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Digital technology allows fragile and rare medieval wax sculptures to be displayed for the first time

Digital technology is allowing fragile and rare medieval wax figures hidden for hundreds of years to be displayed for the first time. People sought cures for their own health problems – and those of their cows, pigs and horses – by hanging the wax figures of body parts on the tombs of saints. Visitors to holy shrines purchased the religious offerings and routinely left them near the burial places of notable religious figures.

The Reformation meant the practice ended, and almost all of the wax figures disappeared or were destroyed. But now 3D images have been made of the only examples left in England and possibly Northern Europe. Nine of the largest and most complete figures have been scanned using equipment at the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Laboratory. This will allow reproductions to be made, and the public to use the image to explore the marvellously detailed figures using digital technology.

The 1,000 figures – shaped to look like horned cattle, pigs, horses, arms, legs, heads, hands, fingers, rings, feet, a foot in a pointed shoe and a complete female figure – were hidden in Exeter Cathedral for hundreds of years.

The wax figures were hung on the tomb of the Bishop of Exeter, Edmund Lacy, who died in 1455 at his palace at Chudleigh and was buried in the north aisle of the choir of Exeter Cathedral. He suffered with health problems, and after he died worshippers thought praying to him would cure them of illness. He never became a saint, but pilgrims hung or placed the wax figurines to aid prayers for better health or fortune.

The reformation meant the practice of hanging wax figures on the tombs of saints ended, and many were also destroyed. Somehow, at a time unknown, the figures offered to Bishop Lacy were put out of sight, at the top of his tomb, in a wide open joint of the masonry. They were only discovered – found wrapped in a bundle – at the cathedral in September 1943, when the building was being inspected for bomb damage following an air raid in May 1942. The wax artefacts were found together with splinters of stone, oyster shells, slaked lime and broken pieces of glass.

The figures are now kept in climate-controlled conditions and looked after by staff at the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives.

Professor Philip Schwyzer and Dr Naomi Howell, from the University of Exeter, are leading the project to scan and reproduce the largest and most complete figures as part of a research project examining how people in the past marked death and burial. They have been assisted by staff at the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Laboratory and staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

Professor Schwyzer said: “It is extraordinary that these figures have survived. These are the only examples of their kind in England, and possibly Northern Europe. Wax is not a substance made to last, so many of the figures in other places would have been melted down intentionally, or destroyed because of the passage of time.

“For 400 years these figures were kept safe accidently. But many are broken and they are incredibly fragile, so it is impossible for most people to see or touch them. There has never been a way of displaying them. Scanning nine of the largest pieces will allow them to be seen closely for the first time – both on screen and when 3D models are made.”

“There are examples of surviving figures in Italy and France, but in most Protestant countries they are gone forever, perished. Perhaps somebody hid these figures because they thought there would be a time when England was Catholic again. It is puzzling to see how so many people wanted to pray for their animals – does this show a sentimental attachment or just a concern about livelihood.”

The digitisation of our hidden treasures is an exciting part of our ambition to open up inaccessible parts of the Cathedral and its collections

Laurence Blyth, Marketing Manager at Exeter Cathedral, said: “The digitisation of our hidden treasures is an exciting part of our ambition to open up inaccessible parts of the Cathedral and its collections. We are beginning to invest in digital platforms that will include the delivery of virtual reality and augmented reality interpretation as part of the four-year, European-funded VISTA-AR project, together with a new Cathedral website.”

One 3D image can be found here.