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Easter sepulchre


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The ritual ‘burial’ of Christ was a most solemn observance in medieval times, and required a ‘tomb’. At the end of the liturgies of Good Friday (including the strange Creeping to and Adoration of the Cross), the Priest, in bare feet and clad in his surplice, carried a Pyx containing the third Host (consecrated on Maundy Thursday) and the Cross, both wrapped in linen, to the north side of the chancel, where a temporary ‘sepulchre’ (usually of timber, draped with a pall) was made ready, and laid them within. The ‘sepulchre’ was censed, and numerous candles glowed before it, a continuous watch being kept to protect both the Host and the Pyx (which was usually of high quality). Early on Easter Morning, the church was illuminated with candles; clergy processed to the ‘sepulchre’, which was censed; the Host was removed to the Pyx above the high-altar; and the Cross was raised from the ‘sepulchre’ and carried in procession round the church while bells chimed and the Resurrection was celebrated. The Cross was then set on an altar on the north side of the church, where it was again venerated. The now empty ‘sepulchre’ remained an object of devotion (being censed, having illuminated candles in front of it, etc.) for the days after Holy Week. The Easter Sepulcre often found more permanent architectural expression as a recess, usually canopied, over a tomb-chest. Wealthy patrons, desiring association with the annual Easter mysteries, often built tombs for themselves that doubled as Easter Sepulchres (e.g. Clopton tomb, Long Melford, Suffolk (c.1497), and Sackville tomb, Westhampnett, Sussex (c.1535). Other Easter Sepulchres were just that, not associated with human tombs: a richly decorated example survives at Heckington, Lincs. (c.1330), complete with somnolent soldiers, the three Marys and the Angel, and, above, the Risen Christ, the whole exquisitely carved (but mutilated in C16).

N. Brooks (1921);E. Duffy (1992);Pevsner (ed.), BoE, Lincolnshire (1989);Suffolk (1975);Sussex (1965)

Subjects: Architecture — Renaissance Art.


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