Medieval treasure hidden from King’s eyes will light up Yorkshire church with Christmas story

A nativity scene with a difference will soon take centre stage at a church in Yorkshire when a rare Medieval panel found hidden under the floor 160 years ago is mounted in a museum standard steel case on its walls.

Fundraising by local people and a grant from Allchurches Trust mean that the 15th Century alabaster panel depicting the Christmas story in St Wilfrid’s Church in Burnsall, North Yorkshire will now be protected from theft, as well as being displayed in all of its glory for the congregation and the 2000 annual visitors to enjoy.

Some 160 years ago, workmen who were restoring St Wilfrid’s church discovered a brightly coloured carved panel under the church floor. Further investigation showed that this was made of alabaster and depicted the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ or three kings, who, in the bible story, visited the infant Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem shortly after his birth. On exposure to the air, however, much of the gold and coloured paint peeled off.

The panel is likely to have been deliberately hidden under the floor in the time of King Edward VI, when many religious objects were being destroyed. This unique piece of medieval art is thought to have been made in the workshop of Newtons at York in about 1430. The panel was mounted in an oak frame and placed on the wall in the north side chapel near to where it was found.

One of St Wilfrid’s church wardens, John Townend, said: “The scheme to protect this rare survivor is a tribute to the medieval craftsmen of York who made the panel and to the local workmen of 160 years ago who discovered it and recognised its value.

“A few years ago, our church council was alerted to the historic value of this rare surviving piece of medieval art and urged to protect it for future generations. A great deal of options were considered, including the possibility of placing the panel in York Minster, where it would be in safe hands.

“Expert conservationists were consulted and it was decided that panel should be kept where it belonged in Burnsall Church but that it should be protected with a museum standard case and its appearance improved by including LED lighting.

“Thanks to the generosity of local people and a grant from Allchurches Trust, enough money has now been raised to carry out the project.”

With the Church of England Diocese of Leeds having approved the plans, work is now due to start in the New Year - exactly 160 years since the carving was unearthed in 1859.

St Wilfrid’s Church at Burnsall is currently being redecorated and is not open to the public. The work to protect the panel is due to be completed early in 2019 when visitors will again have access and be able to see the medieval treasure in its new display case. A booklet describing the story of how it was made and how it came to survive the destruction of such artefacts in the 16th century will also be produced.

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