Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rood Screen at St Birinus

St Birinus' rood screen

As the prolific architectural historian and church-crawler G. H. Cook wrote, "In every church the chancel was separated from the nave by a rood screen, so named from the Rood, the figure of Christ crucified that was placed high above the screen." As the principal image of the Crucified One in the church, Symondson & Bucknall note that it formed the "visual centrepiece of every medieval parish church".

Eamon Duffy explains that the medieval English church used veils and screens to mark "boundaries between the people's part of the church and the holy of holies". The delineation of hierarchical space, an expression of "the separation of things celestial from things terrestrial", to quote Durandus, is ancient, and of course, it is utilised in the Temple of Solomon. 

St Birinus' Rood
This has been carried over into our Christian churches, but rather than to serve as a wall or a barrier, the Rood screen expresses the reconciliation of heaven and earth through the Cross, for it is by his Cross that Christ has "entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:12). So, the priest, acting in persona Christi, enters the Holy Place, the sanctuary, to offer the blood of Christ, shed once and for all on Calvary.

The Rood screen is thus a sacramental, i.e. a visual reminder of what happens in the Holy Mass; it points to the mystery of the Cross and Christ's saving death on Calvary through which we have access to God. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, "Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf" (9:24). That, of course, is what happens during the Sacred Liturgy. Therefore, Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches that "in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle" (para. 8). 

The Altar through the Screen
With this in mind, Duffy writes concerning the Rood screen that "the screen itself was both a barrier and no barrier. It was not a wall but rather a set of windows, a frame for the liturgical drama, solid only to waist-height, pierced by a door wide enough for ministers and choir to pass through and which the laity themselves might penetrate on certain occasions... This penetration was a two-way process: if the laity sometimes passed through the screen to the mystery, the mystery sometimes moved out to meet them." So it is, that God became man and died for our salvation so that man might have communion with God and share in his divine life.

This beautiful theology of the Cross and the Mass is well-expressed by the Rood screen, and it is a pleasure to see its revival in a small Catholic church in Oxfordshire. It is most unusual to have churches install Rood screens these days but the parish priest and people of St Birinus, Dorchester-on-Thames (near Oxford) have embarked on this labour of love and it is now, after several years, virtually complete.

Incidentally, this parish now celebrates both forms of the Roman rite, and times are available online.

Cook, The English Mediaeval Parish Church (London: Phoenix House, 1955 - 2nd ed.)
Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005 - 2nd ed.)
Symondson & Bucknall, Sir Ninian Comper (Reading: Spire Books, 2006)

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