My re-appraisal of the iconography of the choir screen at King's College Chapel, Cambridge
In a departure from my work as a sculptor I published a short academic paper in Oxford University Press's journal Notes and Queries, decphering the meaningful imagery on the choirscreen commissioned by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in the early 1530's:
‘A re-appraisal of the iconography of the choir screen at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’. Download a pdf of the article here
I suggest that the Choir Screen in King’s College Chapel (built between 1533-36) is not just a celebration of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage as was previously thought, but a bold and menacing threat.
This conclusion was reached after studying the carvings on the choir screen in close detail, and researching the possible meanings of each individual motif.
One particular carved image holds the key: A head screaming in agony, held up by elegant loops of hair. Often said to represent Anne Boleyn or a warning to unfaithful wives, it is more likely that this could be Absalom, the rebellious son of King David. Absalom's long hair is mentioned several times in the Bible - and it comes to represent his downfall; Having unsucessfully rebelled against his father (and God's will) Absalom's attempt to escape failed when his long hair was caught in a tree, and he was put to death.
Henry VIII increasingly identified with King David, and so the prominence of this gruesome carving appears to be a stark threat to any one who did not accept Henry's sweeping changes to Church and State. This included his first-born daughter Mary, who remained a staunch Catholic and a rallying point for dissenters.
This taunt was no idle threat: Many those who disagreed with Henry and Anne’s reforms were burnt or beheaded, including Henry’s long-term friend and chancellor Sir Thomas More (1535).
You can download a pdf of my Index of Imagery giving the exact location and possible meaning of each of the screen's many motifs.
Photos with the permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College Cambridge.