Sunday, November 23, 2008


Some summer photos on a cold day. Roses bushes like fruit trees I collected at one time, but my garden has become neglected this year, though both the rose and the fruit trees produce their crops...... The rose for me is a beautiful flower in shape colour and form, you can even buy its scent as tea rose at our herb shop in Bath, its strong smell of crushed stem reminding you of summer, along with the scent of lavender....

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lockeridge sarsens

Apple pie neat cottage with perfect thatched roof

Moss prowling around

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Winterbourne Monkton

The photographs above may be an extraordinary juxtaposition, but the female figure on the W/M font has certain similarities with the pose of the Indian goddess Kali, our W/M female is almost dancing.

The story of Kali is complex, in that she represents many things, she is seen as standing on her husband with a chain of skulls round her neck, she is a personification of everything, not necessarily war though her role is often depicted as such, but someone who overcomes and triumphs over the physical and spiritual aspects of life. She can also be seen as a mother goddess, a long line that stretches through the neolithic to present times, from the Willendorf figure to Gaia, she is a representation of female power.

In the Christian faith misygony set in, women's role became secondary, from the 'Fall of Adam' the stories that were to evolve round women, tend to see them as either 'good' or 'bad', and it is from here that we have the rather grotesque figure of sheela n gigs developing, a warning against the sins of the flesh.
Some would argue though that these sheelas come from the Celtic trinity goddess tradition of mother, maiden and crone and it is from this source that the figure of Kali can be seen, an all powerful female, this is possibly relevant given an Irish context.
Also it must not be forgotten that our Norman medieval overlords and sculptors came from a different background, they had seen exotic statutary abroad, and sometimes this shows in their stone carving. tThe now destroyed church of Shobdon in Herefordshire has a very eastern Christ on one of the tympanum, his slender arm raised in a blessing, the legs exaggeratedly splayed apart with the vertical folds of his robe falling between. Shobdon's imagery is seen to come from Byzantium art.
To return to our mysterious figure on the W/F, she does'nt quite fall into the sheela-n-gig fold, there are other christian stone depictions of 'dancing women' , one to be found on the Kilpeck church, though in this case it is a man and a woman dancing. The church would have probably seen dancing as a sin, and to quote Romilly Allen here;
"Let them praise his name in the dance; let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.... the extravagance of the attitude, however, suggests that dancing is intended to be symbolic of those worldy pleasures and vices against which the church has always protested"

And it is here that the interpretation must be understood, the dance is a vice, another temptation to be averted, the sculpture has been freely interpreted on the font - the descent into hell that the font represents is here pictured in this figure.
The church itself harbours another strange aspect, this is the great prehistoric stone in the churchyard, said to be a capstone from the Millbarrow, a 19th century vicar had it laid to rest on his grave, and this rather strange gesture suggests to the modern eye that paganism still lurks somewhat quietly beneath a Christian heart. Can we follow this train of thought, to the fact that the Winterbourne Monkton church is also named after Mary Magdalene, seen by some as a fallen women, though her character explored here....
gives two sides to her nature. Of course, now we can come back to the figure on the font and see a parallel with Mary Magdalene, a doctrinal misogyny carried through the centuries, or perhaps that is just in the imagination.
And what of the colouring of the font, the red stain on the ‘window’ decoration below, the blue of the Norman zig-zag, are we looking at water here, and if so is the water representative of the Winterbourne river that flows through this settlement. Are not ideas beginning to come together, do we not see the sacred nature of water reflected both in the font and the figure thereon.
The Winterbourne flowing into the Kennet, at that special spot the Swallowhead Spring, a goddess begins to reflect back to us, are we peering dimly into a Bronze age past where the goddess ruled here at the spring, fed by a 'magical' river that disappeared over the summer. Can we interpret our figure as a fertility/mother goddess, for that is one of Kali’s roles.
Imaginative stories weaving in and out of each other, the medieval brain interpreting old gospels, old bestiaries and a pagan past that lay like a thin veil over the landscape. We know that the medieval peasant never quite gave up his fascination with superstition and pagan ways, the ritual of fairs echoing the old celtic seasonal festivals, how do we trace the mindset of people many centuries ago. As the carver took up his chisel what was he thinking about, his mind awash with images of the bible, did he heark back to an earlier age, the stories of the poor people, or did he listen to his Norman overlords as they set down their wishes for the new churches......

