The south wall of the South Aisle contains an alabaster image depicting the Incredulity of Thomas when he meets the risen Christ but will not accept it is Jesus until he puts his hand into the wound in Christ's side (JOHN 20 v 24-29). We believe this alabaster fragment is part of a larger late-Mediaeval devotional panel. The best known example of these panels in East Anglia is at Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford which dates from the second half of the C14 and depicts the Nativity with Midwife and the Adoration of the Magi (see The Theater of Devotion by US academic Gail McMurray Gibson, (University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 62). By happy coincidence, Bishop Martin used a colour image of the Long Melford panel on one of his Christmas cards, for which he thanks the Revd Tim Crosbie for supplying the photograph.
The Long Melford panel was found by workmen hidden under the floor in the church to protect it either during the Reformation or from being destroyed by Dowsing and his men when they visited East Anglian churches during the mid-C17. Hacheston church was visited by the latter on 1 October 1644. It is reported they burned 21 'cherubims with wings, in wood' (i.e. angels) taken from the ends of the hammer-beam nave roof on a bonfire in the churchyard (see entry 272 in the online Journal of William Dowsing). Details of angel roofs in Suffolk that survive can be found on the excellent angel roofs website. Dowsing's men also hacked the carved animals off the ends of the pews, defaced the angels on the font (and tried to smash the font itself; their sword marks are still visible on the upper rim), and dealt with '16 superstitious pictures, and popish saints'. The latter probably refers to the images of saints on the lower panels of what had been believed to be the former rood screen that they scraped the paint off (the screen itself would have been removed during the Reformation under the order for the destruction of rood lofts of 1561). We believe the alabaster panel fragment depicting Thomas may either have been hidden or somehow survived destruction by Dowsing's men.
Further information on English mediaeval alabasters can be found in English Medieval Alabasters by Francis Cheetham (Boydell Press) which includes a catalogue of the important collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photographs of two further Incredulity of Thomas fragments held in the collection are shown on pages 286-287, both of which are more complete than the Hacheston one. Other examples show alabaster work used for altarpieces or retables, sometimes with a mixture of painted panels and alabaster figures. Cheetham notes (page 21) that altarpieces consisting of a series of narrative scenes and figures mounted in a wooden framework were a distinctly English variation of this characteristic late mediaeval form. We wonder if this might have been the case at Hacheston, which has the defaced panels with saints on them now stood behind the font and the Thomas alabaster fragment. Norwich has been suggested as a centre for the carving of alabaster in late Mediaeval England and four Te Deum panels survive there. The Crucifixion, Entombment, Betrayal, Flagellation and the Trinity were the preferred subjects. The two most popular themes were the Passion of Christ and the Joys of the Virgin (Cheetham, p.17). In England, losses sustained at the Reformation mean that our knowledge of English altarpieces is incomplete, but some survive that were exported to the Continent.
Gibson describes East Anglia as the most troublesome area of non-conformist thought in the C15 but also had strongholds of old-style Catholicism. She notes that Norfolk and Suffolk had a greater density of churches than any other county in England, and strong links with Flanders and the Low Countries. She thus sees the C15 as "a golden age of religious architecture and art" in East Anglia, with a "distinctive, even idiosyncratic, local style" including knapped flint, "Norwich-school" stained glass, and wonderful hammer-beam roofs (such as the nave roof at Hacheston) which reflect East Anglian skills in shipbuilding and the lack of local stone (Gibson, p. 23).
The "theater [sic] of devotion" comes from the move away from "the image of God as the Pantocrator, gazing down from the center [sic] dome of great Byzantine churches ... mysterious and all-powerful, the Beginning and the End, holding in his hand the visible book of his creation" (Gibson, p.13). By the C15, the move is toward the vernacular (the Bible being translated into English thus making it more accessible) with the use of art and imagery to give a more concrete, physical, visible and tangible reality to the devotions. Gibson cites mystic Margery Kempe's Book in which she "seeks the visible and tangible reality of her incarnate Saviour" (Gibson, p.15) as well as the Cycles of mediaeval biblical Mystery plays at places such as York, Wakefield and Chester. The inclusion of the midwife in the Long Melford panel also shows the significance of these panels to women, helping them with fertility and surviving the risks of child bearing. In pre-Reformation times, each church would have had a shrine to St. Margaret of Antioch who was regarded by many as the patron saint of pregnancy.
David Clough and Richard Ginn