Remember Me: Maidens’ Garlands by Mandy Pattullo

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Artist Mandy Pattullo is fearless when it comes to using genuinely old materials, such as quilts and clothing that she gathers, cuts up and picks apart.  In her art work, “Remember Me,” she fearlessly took over an entire church with her installation that remembers young people who died and are buried in the cemetery at Old St. Stephens Church, which is in North Yorkshire in England.

Like many artists, something she saw stayed with her for years, and she finally was able to come back to it and bring it to fruition.  The inspiration in this case was “Maiden Garlands,” an old funerary custom.  Pattullo explains on her website, 

“Maidens’ Garlands are a funerary memento for the death of a young chaste woman. They are also known as Virgin’s Crowns or Crants. The word Crant derives from the German “ kranz”, meaning wreath, garland or chaplet. The custom of hanging maidens’ garlands up in churches seems to have been common in the seventeenth, eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. It is even mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where at the burial of Ophelia”

‘…. She is allowed her virgin crants, her maiden strewments’.”

How did this project come about?  What did you want viewers to see, or feel, or know that they had not before?

It came about as I was doing a lot of concentrated work on my own local cemeteries and researching the Victorian funeral customs I discovered they gave out white gloves at the funerals of young girls. This seemed to lead to knowing about the garlands which historically had a white paper glove hanging from the centre. This was about throwing down the gauntlet to anyone who dared to question the girl’s virginity.

There are only three churches in England with garlands and I found about this one which was less than a couple of hours drive from home so visited and made contact with a local who knew all about them. She worked as a volunteer for the Churches Conservation Trust and had curated other exhibitions in the church and got permission for me.

I was very moved by the story of the garlands and the beauty of the empty church and really wanted to create something which drew visitor’s attention to the tradition and the garlands themselves. They are easy to miss as are locked up in an atrium at the back of the church and you could easily overlook them. I wanted to do an installation that put the girls back in the pews and made people aware of the mortality rates of that time due to poor public health and dangerous occupations.

I think the work really came together when I also decided to research the single young men buried in the graveyard and realized most of them had died at sea. The church sits on the cliff overlooking a dangerous part of the north sea. This type of exhibition is a vanity project and I only indulge in them when I really have something to say.

You made an amazing 50 pieces for the young girls who died, how did you choose the 50? Or was that every single young girl in the cemetery?

I decided that I would have to have a definition of maiden so I concentrated on the girls who died unmarried and were between the ages of 13 and 23.

I also concentrated on the late eighteenth and nineteenth century as that was the time the garlands were made. If I had looked at all single women then I might have had some quite old ladies and that didn’t fit in with my romantic notion. 

Since all the girl’s names were hand stitched I had to limit it in some way. Luckily there were good church records of burials so it was quite easy to find info.

I really love and appreciate this work, and yet it seems like this sensitive and beautiful work isn’t what other people want to talk about.  Is everyone just so afraid of death? And how did you come to be unafraid?

All of my work on this subject has been set in response to graves before 1900 so I do not have to deal with the sensitivity of living relatives who know the deceased.

The graveyards I have responded to are old and do not have new burials so they seemed a safe subject but I couldn’t do anything where burials are still taking place. I have known grief counselors and because of my age, many people who have suffered bereavement and on the whole, most people want to share their grief and talk about lost ones.

Is this an historic church? As in, not one with a current congregation? I couldn’t quite tell.

It is a church listed under The Churches Conservation Trust which tried to keep historic churches open even if they are not being used. There is no congregation or vicar and locals use the newer church down in the village.

You wrote on your blog of the display at Old Saint Stephens Church:  “Old work newly displayed. Hint to other textile artists – find spaces to exhibit which are not cold and damp.”

Was the work damaged? Or did it require some drying out afterward?

Much of my work is time worn and stained and in fact I go out of my way to find fabrics with mildew spots so if anything had got damaged it would have just added to the story of the fabric. The exhibition was in the summer and it did not rain so i was lucky but it was cold and damp when i was working there myself.

Most of my work is not about the polish on a finished display or product but my journey getting to that point. In some sense once I have made the work it becomes less precious to me.

All artwork and photographs are Copyright Mandy Pattullo 2011.  Reprinted with permission.

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