Jean Fouquet’s miniature of The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia was probably commissioned to celebrate the Saint’s feast day for the twelfth centennial of her martyrdom in 1449. It shows one of the earliest representations of the medieval scaffold stage. Even though its accuracy is arguable, it does provide an idea of medieval theatricality, staging and in some sense grisly realism; though it is likely that a dummy was used as a replacement for the real ‘actor’ or ‘actress’ for this torture scene of hair and teeth pulling!
The main action is shown to take place in front of the scaffold, but the elevated staging was used in medieval productions to show heaven, earth, hell and other relevant locations such as Mount Sinai or the Mount of Olives.
In Cailleau’s 1547 painting of the Valenciennes mystery play there is a multiple set arranged in a straight line. These individual structures represent buildings, from the castle of Hell and Limbo to the classical lines of the palace and the temple. To the right is a flooded area with a sailing boat possibly used as a ‘special effect’ and representing the Sea of Galilee; medieval plays were devised to be spectacles and so these special effects were employed frequently. At Mons, large barrels were placed on the roofs from which leaden pipes carried the waters of the Flood before they descended upon the stage and for the Transfiguration at Revello in 1483, a polished bowl was used to reflect the sun on to Christ’s white robes.
The Boonen sketch of a play in the market of Leuven in 1594 shows a more familiar view of a fixed stage.
However Van Asloot’s painting of The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella shows a procession of pageant wagons. A century earlier, Archdeacon Rogers had described the English pageant wagons as having a higher and a lower room, the lower “where they appareled themselves,” and the higher where they played. Each wagon in the procession usually told part of a biblical story, but at Brussels the procession was a series of tableaux with the performers all holding a pose.
In Brueghel’s Village Festival (1627) there is an elevated stage on which a man dressed as a monk kisses a buxom woman, while another man spies upon them; many of these makeshift stages were built on trestles or barrels and were constructed to be above the heads of the spectators. Some stages were surrounded by a protective barrier which served to shield the actors from angry spectators: in Florence in 1454 the actor playing the emperor Octavian was seized and flung down from his wagon by an apparently enraged German!
MJ Holman (@mishjholman)
The Cambridge Guide to Theatre
Victoria and Albert Museum