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'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It remains a sad fact that so little romanesque sculpture remains in England. Its proliferation in France and Spain makes it easier to identify the meaning of individual images by the way they recur. The pilgrimage road sculpture sees many themes repeated.