The prehistoric stone said to have come from the Millbarrow

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Japanese Mosses

The Moss 'Saiho-ji ' Temple - Kokedera

All though this photo is beautiful and is a reminder of the soft downy nature of moss, and also the person who sent it, it needs a poem; hunting for the book Cherry Tree by Geoffrey Grigson the book has seemingly disappeared, but perhaps one by Edward Thomas will suffice, for it echoes the bleakness of autumn ...................

Up on the Downs

Up on the downs the red-eyed kestrels hover,
Eyeing the grass.
The field-mouse flits like a shadow into cover
As their shadows pass.

Men are burning the gorse on the down's shoulder;
A drift of smoke
Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,
And the lungs choke.

Once the tribe did thus on the downs, on these downs burning
Men in the frame,
Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
And the gods came.

And today on the downs, in the wind, the hawks, the grasses,
In blood and air,
Something passes me and cries as it passes.
On the chalk downland bare.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mary Magdalene and Winterbourne Monkton Church

This is a preamble for a later blog on the font at Winterbourne Monkton, decorated as it is in Norman style, but with an elaborate, what many think of as a 'sheela-n-gig' figure on the font, though it does not conform to what we think of as the 'standard' version of this somewhat lewd figure.

The naming of the church to St.Mary Magdalene is somewhat odd given the depiction on the font, and the fact that the church's name can only be traced back to the 18th century.

Mary Magdalene is the Mary that knelt at the foot of the cross on which Jesus hung, she is the first person to see him come from the cave tomb, and is the woman forgiven and blessed by Jesus for her 'seven sins'. She is revered by the Catholic church as a saint and also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, but she is also depicted as a 'fallen woman' and a prostitute in some later versions of the story. Medieval paintings depict her in this role, long flowing hair and an air of wantoness.

She is venerated at the church of Ste.Madeleine Basilica at Vezelay and this magnificient church is perhaps amongst the finest decorated churches in France, see here for a taste of its beautiful west door....

Mary Magdalen's French history, or at least myth, has it that she travelled to Provence, and became a hermit in a cave for 30 years, where she died, and her 'relics' were then transferred to the abbey at Vezelay. All this information can be found in the following Wikipedia article..... It will be noted that in the churches named after this saint there are only a few in England, and therefore Winterbourne Monkton stands out, with its near proximity to prehistoric Avebury...

Preambles can get outdated, but reading round the subject has not brought me much further, though on reading Romilly Allen's The Christian Bestiary, I have come a little nearer to understanding the fertile imagination of the Norman mind in the little tales that are told round the fonts in our medieval churches. Animals play a part in the stories of the bibles, but because the bestiaries were copied again and again, the animals begin to become very whimsical and distorted in interpretation.
Both the W/M and Avebury figures have long faces, and the arms of the female on W/M almost Indian like in their gestures, reminding you of Kali. Dancing women, like dragons have been depicted in sculpture as evil, and probably point to the rather sinful pastime of dancing and enjoying that the church abhored, so maybe we have a dancing person.
A strong feeling that I get from studying the photo that the figure was added at a later date, its arms and some lines on the body correspondent with the patterning on either side.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Is it possible to overlap Christianity against paganism, a difficult construct when so much of Christianity is overlaid on top of a pagan past. The long view of the priests that strove to overcome and subjugate the minds of their congregations, what devils were they fighting in their own minds. The fabric of the churches themselves, are adorned with all manner of frightening warnings to the people who attended them, or perhaps we should see them as works of art and drama , but what is there to make of such visual exuberance of stone sculpture to be found when the Normans conquered England and settled down to creating their castles and churches, were they looking back to the beautiful carved stones of the Saxons, who also in their graceful curvilinear designs imitated the Celtic knotwork so extraordinary complex and intricate, such design patterns can readily be ascertained in the Norman church at Kilpeck.

Visions of hell may be a more apt description, gargoyles leer down at us, occasionally grotesque sheela na gigs, worn away by time, warn of sexual sin, dragons twine decorously around in stone sculptures subdued by bishops. We have many messages reaching out to us in the stories told round a Norman doorway’s arch. There will be bible stories, angels reaching down to give a helping hand to heaven as sinners climb the ladders, and there will be those visual explicit ‘hell’ warnings should not the medieval peasant comply with the priests wishes.

One of the finest stone decorated churches in the country is Kilpeck Church built by a wealthy Norman nobleman, its workmanship attributed to The Herefordshire School of Romanesque sculpture....
"Their work draws on a variety of cultural sources for its religious and mystical images; Norman military figures, Saxon animals and Celtic abstract patterns combine to create a unique and beautiful synthesis"

First of all we come to dragons and the Tree of Life, the snaking foliage that we find in the font at Avebury; a quote from the “Book of Bestiaries”

“The perindens is a tree found in India; the fruit of this tree is very sweet pleasant, and doves delight in feeding on it. The dragon which is the enemy of doves, fears the tree, because of the shade in which the doves rests, and it can approach neither the tree or its shadow. If the shadow of the tree falls to the west, the dragon flies to the east, and if the shadow is in the east, the dragon flies to the west. If it finds a dove outside the shadow of the tree it kills it. The tree is God, the shadow Jesus Christ”...

