Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The shining Button

To the church at Alton Priors, in Wiltshire. I tend to find that a deconsecrated church like this, cleared of the necessary human clutter for a congregation of service books, chairs, kneelers, notices, elderly harmoniums and the rest, a church pared back to the almost bare building, feels more contemplative and (if one were so minded) prayerful.

A trapdoor in the nave can be opened to reveal a large sarsen stone, apparently deliberately broken off at one end. This is a very old place of worship; the yew tree in the churchyard outside, divided by age into two splayed arboreal brackets, is supposed to be 1,700 years old itself.

This brass memorial plate by the altar is set above the tomb chest of William Button. He is depicted rising from the tomb, which, in the plate, bears on its lid these six lines of verse:

This was but one though taking roome for three
Religion, wisdome, hospitalitie.
But since heaven gate to enter by is straight
His fleashes burden here he left to wait
Till the last trump blowe open the wide gate
To give it entrance to the soule it’s mate.

The edge of the tomb reads ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’ I Cor. 15, and along the left edge, ‘It is sown a natural body’. Beneath this, his family coat of arms.

The angel top central is blowing the last trump through a trumpet which is also a key. This is labelled ‘The key of David’ [Revelations 3, 7]. A precatory roll emerges from the trumpet’s mouth, which reads ‘It is raised a spirituall Body 1. Cor. 15’ [verse 44], the second part of the verse with which the left tomb edge is labelled.

On the palm leaf he bears: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (again, 1 Corinthians, verse 54)

Top left, a grid-like design (probably meant to suggest a heavenly gate swinging wide open) with three suns and three phases of the moon is labelled ‘This is the gate [ ] the Lord’, and the corresponding section on the top right, ‘The righteous shall enter in at it’ (Psalm 118, verse 20).

Button is resurrecting with a full head of hair and a vigorous body, not as a 64 year old. He is probably meant to be 33. I especially like his glorified and radiant foot. Around his tomb, others are also rising from the grave, two very Blakean figures of men to the right, and another man, and a woman veiled by her loose hair, to the lower left.

The genealogical bit is on the front side of the tomb, which with its contracted forms expanded, reads:
“William Button Esq dying Anno domini MDLXXX (1590), Aet[atis suae] LXIIII (64) left by his wife Mary daughter to Sir William Kellwey Knight VI sons Ambrose Knight. William, who married Jane daughter to John Lambe of Coulston: John, Francis, Edward & Henry. II daughters. Dorothie married to John Drake of Mount Drake in the Countie of Devon Esq & Cecilie married to Sir John Mewys of Kingston in the Isle of Wight Knight.
Erected by Sir William Button knight Grand child to the first William and Sonne and heire to the latter, in pious memorie.”

There’s an ODNB life of the middle William, who purchased a Jacobean baronetage in 1621, and died in 1655. The writer of this life has the first Sir William Button dying in 1599, which I can’t explain. The third William Button, the grandchild who erected this tomb, was the subject of a funeral sermon in 1660, An antidote against immoderate sorrow for the death of our friends: taken from an assured hope of our resurrection to life and glory. Delivered in a sermon preached in the parish-church of North-Wraxall in Wiltshire, the 12th. of Aprill 1660. at the funeral of Sr William Button Baronet. By Francis Bayly his houshold chaplain. Either his chaplain could lie without shame, or he was a genuinely pious man as described. The monument to his grandfather must date to some time before he succeeded his father as baronet, though I am puzzled by the protocol here. But his father was a man who became an MP solely to stave off arrest for debt, so hardly likely to have been erecting elaborate monuments.

This funerary artefact is just like the title page of an early 17th century book: artistically unsophisticated, a visual object just about swamped by text, the power of the divine word; crowded with its simple meaning. The averted face of the resurrected subject seems an oddity of the handling (perhaps no one had any notion of how the first Sir William Button had looked decades before). Yet there’s something grand too: Sir William has his back on the world: his tomb opens, and the gate of heaven swings simultaneously wide. His transition will be as swift as, say, that of the soul in Donne, which ‘Dispatches in a minute all the way / Twixt heaven, and earth’.

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