Norwich Cathedral has 1,000 roof bosses, more than any other cathedral in Christendom. They form an astonishing collection of late medieval sculpture.
They cover a huge variety of subjects and most of them tell a story. Here we have one of the greatest collections of Bible stories in stone, which runs the whole length of the Nave from creation to Doomsday. Alongside the lives of the saints you can also find mysterious Green Men peeping out of green foliage and fearsome grotesques. Here strange creatures, half beast half human lurk with intent.
Many of these bosses are likely to be ‘stone snapshots’ of the Mystery Plays that trundled through the streets of Norwich on the back of pageant carts. In these carvings you can see street players declaim the narratives, which have formed the Christian story. These bosses are a riot of imaginative invention where, as in contemporary manuscript illumination, a menagerie of beasts and birds prowl through a landscape of mystery. All of this provides us with a unique insight into the medieval psyche.
The roof bosses are an immense resource of information on how our ancestors viewed the world. They are carved with great sensitivity, reflecting an agrarian society of farmers and shepherds who related well to the Biblical world. The bosses reveal how different levels of society interacted. They did so with plenty of humour as popes and bishops tumble into the mouth of hell and washerwomen scold knavish thieves. Musicians and craftsmen, soldiery and fine ladies people the vaulting alongside dragons and acrobats, angels and unicorns. All of them have a story to tell as they display some of the finery for which the Middle Ages are famous.
The vaulting of the Nave, Transepts and Cloister are alive with the concerns and obsessions of a society, which was trying to make sense of plague, warfare, tempest and famine. They used the scriptures and the lives of the saints to interpret these events and have left us a unique insight into a world which was both colourful and calamitous but never dull.
The Nativity story as told through roof bosses
We have compiled a special Christmas Reflection using Norwich Cathedral roof bosses as our inspiration.
To find out more
We stock books, cards and replicas in our Gift Shop at the back of the Nave and online