Meet the Main Character: Sarah Walker

I conducted an interview with the main character in The Stonemason’s Secret, Sarah Walker. During this question and answer session, she shares some of her background, how she developed an interest in art history, and why the medieval minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster are special to her.

Sarah is researching her dissertation for her PhD in Art History, with a specialization in the later Medieval and early Renaissance period. I spoke with her as she prepared to travel to England to study the medieval minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster.

Q. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. What is going on with you right now?

A. A bit. I’m packing for my research trip to England. I’m planning to be there most of the summer and in addition to clothes, I need to take my notes and computer and such. I’m trying to get it all in one bag, but it is a challenge.

Q. I bet it is. What are you doing on this trip?

A. My dissertation is on the medieval minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster. I am going to examine them in person, get measurements of them, and take photographs. I also plan to visit several churches in nearby villages for stylistic comparisons. I hope to have time to explore Beverley’s medieval sites as well as visit York.

Q. How did you choose the minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster for your research?

A. I visited England several years ago. I was married at the time and my husband was researching for his doctorate. On the recommendation of my advisor, we visited Beverley and the Minster. I wanted to see what was there that I might research for my dissertation. I had always been drawn to stained glass windows. I love the way sunlight comes through them, and repeats the colors on the stone interior, and hoped there would be medieval glass in the Minster. There is, but it was taken from what survived in the Minster and put in the Great East Window.

I went to the gift shop and picked up a booklet on the minstrel carvings, then walked around and looked at them. They are fascinating! I especially like the carvings along the north aisle arcades. They are all secular figures and are just above head height. Many figures have a jolly look on their faces, and though many have been restored, much of the original figures and their instruments remain.

It has taken me eight years to reach the point of being able to research them and I am excited to begin.

Q. What do you hope your research reveals?

Carving of angel playing a shawm in Beverley Minster central nave.

A. The big question I have is why the secular figures are there. There is another group in the central nave, and they are a combination of angels, elders, and minstrels, which makes sense because there were Easter plays in Beverley. This is much more common type of musician representation. Beverley was the headquarters of a guild of minstrels which could explain why they were represented. What I wonder is did the minstrels pay for the carvings, or were the stonemason’s instructed to carve figures and chose what was around them?

Q. Let’s go back a bit. How did you become interested in art history?

A. My parents loved the arts. They went to museums and galleries, as well as concerts, and as an only child, they usually took me with them. According to them, I was always interested in the art, curious about the stories behind them, and asking lots of questions. They answered what they could, and what they couldn’t, we’d look up in the encyclopedias at home or check the library.

Q. Sounds like a very encouraging upbringing. They must be excited about your upcoming research.

A. My parents were always hugely supportive of me and my dreams and goals. They were thrilled when I decided to pursue my PhD and were often the first people I presented my research to. Then they were both killed in a car crash a few years ago. I think about them every day and wish they were here so I could share what I find with them.

Q. No doubt your courses and research take up much of your time, but do you have any hobbies or things you enjoy in your downtime?

A. When I’m not in a museum or library, I like to be outside. I walk, hike, and swim. I will be house-sitting for several weeks while in England, and part of my duties will be taking care of the garden. For downtime, I work on puzzles of all sorts: crossword, Sudoku, cryptograms, and jigsaw. Of course, I read a lot of history for my research and I enjoy reading fiction for fun, especially a good mystery. Keeps my brain working but in a different way.

Q. What are your plans after you finish your dissertation?

A. To successfully defend it and graduate! While I’m writing it, I hope to get an instructor’s position so I can begin teaching again. I enjoyed teaching as a Teaching Assistant during grad school and look forward to being able to share more of what I learn. Once I graduate, I hope to get a tenure-track position.

Thank you, Sarah, for your time in answering these questions. Good luck in England! I look forward to hearing what you discover during your research.

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