Monumental brasses are memorials for a deceased person or persons and consist of two parts: an engraved plate of metal (brass) containing the memorial, and the stone slab in which it was set (casement). Brasses were set into indents cut into the casement, and usually consist of an inscription, often with an effigy of the deceased or another memorial subject such as a cross or a shield.
The first monumental brasses appeared during the early thirteenth century in continental Europe and were widely used in England and Europe from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. Incised stone slabs are similar memorials engraved directly into a stone slab and were used from the late eleventh to seventeenth centuries.
Brass rubbings are reproductions on paper of monumental brasses or incised slabs made by laying a piece of paper over the brass and rubbing the paper with a drawing medium, usually a black wax heelball, to create a detailed negative image of the original brass. There was a revival of interest in monumental brasses and incised slabs in the mid-nineteenth century, and rubbing brasses became a popular activity. Information about making rubbings is provided by the Monumental Brass Society.
The importance of brasses as a contemporary historical resource for medieval research was also recognised at this time, as was the fact that some brasses had become damaged or destroyed. The Oxford Architectural and Historical Society (now the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society), attempted to record and preserve these memorials by building up a large collection of rubbings made by their members, mainly between the 1840s to 1910s. This collection is now held by the Ashmolean and forms a major part of the museum’s holdings of brass rubbings.
The Ashmolean’s collection of brass rubbings centre on the monumental brasses from Oxfordshire (1015 rubbings), but also contains rubbings of brasses from around Britain and in Europe. The collection also contains 86 rubbings of incised stone slabs. There is a searchable database of the collection - Brass Rubbing Collection Online.
Monumental brasses and inscribed stone slabs provide a rich source of historical information on subjects such as style and fashion, occupations and status, families, heraldry, and imagery and its meanings. Find out more about what brasses and rubbings can reveal:
Photograph of the monumental brass of Isabella, wife of William Cheyne dated 1485 in St Andrew's Church, Blickling, Norfolk.
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