Westminster Abbey is home to a rare 14th century sedilia, a seat for officiating priests next to the altar, which is constructed of oak rather than the usual stone. It has remained in situ since construction in 1307, surviving over-painting, boarding over for numerous coronations, candle burning, substantial iconoclastic damage and the normal wear and tear of a functioning Abbey.
The sedilia consists of four stalls, rather than the usual three, with figurative paintings on both the front and rear of its timber panels that are beautiful examples of medieval artistry. The later structure of a ribbed cross vaulted ceiling, and carved gothic cinquefoil arches leading to gables on the front, complement the original form and surviving paintwork.
How we helped
After being uncovered in the 1930s, the sedilia was the subject of a technical investigation in 2004. It was clear that after years of neglect and central heating conservation was badly needed. Between 2007 and 2009, World Monuments Fund contributed $52,000 to stabilize, clean and monitor the sedilia. This was made possible by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s, European Preservation Programme.
Work began by stabilizing the panels’ fragile paint and the gilding, and lightly cleaning the surfaces. To ensure the benefits of this work were not undone, analysis was also undertaken to establish the underlying causes of deterioration. This initial work was followed up with environmental monitoring of the micro-climate surrounding the sedilia. As a result the sedilia is in an position to survive for another 700 years.
Why it matters
The painted panels are considered to be amongst the earliest of their kind in the UK displaying a refined and highly developed tradition of oil painting. Architecturally the Sedilia is also very important because of its form, manufacture in timber and because it continues to be used as designed.
By encountering the Sedilia within the context of the architecture and artefacts of Westminster Abbey, visitors are encouraged to consider this space as both a repository of historical information as well as a dynamic feature of the nation’s history.