Thursday, 11 July 2013

Commandment Boards

Burton Park church

The Commandment Boards that form part of the fittings of most parish churches first appeared when literacy began to spread to the common people, but before they could be expected to own their own bibles.
They were officially instituted in 1604 as one of the measures of the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England, under which bishops would have to ensure: ".... that the Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said Churches and Chapels, in places convenient. All these to be done at the charge of the parish....."
Interestingly, even then lawmakers were keen to emphasise that they were not going to be responsible for the cost of their enactments.
St John, Chichester
Some 30 years afterwards, the Bishop of London, Chichester-born William Juxon ordered the restoration of the tiny church at Burton Park, and a very early example of the Ten Commandments is painted on the plaster over the beam separating the nave from the chancel.
The black letter text is rather difficult to read from the ground and one wonders if any of the parishioners could make them out.
It was more usual for the Commandments to be painted on boards by the same itinerant artists who did the royal arms and hatchments (and pub signs). Unfortunately, this means that they were vulnerable to being removed and burned when they got a bit tatty, so many have disappeared.
In Georgian times the word became much more important than ritual and in many churches the pulpit became the dominant feature of the church, but the commandment boards also gained importance. The trend can be seen at St John's in Chichester, where the commandment boards are very large and ornate and positioned right over the communion table. However, both table and commandments are hidden behind the massive three-decker pulpit.
In early Victorian times, commandment boards became even more lavish. 
The boards at Aldingbourne, for example, are lettered in gold on oak boards with delicately carved crocketed finials above. The boards at Fishbourne were painted on slate.
In the later 19th century, however, commandment boards fell out of favour and began to disappear. Aldingbourne's boards were moved from behind the altar to the south wall of the chancel, and many were simply thrown out in the course of restorations or when they became infected with worm or rot.