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Preambles can get outdated, but reading round the subject has not brought me much further, though on reading Romilly Allen's The Christian Bestiary, I have come a little nearer to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.

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