So here we have a tale told from an old 6th century book of dragons and trees translated into a Christian doctrine, and then transcribed through the storytelling of stone sculpture to an illiterate congregation of medieval worshippers. We are tracing stories of other religions through the mythology of the Christian faith. How the various sculptors interpreted them was left to individual choice one might presume, but the bishop or abbot that controlled the outlying churches would lay down the template of design.

Avebury Church font

Here we have the bishop with crozier standing on two dragons, this is the pictorial reference to the story, twining foliage echoes the curve of the dragon's wing and body. The decoration underneath is intersecting blind arcading, similar to Malmesbury Abbey ....’ It’s rare and ornate south porch which relates Bible stories in stone carving is reckoned on being the finest example in Britain. It’s graceful west face of interlaced arcading is beautifully preserved as is the entire south front, the direction from which most visitors will approach.’’
The 'bishop', stands in a short pleated skirt, no legs are on display, his body folds abruptly into the arcading below, the crozier is not held, it rests against a piece of foliage, and the figure seems to be holding a cup in the right hand with a staff in the left. The dragons are graceful creature, long and lean, with a row of dots down the body, their wings fan out and the tail curves gracefully.
The whole of the sculptured work is well executed and fine, the face of the bishop is of course missing, this presumably due to the Puritan element in the 17th century, and it is well to note that Avebury was a hive of dissenters during this century.

The fleur de ley motif can be traced in the extravagant use of foliage decoration.

Black and white detail

The Book of Beast; T.H.White;
ref; The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture by Malcolm Thurlby. Logaston Press

Tailpiece; the 'alien' priory on the site of the manor house, taken from an earlier blog;

"It is recorded however that there was a small 'alien' priory at Avebury, with only two monks, though the fact that there is only two 'proper' monks there might obscure the fact that their may have been lay monks and servants, and in their accounts they seemed to have owned 750 sheep, which would mean that they had plenty of land. The priory seems to have been where the manor house is now.These monks came from Rouen, and were from the Benedictine Order, but the fascinating thing is, that their Mother house was founded on a pagan site, presumably a Gallic settlement with a temple.

"The abbey of Saint Georges de Boscherville is located in Saint Martin de Boscherville, near Rouen. Boscherville was a pagan place of worship at the end of the first century AD. Abandoned in the third century, the first temple was converted into a funeral chapel in the seventh century probably dedicated to Saint George'.....

There had been a long going dispute between the Parish church and the Priory at Avebury about tithes and land, the parish church belonging to Cirencester Abbey, and eventually the priory seems to have disappeared. It is interesting to note that Cirencester Abbey, also had a long line of continuity from Roman times, Cirencester was one of the four principal towns, and the abbey, so it is said, was founded on one the earliest Saxon churches.
Tracing the Norman connection through the two French monks from Rouen, is part of the story, but what is interesting in Avebury's case as well, is that the priest Reinbold is mentioned as holding the church at Avebury in the Domesday Book, he also held the church at Pewsey. This Norman priest seemed to have been one of the favourites in the king's court.
The font, as can be noticed in the coloured photograph has traces of cream paint which must have covered it at one stage. The Winterbourne Monkton font also had traces of paint, in this case red and blue, finely trapped in the crevices. Paint can only be dated by the experts, but the cream on the Avebury font suggests a later date, whilst the coloured W/M font seems to suggest a medieval date.

Further note; There is perhaps one more thing to be explained, and that is the baptismal use of fonts, and why they have such frightening depictions on them. To understand this you must go back to the early times of the church to the time when the Roman rite was introduced to this country in the 6th century.. Bede writes in the 8th century....

'Only the piety of the faithful knows that a sinner descends into the font, and a purified person comes up; that a child of death descends, and a child of the resurrection comes up; that a child of original sin descends and a child of god comes up'

The font is seen as a descent into hell, with the grace of immersion in cleansing water to redeem the sinner, that is why an unbaptised newborn child in the medieval period would be buried outside the graveyard as 'unshriven'.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Last of the Bears


23th of January 1892,
the last of the bears [= Behrs] at this place;
this tumulus,
just as the bears spared it,
so you spare it too!