Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Norman carvings

Tucked away down the pretty narrow country lanes of Herefordshire, and close to the Welsh border is the remarkable little church of St.Mary & St.David, Kilpeck. It is home to the finest collection of Romanesque sculpture in England carved out of red sandstone. 
courtesy Philip Halling via wikipedia
Built in approximately 1140 it has survived almost intact and unaltered to the present day. 
Its sculptures somehow survived the iconoclasm of both the Reformation and the Civil War, and the interior escaped major Victorian renovations.
The magnificent south door showing the Tree of Life in the tympanum. Around this are two orders of arches, the inner arch being the earlier and more interesting. Some of the figures are from The Bestiary, a popular medieval guide in which real and mythical beasts are used to represent moral teachings. The right-hand pillar has a capital representing a Green Man figure.
Inner arch over the south door showing an angel and mythical beasts in the outer arch.
 The Green Man with leaves spewing from his mouth
Snakes, tail of one in the mouth of the other. This may represent new life since the snake is reborn by shedding its skin each year. The snake also represents healing through the virtues of it venom.
A Hound and a Hare.
The entire exterior roof line around the church is decorated with carved corbels, originally 89 in total. A few are missing, but most are intact and in excellent condition. It is generally presumed that they were intended to teach lessons to medieval man. Some were probably suggested by Hugh de Kilpeck founder of the church. Many seem to be simply entertaining or the ideas of the individual carvers.
The church is famous for its Sheela-na-gig, an 'exhibitionist' figure which can be seen on numerous other churches of the same period. Interpretations are many, and include: the unattractiveness of lust, a Celtic fertility symbol, or a goddess. 
Two heads from the interior of the nave - a Ram and a Lion.
An extraordinary ancient holy water stoup, with hands around a pregnant belly.This originally stood by the door, where worshippers would have ritually washed before entering the church. It is much older than the church and is even considered to be pre-Saxon.
all images via wikipedia

23 comments:

  1. Dear Rosemary,

    How wonderful that this church has survived intact! It would be very hard for me to visit and not touch all that great texture! I've always enjoyed how stone carvers would incorporate their own elements into such structures, often as little jokes. I remember that at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., one of the gargoyles is a woman with curlers in her hair. I have no doubt the stone carvers noticed such a person visiting the cathedral!

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    1. Dear Mark - I am sure that over the nearly 1000 years this carving has been stroked and touch so many times, and yet, it still remains almost as crisp as the day it was done.
      It is interesting to study gargoyles hard as you never know what you might find.
      I have noticed many of the new gargoyles that are added to the old cathedrals these days featuring their bishop or other notables are often wearing glasses, so you can easily pick them out.
      There is a naughty little elf with big ears in Lincoln Cathedral that children like to search for.
      Some of these quirky gargoyles would make an interesting post!

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  2. Hello Rosemary:
    We know Kilpeck well and visited many times when we lived in Herefordshire. One cannot help but feel the spirits rise when one is present in a place that has seen religious worship for so many centuries. And,as you say, it is so gloriously intact.

    Our favourite time to visit Kilpeck was in the winter when the church really did seem to be a bold and defiant structure in the barren wintry landscape. A brave monument indeed to the Almighty.

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    1. Sadly I have only visited once and it was in the summer time when the banks were covered in wildflowers. I would love to return sometime, but Jane and Lance, there is so much to see, and so little time to do it all.
      I can just picture how it must look in a winters landscape.
      I am pleased that this reminded you of your Herefordshire days.

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  3. It always amazes me that mixure of old nad new religion.
    I have seen it in some old Greek Orthodox churches too.
    Such an interesting place!

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    1. Dear Demie - It is a lovely and very old church, built nearly a 1000 years ago. However, it is young by the standards of the Greek temples. As you say it is interesting how so much in our Christian churches draws on our Celtic and Pagan past.

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  4. Amazing Romanesque architecture. The church of St.Mary and St. David, Kilpeck. So very well preserved. With its redstone carvings, the baptism font, the main entrance door..fascinating. No doubt, well worth a visit.

