Is it possible that Durham Cathedral’s Neville Screen, instead of displaying alabaster statues in all its 107 niches, was actually first designed and part-used to display relics and treasures given to the shrine of St Cuthbert?
The Neville Screen is one of Durham Cathedral’s wonders. It was installed around 1380 and its delicate spires still stand, dividing the high altar from the shrine of St Cuthbert.
The screen, or reredos, has now-empty display shelves or niches between the spires. The rear, shrine-facing side of the reredos has four rows of niches, the upper three rows of which have ten niches on each row, the bottom row has nineteen. The altar-side of the reredos has niches in three rows which are divided into five major (canopied) niches and four minor ones. There are also many smaller niches on both sides, making a total of 107 in all.
Famously, these 107 niches were once supposed to be filled with alabaster statues. These statues disappeared during the Reformation and are supposed to have been buried somewhere nearby. Their fate is said to be one of Durham’s great mysteries.
But might there be a different explanation for the niches? Is it possible that, while those at the front, the principal ones on the altar-facing side, were indeed used for alabaster statues, the niches at the back, facing the shine, were also used to display the relics and treasures that had been donated to St Cuthbert?
This is possible because other reredoses were often used to display relics and treasures in this way. The fourteenth-century Westminster Abbey screen was used like this, as was the one commissioned by Edward III for his new chapel for the Order of the Garter at Windsor.
Intriguingly, in 1382, just as the Durham reredos was being installed or was newly in place, the official in charge of the shrine made a complete list of all the precious items in his care – the relics and treasures of the Cathedral – many of which would have been on prominent display. The list is long, but the inventory starts with the treasures that are kept on what the shrine keeper calls “the first or highest shelf (gradus) to the south”; then he moves onto “the shelf under the first”; and then “upon the third and lowest shelf.”
The Black Rood was the third item in the first tier.
“In primis, upon the first or highest step (or shelf) to the south, an image of the blessed Virgin Mary, of silver gilt.
“Item, an image of…[illegible] of silver gilt, with a rib of the same, enclosed in the breast of the image.
“Item, a black cross, called the Black Rode of Scotland.
The shrine keeper explains in Latin that he is making this list “in order to declare [establish] of what nature the relics… in what place, or upon what shelf (gradus).” I understand gradus can be translated in various ways, but one of its senses is that of architectural levels (hence steps or shelves).
Equally intriguingly, just as there are three rows of ten niches on the shrine side of the reredos, the shrine list assigns ten items to the highest gradus, nine to the second (ten if you count a pair of griffin’s eggs as two), and ten to the third.
Is it conceivable therefore that, when the shrine keeper lists the ten treasures “on the highest step or shelf” he is not referring, as has been supposed, to shelves in the armories or cupboards that were described 200 years later as being placed around the shrine, but may actually be referring to the displaying of the treasures on the highly-visible three top-most rows of niches of the Neville Screen?
I am not aware that the coincidence between the installation of the reredos and the creation of the shrine list has been previously considered. But it is reasonable to assume that the screen’s construction must have at least led to some remodelling of the shrine and a rearrangement and re-curation of the treasures on display, so creating the need for a new inventory by the shrine keeper.
Resolving this speculation is beyond the scope of this blog. But, as the Black Rood was one of the principal treasures of the shrine, if the assumption is true, the shrine list tells us exactly where on the reredos it would have been displayed in the late fourteenth century: in the third niche from the south, on the top row of the Neville Screen.