I don’t know about you, but when I think about Methodism, the first thing that springs to mind is a horse skeleton, am I right?
One lesser-known form of British folk art are the painted horse vertebra from the 18th to early 20th centuries. These cervical vertebrae were commonly painted to resemble John Wesley, preacher and founder of Methodism. Once painted, the vertebrae look like rotund little preachers, arms thrown high in salutation, his robes spread wide behind him.
Some people believe that these vertebrae were made by devotees to Methodism, who wanted a strange likeness of Wesley in their households. According to the John Rylands Library in Manchester, ‘it might have been that Wesley was so popular that demand outstripped supply and his devotees had to use whatever they could.’
However, it is far more likely that these early examples were objects of satire and mockery and were displayed in pubs. As a slight against Methodist doctrine, booze-lovers would frequently dunk (or display) these effigies in ale, as a ritualistic two fingered salute to the temperance movement and anti-alcohol doctrine that Wesley preached to vehemently.
In the 19th century, the Methodist church was synonymous with the temperance movement, being a campaign for total abstinence from alcohol, accompanied with commensurate religious fervour. The Methodist church today stands by this campaign, stating ‘Strong drink was cheap, and many suffered. By encouraging and helping people to abstain, many lives were improved.’The 1987 Methodist Conference Report on Alcohol, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ suggests that Methodists ‘consider seriously the claims of total abstinence’ and ‘make a personal commitment either to total abstinence or to responsible drinking.’While you’ll probably not find a Methodist in a gutter outside a Wetherspoons pub at midnight, the dogmatic fire and brimstone approach of years gone by has abated considerably.
Predominantly found in Staffordshire, examples of Wesleyan vertebrae are now found in museum collections across the country, but not with particularly enlightening information beside them.
Later versions of painted vertebrae have been made in far greater numbers, and are sometimes thought to be made from a cow or ox bones. By the late 19th century, these painted bones don’t depict specific individuals, but are painted as general cartoon likenesses of clergy. Once again, they were probably made and displayed as a means of gently mocking the church, rather than an object of devotion.
Sadly, little research appears to have been undertaken on the clergy bones, so until such work is done, they remain curios in regional museums and unshakable mental images, reeled out at dinner parties you can’t wait to leave.
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