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One of the Tring Tiles.

The Tring Tiles: Medieval Comics of Murder and Miracles in Jesus’ Childhood

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The Tring Tiles are a set of earthenware tiles associated with the Tring Church in Hertfordshire, England. The tiles date to the Late Medieval period and depict scenes of Jesus’ childhood as recorded in the apocryphal ‘infancy gospels’. Although there were probably more tiles in the set, it seems that only 10 tiles have survived till this day. Of the 10 remaining tiles, eight are exhibited in the British Museum, and the other two are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Making the Medieval Tiles

The origin of the Tring Tiles is unclear. Although generally accepted that the tiles were made in Tring, it is also possible that they were made in France, where the decorative technique, known as sgraffiato, was used to decorate tomb slabs. The name of this technique is derived from the Italian word graffiare, which means ‘to scratch’. This technique was first used to decorate ceramic objects during the 9th / 10th century AD in the Middle East, and later it spread westwards into Europe, especially to Italy and France.

Four of the Tring Tiles at the British Museum. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)

Four of the Tring Tiles at the British Museum. ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

To achieve the sgraffiato technique, the whole surface of a ceramic would first be coated with a layer of liquid white clay or slip. The outlines and internal details of the desired figures would then be cut into the slip with a stylus. Once this is completed, the background slip would be removed from the ceramic’s surface with a small gouge, thus leaving the drawn figures raised slightly above the ceramic’s surface. The entire process had to be done painstakingly by hand.

Dating the Tring Tiles

It is estimated that the Tring Tiles were made around 1330 and thermoluminescence dating that was performed on the tiles in the British Museum has shown that they were made between 500 and 800 years ago.

As for the images on the Tring Tiles, they represent scenes from the apocryphal ‘infancy gospels’, an example of which being the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This gospel may have been written in eastern Syria, with the oldest known manuscript dating to the 6th century AD. Several other manuscripts of the gospel have been dated to between the 14th and 16th centuries. These later manuscripts were written in Greek, unlike the earliest one, which was written in Syriac. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas provides an account of the miracles performed by Jesus before he reached the age of twelve .

Tile and drawing of the same, depicting an event from Jesus’ childhood. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)

Tile and drawing of the same, depicting an event from Jesus’ childhood. (CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

In a way, the stories are an attempt to fill the missing years of Jesus’ life, are based on pious imagination, and have a similar flavor to Hellenistic legends. In one of the tales recounted in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for instance, one of Jesus’ playmates falls down from the upper floor of a house, and dies. The parents of the dead boy accuse Jesus of killing their son, which he denies. As they did not believe him, Jesus goes to the dead boy, and asks him if he was the one who killed him. Immediately, the dead boy came back to life and answered that Jesus did not throw him from the upper story of the house, but raised him from the dead.

More Resurrection Stories

The resurrection of the dead by the child Jesus, like the tale in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, is a motif found in the Tring Tiles. In one of the tiles, for example, Jesus is depicted as killing a man who spoiled a pool he was making, but he later brings him back to life. In another, a boy jumps over Jesus’ shoulder and is killed. He too is shown in the next scene as being raised from the dead. Other motifs can also be seen in the Tring Tiles. For instance, there is a tile in which Jesus is shown with lion cubs, and another in which he blesses the attendees of a family feast.

Tring Tile showing Jesus with lion cubs. (Wendy Austin)

Tring Tile showing Jesus with lion cubs. ( Wendy Austin )

Experts believe that the Tring Tiles may have been part of a frieze, considering that the tiles appear unworn. At some point, the tiles were removed from the church and discarded. The tiles in the British Museum were discovered during building works carried out around the middle of the 19th century. The tiles changed ownership several times before being purchased by the British Museum for £1420 during the 1920s. The two tiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum, on the other hand, were presented by a Tring resident in 1927.

The two Tring Tiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The two Tring Tiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum. ( Victoria and Albert Museum )

Top image: One of the Tring Tiles. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

By Wu Mingren

References

Austin, W. n.d. The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at: https://tringhistory.tringlocalhistorymuseum.org.uk/Tiles/index.htm

Casey, M., 2007. The Fourteenth Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions. Available at: https://digital.kenyon.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1176&context=perejournal

James, M. R. (trans.), 1924. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas . Available at: http://gnosis.org/library/inftoma.htm

The British Museum, 2019. The Tring Tiles. Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=31633001&objectId=20765&partId=1

Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017. Tring Tiles. Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70759/tring-tiles-tile-unknown/

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