Brass rubbings were once made on the actual ancient burial vault brasses of knights and nobility, done on paper using chalk or charcoal. This practice is centuries old, and eventually all that rubbing began to threaten the survival of the brasses, so copies were cast for the use of the public. The brass rubbing center at Westminster Abbey has a large selection of brass casts from which to choose. Down here in the bowels of the eight hundred year old cathedral, budding crypt artists can decide to copy knights, Medieval ladies, dragons, or, in my case, a Pieta.
From the main level of the abbey, down the ancient stone staircase you go. The rubbing studio is a long, narrow room near the cloisters of the Abbey. Here, one receives a sheet of thin, black tracing paper, a crayon-like rubbing tool (of gold, silver or brass color) and an invitation to select a replica brass plate to create your masterpiece.
One starts by taping the large piece of onion-skin-like tracing paper to the face of the brass plate, then carefully rubbing across the paper with the rubbing crayon held side down to the paper. After considerable rubbing with the crayon, you have a two dimensional copy of the brass, which, on black paper comes out looking like a photographic negative. The rubbing crayon transfers to the paper on the raised surfaces of the brass, leaving the depressed sections blank. Stroke by stroke, a haunting, almost vacuous, ghost-like image slowly takes shape
According to tradition, Westminster Abbey was first founded in 616 on the present site, and has been the royal coronation church since 1066. The floors, walls and crypt of the present structure, begun by Henry III in 1245, represent the final, permanent resting place of seventeen monarchs and, in the Poets Corner, dozens of Britain’s most notable writers. But legion are the evocative tracings that have fled the Abbey and are now treasures of pilgrims throughout the realm and the world as mementoes of this august place.