    The symbols of medieval carvings on churches never cease to amaze me. Here you have related some very interesting ones that are carved on the Kilpeck church Rosemary.
    The Sheela- na- gig, could that be celt ! Gales gaelic! for some bestial monster! The signs would have been a threat and a warning to those who strayed from the path of rightiosness. For the servants and farm workers and gentle folk of lesser education of that era ,showing the church as lord and master , that they must obey and observe and pray for forgiveness. This was a way in which it allowed the church to rule over the people for thousands of years. I believe thats how the countryfolk saw these symbols and the priests and monks would tell them they would turn into stone perhaps!! They became frightened and made up their folklore tales of long gone times, these mythical stories intertwined with "religion" passed down through the centuries.
    The mythical signs and meanings made into nightime tales.
    Maybe you could tell me more about "the green man figure"..
    Portuguese history has "Adam astor" as the monster rising from the deep at the cape of good hope..
    Loved this post Rosemary. You encourage me to learn more. So interesting.
    Thank you
    val

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    1. Dear Val - you raise a question that I cannot totally answer. The Sheela- na- gigs were thought to originate from France and Spain where they were carved in the 11th century. The motif eventually reached Britain and Ireland in the 12th century. Almost all of the surviving in situ Sheela- na- gigs are found in areas of Anglo-Norman conquest (12th century) whilst the areas which remained native Irish boast only a few which seems to support that they came with the invaders. I did not actually show the Sheela- na- gig on the post as it is rather lewd, and I did not want to offend anyone.
      Superficially the Green Man would appear to be pagan, perhaps a fertility figure, and yet he frequently appears in churches, some interpret him as a symbol of rebirth. The Green Man can take many forms, the three most common being The Foliate Head - the head is completely covered in green leaves. The Disgorging Head - spews out vegetation from its mouth, like the one I have shown, or the Bloodsucker Head - sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices. Green Women are extremely rare.
      Hope this answers some of your questions, and pleased that you are finding the posts sufficiently interesting to want to find out more. That is the best basis for learning.
      Thanks Val♥

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  5. Thank you, Rosemary, for this introduction to Kilpeck. A similar group of interesting Norman carvings survive at Barfreston Church, near where I grew up in East Kent, though they are carved from imported Caen stone. SheelaNaGig.org is a very good guide to THOSE strange primitive carvings, not too upsetting to the amateur antiquarian, I think.

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    1. Dear Nilly - thanks for that information about both Barfreston Church and the SheelaNaGig.org. I agree wholeheartedly with you, but I do not necessarily know the reaction of everyone.

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  6. Love the door with the arch. It looks older than 900 years, but that is already a big achievement.

    Greetings,
    Filip

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    1. Dear Filip - the door tympanum is really lovely. It is necessary to stand for a long while to take all of the details in. It is beautifully and richly carved.

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  7. Awesome architecture and fantastic photos! Thanks for sharing these.

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    1. Dear Marie - it is an amazing little church and hard to believe that it is so old. It is in beautiful countryside and a joy to visit.

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    1. Dear Jo- thank you for visiting and for becoming a follower. I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing the little church of St. Mary & St. David.

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  9. Thanks Rosemary for sharing this beautiful photo's of the church.

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    1. I was my pleasure to show the church to you Marijke - I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing it.

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  10. Rosemary, thanks to your fascinating post with its wonderfully detailed photos, Kilpeck is now on my must-visit list. I'd heard of it, of course, but nothing I'd read had whetted my appetite as your post has just done. I'm a mediaevalist through and through...

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    1. I hope that you do go Perpetua. I think that it would make a pleasant day trip from Wales in lovely countryside. How about taking a picnic or having a pub lunch and make it a grand day out?

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  11. The sandstone carvings are magnificent Rosemary. It is so humbling to think that whoever carved these articles would have no idea that over 800 year later it would still be the subject of discussion. How these details in the sandstone have not eroded more is even more incredible.

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    1. Dear Paul - I agree that it is strange that these sandstone carvings are still in wonderful condition. I always thought that red sandstone, in particular, was a softer stone and more prone to erosion. May be it is because they are in a relatively remote and untouched area of the country with no industrial pollution. I particularly like the hound and dog, they have such an appealing naivety to them

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  12. Mm one thing about britain - we may be a small island compared to the rest of the worlds mass but we have probably more ancient hidden historial gems mile for mile then any other country on the planet. This little church tucked away is a credit to the past fokendi and cheers cromwell for leaving it standing! I doubt the vikings would have been so appreciate if they had been on there rampage at the time.

    Stunning - diolch ta best
    Stef Cymru

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