Being a romantic, I’ve always had an affinity for the Medieval through Renaissance periods of Britain; roughly between the 5th–17th centuries. Some really beautiful artwork can be found in catacombs and tombs in churches and abbeys, particularly in England, in the form of monumental brasses, which memorialize burials of important people of the day. Brass plates were often etched in effigies of the deceased and sometimes included relatives, pets, armor, status, even occupation of the individual. For historical or artistic value, many people have sought to copy some of these brasses onto paper. I decided I’d like to do that too.
Medieval brasses date back to as early as 1015 AD, I was told, but most of the ones that have survived through the ages are from the 14th century on up to the present day. Many were lost during the Bubonic Plague or Black Death beginning in 1347 AD, building and reconstruction projects, and destruction from wars throughout Europe. Although, the largest collections of brasses are in England, others can be found on the Continent.
Much information can be gleaned from these brasses, such as style and fashion, occupations and status, genealogy, heraldry, the history of armor and even ecclesiastical history. In fact, one could spend a lifetime studying this subject. For me, though, I was interested in learning the craft of rubbing and having a couple pieces of history in my home as mementos of my trip. I have a room with a 6½ʹ tall x 4ʹ wide medieval tapestry and I wanted a couple of brass rubbings for that room, as well.
I lived in Germany at the time and researched for several months to find brasses of the right ilk and then headed for England. Unfortunately, many of the really old brasses are not available anymore for rubbing, because they have been worn down over time, but replica brasses have been made, many of which are exact copies of the originals and are available for rubbing. There are also miniature brasses for those who don’t have time to rub a large one.
To make my rubbing, I used a special black rag paper, a gold metallic, hard wax block and a smaller pencil shaped wax tool, and masking tape to affix the paper to the brass. Many people have thought that making rubbings would be easy, just like coloring. But I can tell you, if you want a really good rubbing, it takes time and patience and sensitivity in one’s fingertips to feel through the paper to the raised areas of the design in order to know where the edges are. The weight of pressing down with the hard wax tool one uses to actually rub is tricky and the consistent direction one rubs makes for a neat and attractive finished product. Achy fingers are a given, before a brass rubbing is completed, I can assure you, but the finished product, for me, was well worth it.
I now have three framed brass rubbings. A small one, I rubbed myself, which is about 26ʺ tall x 10ʺ wide, and a pair, each 3½ʹ tall x 16ʺ wide, of Sir Roger Bellingham, d. 1544 and his wife Elizabeth, d.1500 from Kendal, Westmorland, England; my knight in shining armor and his lady.
If you are interested in learning more about brasses in England you may wish to visit The Monumental Brass Society online. My brass rubbing are below. I also have some grave stone rubbings that I made here in the U.S. Have you ever done any rubbings?
Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland.
Join her here each 11th of the month.