The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

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The Tring Tiles

Following a visit to the British Museum just over a week ago, I’m writing an occasional series of posts about some of the objects I saw there. Some of the posts will cover old ground, but I have new information to record.

The galleries in the British Museum are generally kept dark in order to protect the objects on display, so not all of the photographs are of good quality, but I’m hoping that my photographs will give you an idea of the size of the objects that you don’t get in ‘official’ photographs. I almost walked past an object I know well from photographs because it’s much tinier than I had been led to expect.

I was very excited when the first thing I saw in the gallery were some tiles. I love tiles and I was thrilled to see the Tring tiles in the flesh, as it were.

No one is quite sure where the Tring tiles originated. Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring, it’s not entirely certain that they came from Tring parish church which was renovated in the late nineteenth century. No one can quite work out why such an ordinary church would be decorated with such unusual tiles. They are decorations for walls rather than floor tiles.

The tiles are made using the ‘sgraffito’ method, which was mainly used in the early fourteenth century. The tile was covered in white slip. Slip is essentially watered-down clay, with a ratio of approximately 75% clay and 25% water. The design was cut into the slip and the unwanted slip was scraped away with a small tool. No other tiles made in this way have been found in England, although the technique was used in France.

These tiles date from about 1330 and tell apocryphal stories about the childhood of Christ, filling gaps in the Gospels with stories of him playing with friends and being chastised by his teacher.

The tiles are remnants of a larger group. They are associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was at its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the stories told on the tiles it’s the Virgin, not her son, who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe. It’s not immediately obvious, but the children with their legs in the air are dead. Both are restored by the Virgin.

The picture taking up both halves of a tile is the Wedding Feast at Cana, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry and, presumably, the end of his childhood.

There are some very good photographs of the tiles here.



Masterpieces: Medieval Art by James Robinson

Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors

14 responses to “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

  1. These are so cool, good link to the photos, I enjoyed looking around that site, I used to shop in Tring 😊 look forward to your other finds in the museum.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredible find in a shop. I imagine the owner was more than a little taken aback!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had read a story of the Apocrypha is which young Jesus, while learning to control His powers, accidentally kills a child. Mary, His mother, must intercede to restore the life. She teaches Jesus a lesson of tolerance and empathy, a lesson of life crucial to One being the Savior of the world!

    Jesus was portrayed as being something of a brat, and Mary was tasked with nurturing and teaching Him empathy. It was believed that humanity was her responsibility. An all-powerful God needed those lessons if He were to accomplish the duties of the Messiah. Understandable that this was not accepted as canon, along with other Apocryphal tales.

    But illiterate medieval people loved Bible stories, and with so much being word-of-mouth, much of the Apocrypha seemed to have the flavor of truth to them. They likely asked what happened during Jesus’ minority, besides the manger birth and the teaching of the elders. They, as we do today, wanted “the rest of the story”.

    Creating the tiles would assuage them & help sear the stories more deeply in their memories.

    I imagine peasant parishioners with a local priest, often barely literate himself. He spellbinds them as he points to each tile & embellishes the apocryphal story HE was told. Those peasants would bring their ensuing generations to view the tiles and share what THEY remembered.
    Doubtless, the stories might become fairly outlandish. I can imagine someone finally saying “Really? He sure doesn’t seem very Christ-like! I don’t believe it!”.

    When the cult of the Virgin ended,so did much of the belief of all apocryphal stories.

    Though I visited the British Museum, I never knew of the tiles. My chances of a return visit are pretty slim. Thank you for bringing these to out attention!
    Very much look forward to hearing more!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. I’ve never come across these particular stories and I wondered why some of the children died in them. I suppose that puts a different twist on the sequence and the miracle at Cana is simply the first miracle that went right. I find the idea of Jesus having to practise miracles quite odd, to say the least.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Unbound Roots

    So very interesting, April! I just love reading your posts because they are usually filled with history I have not heard before – just like these Tring tiles. They are beautiful and I love the stories they depict. How big are the tiles, April?

    Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Another informative post. What a thrill to see them in their true state.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Relief Tile from St Albans Abbey | A Writer's Perspective

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