looked crude and archaic to him.

A further clue to the layout and design of the north aisle plasterwork can be obtained when we compare it to the intact Jacobean plaster ceiling in Bath Abbey’s vestry. The vestry was constructed in 1623 and paid for by John Hall of Bradford-on-Avon and Sir Nicholas Salterne of London. The ceiling is coved. The rib-work is identical to the fragments found in the north aisle and it is also laid out in a geometric design. The decorative motifs that decorate the rib intersections however are different.

Rib work fragment Vestry ceiling

The flowers are much larger, and a completely different design. It is also possible that there are two flowers in one, a thistle top within a rose, symbolizing the union of Scotland and England under James I.

The flowers are flanked by acanthus leaves that trail onto the flat surfaces between the ribs. In squared sections of rib-work, the intersecting decoration is composed of masks that look a little like the Green Man or a mythical being. These were possibly installed to help avert the evil eye, or perhaps they were merely a frivolous pagan fancy.  The ceiling is also decorated with the heraldic shields of Sir John and James I.

We begin excavating below the south aisle this year, and it will be interesting to see whether our discoveries mirror the discoveries below the north aisle.

By Chris Hambleton, Fieldwork Archaeologist

Bath Abbey's Tale of Two Ceilings continues soon with an exploration of the ceiling at 'The Grapes'... watch this space!