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

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