It is remarkable that the sedilia of Westminster Abbey has survived for 700 years since construction in the early fourteenth century, as it has faced over-painting, boarding up, smoke damage from candles, and substantial harm from iconoclasts. The sedilia—a group of seats for the clergy—is unusual in that it is made of oak rather than the more common stone, and has four stalls rather than the more typicalthree. The cross-vaulted ceiling is ribbed, while carved Gothic cinquefoil arches lead to gables on the front, complementing the surviving paintwork. Figurative paintings on its panels are rare examples of medieval English artistry. Westminster’s Sedilia is an important contribution to the treasure house of artifacts, commemorations, and architecture that makes the Abbey so significant.
Stabilizing, cleaning, and ongoing monitoring of the sedilia
In the 1930s, the sedilia’s painted panels were uncovered, and they were the subject of a technical investigation in 2004. After years of neglect and an unstable microenvironment, financial and technical interventions were badly needed. Between 2007 and 2009 WMF, with support from the Kress Foundation, contributed to the stabilization, cleaning, and monitoring of the sedilia. Work began by stabilizing fragile paint and gilding layers of the panels and lightly cleaning the surface using soft brushes and cotton wool swabs soaked with deionized water. To ensure the benefits of this work were not undone, analysis was undertaken to establish the underlying causes of deterioration. This initial work is backed-up by ongoing monitoring of the microclimate and paintwork of the sedilia, to ensure that any future problems are caught early.
The artistic merit of the Westminster Abbey sedilia is matched by its architectural significance. The painted panels, considered to be amongst the earliest panel paintings in the United Kingdom, demonstrate an already refined and highly developed tradition of oil painting in early fourteenth-century England. They are also a rare survivor of the iconoclasms, or heretical vandalism, that followed the Reformation. The artistic and architectural features make the Westminster Abbey example unrivalled among the nation’s surviving sedilia. By encountering the sedilia within the context of the architecture and artifacts of Westminster Abbey, visitors are encouraged to consider this space as both a repository as well as a dynamic feature of the nation’s history.