The rood screen (also choir screen or chancel screen) is a common feature in late medieval parish church architecture. It is typically an ornate screen, constructed of wood, stone or wrought iron. It divides the chancel (the area with the main altar in a church) from the nave (the main part of the church for the congregation). In English, Scots and Welsh cathedral, monastic and collegiate churches, there were commonly two transverse screens, with a rood screen or rood beam being located one bay west of the pulpitum screen, but this double arrangement nowhere survives complete, and accordingly the preserved pulpitum in such churches is sometimes referred to as a 'rood screen'. At Wells Cathedral the medieval arrangement was restored in the 20th Century, with the medieval strainer arch supporting a rood, placed in front of the pulpitum and organ.
Rood screens can be found in churches in many parts of Europe: the German word for one is Lettner; the French jubé; and the Dutch doksaal. However, in Catholic countries they have generally been removed, following the introduction of the Tridentine Mass at the Counter-reformation; and accordingly they survive in much greater numbers in Anglican and Lutheran churches. The iconostasis is a more elaborate development of this partition in Eastern Christian churches.
The word rood is derived from the Saxon word rood or rode, meaning "cross". The rood screen is so called because it was surmounted by the Rood itself, a large figure of the crucified Christ, Commonly, to either side of the Rood, there stood supporting statues of saints, normally Mary and St John, in an arrangement comparable to the Deesis always found in the centre of an Orthodox iconostasis (which uses John the Baptist instead of the Apostle, and a Pantokrator instead of a Crucifixion).
Latterly the Rood tended to rise above a narrow loft (called the "rood loft"), which could be substantial enough to be used as a singing gallery; but whose main purpose was to hold candles to light the rood itself. The panels and uprights of the screen did not support the loft, which instead rested on a substantial transverse beam called the "rood beam" or "candle beam". Access was via a rood stair set into the piers supporting the chancel arch. In parish churches, the space between the rood beam and the chancel arch was commonly filled by a boarded or lath and plaster tympanum, set immediately behind the rood figures and painted with a representation of the doom or last judgement.
During the 40 days of "Lent" the rood was obscured by the "Lenten Veil", a large hanging suspended by stays from hooks set into the chancel arch; in such a way that it could be dropped abruptly to the ground on Palm Sunday, at the reading of Matthew 27:51 when the Veil of the Temple is torn asunder.
The carving or construction of the rood screen often includes latticework, which mades it possible to see through the screen partially from the nave into the chancel. The term "chancel" itself derives from the Latin word cancelli meaning "lattice".
The rood screen was a physical and symbolic barrier, separating the chancel, the domain of the clergy, from the nave where lay people gathered to worship. It was also a means of seeing; often it was solid only to waist height and richly decorated with pictures of saints and angels. Concealment and revelation were part of the mediaeval Mass. When kneeling, the congregation could not see the priest, but might do so through the upper part of the screen, when he elevated the Host on Sundays. In some churches, 'squints' (holes in the screen) would ensure that everyone could see the elevation, as seeing the bread made flesh was significant for the congregation.
Moreover, while Sunday Masses were very important, there were also weekday services which were celebrated at secondary altars in front of the screen (such as the "Jesus altar", erected for the worship of the Holy Name, a popular dedication in mediaeval times) which thus became the backdrop to the celebration of the Mass. The Rood itself provided a focus for worship according to the medieval Use of Sarum, most especially in Holy Week, when worship was highly elaborate. During Lent the Rood was veiled; on Palm Sunday it was revealed before the procession of palms and the congregation knelt before it. The whole Passion story would then be read from the Rood loft, at the foot of the crucifix by three priests.
At the Reformation, the Reformers sought to destroy abused images i.e. statues and paintings which had been the focus of adoration or worship. Thus not a single mediaeval Rood survives in Britain. They were removed as a result of the 1547 Injunctions of Edward VI (some to be restored when Mary came to the throne and removed again under Elizabeth). Of original rood lofts, also considered suspect due to their association with superstitious veneration, very few are left; two surviving examples in Wales being at the ancient churches in Llanengan and Llanegryn. The rood screens themselves were sometimes demolished or cut down in height, but more commonly remained with their painted figures whitewashed and overpainted with religious texts. Tympanums too were whitewashed.
In the century following the English Reformation newly built Anglican churches were invariably fitted with chancel screens, which served the purpose of differentiating a separate space in the chancel for communicants at Holy Communion, as was required in the newly adopted Book of Common Prayer.,. In effect, these chancel screens were rood screens without a surmounting loft or crucifix, and examples survive at St John Leeds and at Foremark. New screens were also erected in many medieval churches where they had been destroyed at the Reformation, as at Cartmel Priory and Abbey Dore. From the early 17th Century it became normal for screens or tympanums to carry the Royal Arms of England, good examples of which survive in two of the London churches of Sir Christopher Wren, and also at Derby Cathedral. However, Wren's design for the church of St James, Piccadilly of 1684 dispensed with a full chancel screen, and this auditory church plan was widely adopted as a model for new churches from then on. In the 18th and 19th centuries hundreds of surviving medieval screens were removed altogether; today, in many British churches, the rood stair (which formerly given access to the rood loft) is often the only remaining trace of the former rood loft and screen.
In the 19th Century, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin campaigned for the re-introduction of rood screens into Catholic church architecture; and his screens survive in Macclesfield and Cheadle, Staffordshire; though others have been removed. In Anglican churches, under the influence of the Cambridge Camden Society, many medieval screens were restored; though until the 20th century, generally without roods or with only a plain cross rather than a crucifix. A nearly complete restoration can be seen at Eye, Suffolk, where the rood screen dates from 1480. Its missing rood loft was reconstructed by Sir Ninian Comper in 1925, complete with a Rood and figures of saints and angels, and gives a good impression of how a full rood group might have appeared in a mediaeval English church - except that the former tympanum has not been replaced. Indeed because tympanums, repainted with the Royal Arms, were erroneously considered post-medieval, they were almost all removed in the course of 19th century restorations. The 19th century Tractarians, however, tended to prefer churches where the chancel was distinguished from the nave only by steps and a low gated screen wall as at All Saints, Margaret Street, so as not to obscure the congregation's view of the altar; and this arrangement was adopted for almost all new Anglican churches of the period.