Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Two Moments from the History of Dream Illumination

Perchance to better understand Drinfel'd upper half space

Marina Warner

In Stratford-upon-Avon, there stands a magnificent Gothic church that used to belong to the Guild of the Holy Cross and was once brightly painted with sacred narratives. In the chancel, the story of the Finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena unfolded on the walls; the sequence of dramatic, proto-cinematic scenes was copied from the woodcuts in William Caxton’s edition of The Golden Legend, not long after the book came out in 1480.

These colorful frescoed decorations presented lessons in Christian history in the form of entertaining and fantastic hagiography, and generally served as “sermons in stones.” They did not last long. During the reigns of Henry VIII, his son Edward VI, and his daughter Elizabeth, the English Reformation saw a series of edicts issued condemning superstition and idolatry and ordering the destruction of all instruments used to communicate the old, false worship. The guild was suppressed, and between January 1564 and February 1565, the account books record payments made for whitewashing the walls and selling off the church treasury—its vessels and embroidered vestments. The signature on these accounts is that of John Shakespeare, whose son William was born around this time. John had risen among the good burghers of Stratford to hold various positions in the town, and it was in his capacity as chamberlain of the new Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon that he authorized the payment of two shillings for “defasyng ymages in ye chapell” and a further two shillings for “takynge doune ye rood loft in ye Chapell.”

These were times of violent religious turmoil and they wrought a profound revolution in thought. One of the targets of the Reformers’ hatred was dream knowledge. Lady Macbeth speaks as a modern Protestant when she turns scornfully on her husband, wracked by hallucinations, and says: 

’Tis the eye of childhood,
That fears a painted devil.
(Act II, Scene 2)

At Stratford, the frescoes’ themes were particularly guilty of claiming reliability for dreams: the legend of the True Cross gives pride of place to Constantine’s vision of a blazing cross in the sky, carrying the message “In this sign you shall conquer,” and he did indeed go on to triumph at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and then declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Later in the story, his mother Helena also has a dream, telling her that she should hunt for the relics of the wood on which Christ was crucified; the frescoes represented her carrying out this mission. But the new austere Reformation’s regime opposed visions and portents and the cult of relics; it aimed to stop up all channels of knowledge that were not directly attested by scripture alone. Papist laxity over storytelling and visions carried a great danger: too much personal fantasy in action.

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