There’s the Rub! – Brass Rubbings in Special Collections – Part 1

This post was written by Lana Mason, Processing Student Assistant. Lana has an Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently studying Art History at George Mason University. Lana is the recipient of the University Libraries Student Assistant Scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year.

The Bernard Brenner brass rubbings are an art historical gem of a collection. This collection consists of 163 rubbings taken from monumental brass plaques. Monumental brass plaques, popular between the 12th to the 16th centuries, were a common feature in many European churches. England today has the largest remaining collection of preserved brasses in situ. The purpose of the brasses was originally to serve as monuments to deceased individuals, who are memorialized by their portrayal on the plaques. 

The deceased who are represented in monumental brasses are designed according to specific aesthetic and cultural conventions. Some plaques may depict only one person, while others depict family members (parents and children or siblings) or spouses. The brasses vary greatly in the amount of detail and visual elements included in each plaque. The majority of brasses, particularly those dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries when the plaques were at the height of their popularity, depict individuals with uniform features regardless of their age or gender. Children featured in plaques are identical to adults in design and are simply scaled down to a smaller size. Men and women typically have very similar, oftentimes identical facial features and poses. Posture of the figures is also generally uniform—most figures are depicted in a front-facing standing position with their palms touching at chest level. The key variances in the depictions stem from their clothing, which was altered based on the gender and occupation of the portrayed individual. Other common visual elements of the brasses include decorative architectural elements and heraldic symbols. These heraldic symbols are valuable as they serve as visual representations of family alliances, marriages, and social status.

The brasses serve as particularly good examples of historical visual culture, particularly regarding how clothing looked during the time period, and how attire was associated with occupation. Women are typically depicted in fashionable, sometimes highly elaborate and detailed dresses and headdresses. Men’s outfits are more variable, their clothing determined by their occupation; common outfits for men include suits of armor, worn by lords and knights, while clergymen wear their traditional religious garb.[1]

Animals are also commonly depicted in brasses, often found at the feet of the human subjects, and are portrayed according to iconographic standards of the time period. The two most common animals depicted are dogs and lions. Dogs are associated with both women and men, and represent both the concept of loyalty and the occupations of the sexes. The primary difference between dogs associated with men versus those associated with women is that for women, the dogs represented beside them are house pets, while for men, the dogs are more utilitarian hunting hounds.[2] Women’s dogs are often depicted with belled collars as an allusion to their status as pampered pets. Lions, associated uniquely with men, are considered to be symbols of bravery and fortitude, and are often seen beneath the feet of knights and other noble individuals.[3] Other animals depicted may include sheep and elephants. Animals are also often featured in the heraldic symbols associated with the individuals. These heraldic animals are sometimes real animals (such as lions) and other times more fantastic creatures such as griffins.

Monumental brasses and the rubbings taken from them present an invaluable historical insight into later Medieval European culture. In addition to their anthropological value, the brasses also are aesthetically appreciable objects in their own right. The Bernard Brenner brass rubbings collection showcases a great variety of the stylistic variations present in English monumental brasses, and is useful both as a research tool and simply as art to appreciate.

Lana was a tremendous help this semester with a lengthy preservation project – inventorying SCRC’s brass rubbings. Thank you Lana for all of your hard work!

[1] “Brass Rubbings Collection: Iconograpy on Brasses.” Hamline University.

[2] Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. Medieval Pets. Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2012. p. 75

[3] Ibid.

All photos are from the Bernard Brenner brass rubbings collection.

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