Prior Smythson's screen
Perhaps the loft was once the setting for the Rood: an awe-inspiring carved Crucifixion, richly colourful and dramatically lit, with life-size (or larger) figures of a sorrowing mother and disciple at the foot of the Cross. Below, on parapet and screen, rows of painted or sculptured saints each bore the symbols of ha own sanctity. The whole coloured and gilded spectacle, aglow with the light of many candles, focused the attention of worshippers on Christ’s sacrifice for Mankind. Once, every church had such a rood, set upon a rood- beam or rood-loft above the screen that separated chancel from nave. Usually the screen was an open one, with wide gaps between slender uprights that allowed the congregation to watch and share in the priest’s celebration of divine worship; stone newel stairs cut into the wall nearby ascended to the loft so that candles might be set around the rood. Only in some greater churches, and particularly those served by monks or canons, was there a more solid and substantial screen; double fronted and stone-built.
The screen at Hexham is in fact a Pulpitum, meant to close off the canons during their worship in the choir. Unusually, the Hexham pulpitum is of wood, but it made a compact enclosure which the canons entered through a central passage. There, they were shielded from lay parishioners and from some of the draughts. Whether in fact our pulpitum also served as a Rood Screen cannot be certain and perhaps it is simplest to know it by the name of the Prior who had it built, Thomas Smythson.
Thomas Smythson, who headed the Priory from 1491 to 1524, claims responsibility upon the screen. You can read his message on the bressummer, the long beam that stretches from pier to pier above the vaulted arches at the base of the loft parapet In the row of small squares or paterae along that beam appear Prior Thomas’s words, contorted and crammed into their own initials:
Orate Pro Anima Domini Thomae S Priori Huius Ecclesia Qui Fecit Hoc Opus
Below, the painted saints remain, though darkened with age, battered and restored. So far as they can be identified, they seem to be bishops of Hexham or Lindisfarne, including Cuthbert bearing the head of St Oswald; but the names and regnal periods added later are often illegible aid probably misleading. In the vaulting above, the rich colour and gliding that once glowed in the light of many candles is similarly faded with age. Only when the screen is fully and harshly lit is some vestige of its original splendour apparent.
On the eastern side of the screen there was some widening of the loft about 1866, making a projecting balcony to accommodate a new organ, and the saints pictured there were rearranged. They include St John the Evangelist, St Oswald, St Etheldreda and St Andrew. Like all the paintings on the screen, they presumably date from the first quarter of the 16th century, and were still fresh and bright when the life of the Priory ended. With many other Abbey paintings, they were restored to something of their former brilliance during and after the 1950s.
Prior Smythson’s screen served as a Pulpitum and perhaps also as a Rood Screen. Whatever its purpose, we are fortunate that such an impressive structure survives from the last troubled days of the Priory.