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Newsletter, April 2003 (Issue 151)

Our Lady of Ipswich


It is just over a year since I first saw the Madonna of Ipswich in the home of sculptor, Robert Mellamphy. Like most local people I had admired the bronze half-scale replica which has graced Lady Lane since 1990 and located near the site of the original Chapel of Our Lady of Grace.

In its time this shrine was almost as important as Walsingham. Large numbers of pilgrims visited the chapel including Henry VIII in 1527, Catherine of Aragon in 1517 and Anne Boleyn. Wolsey's attempt to lead an annual procession on 8 September 1528 to celebrate the birthday of the Blessed Virgin was famously curtailed by rain. As a result of the Reformation the chapel was dissolved and the original wooden statue sent to Chelsea to be burned. It is believed that it was rescued by sailors and eventually ended up in Nettuno on the west coast of Italy, south of Rome. Some four hundred years later this was the scene of the bombardment of Anzio in World War 11, as a direct result of which she was taken to Rome for safe keeping. On her return she was placed in a church in Nettuno dedicated to Our Lady of the Graces. Each April the statue is carried in procession from her present home to her original church of St John, a distance of about a mile along the seafront. The men who carry the statue are known as guardian-bearers and this revered honour is passed down from father to son.

Robert Mellamphy was bom in Ireland and trained at Crawford College of Art and Technology in Cork. He joined the RAF and travelled the world as an aircraft engineer. He was based at Wattisham when he retired from the Air Force in 1953. He married and settled in Suffolk. He went on to gain a degree in Set Design and Animation and he maintains his connection with Cork as a member of the National Sculpture Factory. He uses a wide range of media and art forms combining a passion for detail with huge imagination. An enthusiasm for local history is clearly his inspiration as illustrated in his painted relief of Sutton Hoo, his tiny scale models of medieval Ipswich and his sculptures. Two of his paintings were accepted by the Royal Academy.

Thanks to Dr Maire Heley, current President of Meryemana (formerly the Guild of Our Lady of Ipswich), I was able to contact Robert Mellamphy. The Guild was the body which commissioned the project. Mellamphy was at pains to point out that the statue was much more to him than an art project. It is obvious that the work was carried out in a spirit of faith in which he sees his role as that of catalyst. In 1984 Stanley Smith, author of the definitive account of Our Lady of Ipswich, approached Mellamphy on behalf of the Guild with a view to creating a replica of the statue in Nettuno. This resulted in a visit to Nettuno which lasted several weeks in the autumn of that year. During this time Mellamphy took meticulous measurements and photographs of the original oak statue, having gained the co-operation and encouragement of the Mayor and Church officials. He has vivid memories of this period. Few people had ever had access to the statue apart from the stalwart guardian-bearers as she is positioned high up in the sanctuary above and behind the high altar.

The result of his dedication is this beautiful serene precise replica in English oak. There is, however, an extra personal element not visible from the front view. Delicate carvings have been worked on the back depicting some of the events in the story of the Madonna of Ipswich. Closer scrutiny reveals the figures of Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn forming a part of this historical narrative.

On 10 September 2002 Our Lady of Ipswich was "re-established" in her new home in the ancient church of St Mary at the Elms. The service of consecration was led by Father Haley Dosser in the presence of representatives of other denominations and Muslims. Those present included the Right Reverend Bishop Richard Lewis, the Episcopal Visitor The Right Reverend Bishop Keith Newton, Mgr Peter Leeming, Father Andrew Phillips, Rev Elizabeth Bellamy and Elahe Mojdehi. Also civic dignitaries were present led by the Mayor, Councillor Richard Risebrow. It was a truly ecumenical occasion and a cause for great celebration. Happily, this medieval church, on the site of an even earlier church of St Saviour, is the nearest to the original shrine in Lady Lane.

DIANA LEWIS

    Front cover of issue 151 Cover, issue 151

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