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Rood Screen

The rood screen at Ranworth showing the two side altars and central panels of twelve apostles 

Medieval churches often contained a wooden or stone screen that stood within the chancel arch, under the rood beam. ‘Rood’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for crucifix, and the church’s interior would have been dominated by a carved image of Christ on the cross, flanked by statues of the Virgin Mary and St.John the Evangelist fixed on the rood beam. The rood screen supported a platform that provided access to maintain the lamps that burned day and night before these images.  At Ranworth, the platform is reached by rood stairs set into the north wall.

The screen also partitioned the two main parts of the church. It stood at the front of the nave, where lay parishioners worshipped. Beyond it stood the chancel, where the clerks (clergy) sang the services and celebrated Mass. The laity paid for the erection and decoration of screens, and the saints they chose often reflected their own or their community’s spirituality.

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St John the Baptist Altar 

The Lady Chapel 

The rood screen in St. Helen’s church is one of the finest surviving examples in England.  It was constructed soon after the rebuilding of the nave, which was completed in 1453. Ranworth belongs to a group of twelve high quality rood screens stretching from Thornham near King’s Lynn to Southwold in Suffolk. This group is generally known as the Norwich or Ranworth School of panel painting. The rood and its statues would have been removed during the sixteenth-century Reformation, but the screen and delicate arches above survived. The loft platform was restored in Victorian times.

The Ranworth screen is unique in having extensions on each side of the chancel arch. These were altarpieces, providing a backdrop to the St.John the Baptist altar to the north and Lady altar on the south side. There are no side aisles in the nave, but the screen extends into the nave with two transverse panels (parclose), to provide a more enclosed space for each altar.

No documentary evidence survives, but the panel paintings belong to three distinct commissions. One commission covers the 12 apostles on the central screen. Another covers the military saints, George and Michael, and deacons and bishops on the parclose. The third are the saints on the John the Baptist and Lady altarpieces. They were painted in situ by unknown artists, probably based in Norwich workshops. Pigment analysis of the parclose panels suggests a date of around 1470-80. The other screen panels are likely to be of a similar date.

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