Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Codford St Peter, Wiltshire - wild speculations

When we visited Codford St Peter recently, I drew more than the font. The church is home to an amazing Anglo-Saxon carving. There's a series of photos on Rex Harris's Flickr site. The stone seems to depict a light-footed chap with a hammer(?) in one hand and a branch in the other.

In the church leaflet, there was mention of the designs on the stone. It's like the stone is only half of what it was, it's like a slab from the front of something. The sides are clearly only part of a design. I copied the design and have made a mirror image of it to make a speculative whole. I'm not that convinced I've got it right. But you can see some things reminiscent of the winding plant-like tendrils we've seen at places like Ramsbury.

I feel reasonably happy that these are winding floral designs. I mean you can't see any otters, can you. Or fish. Or eels. I think you'd need a good imagination. So we were surprised when we read that the stone allegedly depicts such things (this was in the information leaflet in the church).

I tracked down the source of these speculations. It's the 1967 (v52) edition of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society journal, in an article by K G Forbes. I'm sure Mr or Ms Forbes meant well but I think they got carried away. And I think it's a bit of a shame that they keep getting quoted in things. They said the main figure has 'a luxuriant moustache'. We looked very hard (you can too). There is no moustache. There really isn't. And I don't think there's an otter either.

I think when you draw something you look very hard and it helps you see what's there and what is not, even when the carvings are worn and indistinct. The plants look symbolic or stylised to me and I don't think it's possible to say they're specifically alders or comfrey, or that the fish (what fish) are actually dace. But never mind. I'm not trying to be awkward, or cast aspersions on Mr/Ms Forbes. I'm just trying to point out that you should try to think for yourself, and not believe everything you read. Making close observations, as when drawing, kind of gives you a boost in confidence that your own observations may be right.

Images © Rhiannon 2014

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dragons and Wyverns

It cannot be said that I'm totally wasting my time dashing all over the place, because I am actually learning a thing or two. For example, here we have my previously visited tympanum from Harnhill.

I've been reading John Vinycomb's 'Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art', which you can download from Project Gutenberg. And so my previous confusion about our reptilian friend's lack of back legs is explained - he's not a dragon, he's a wyvern. Wyverns only have two legs and a nice tapering tail. There's even something called a lindworm which doesn't have any legs at all, but it can have optional wings, which probably makes up for the limblessness a bit.

I had childishly found it quite amusing that St Michael appeared to be wearing one of my dreadful school uniform skirts, unflatteringly flared and knee length. But, it turns out this is also totally deliberate. It suggests Michael is an Archangel. I think it's a bit of a management position if you're an angel.

Here's the relevant bit from the bible. It's from Revelation, which is a particularly Imaginative book if I recall correctly.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

So in this case, 'dragon' has rather negative connotations, it represents evil and bad behaviour, and various other saints can be found poking or standing on the creatures - St Margaret, St Andrew, St Sylvester - and St George of course.

But when you're British, you know it's not all black and white like this. Dragons have their positive connotations too. It's interesting to look at how dragons were viewed in the era when the tympanum was carved. Check out the wyverns on the Bayeux tapestry - they're right by the bit you may be familiar with, where Harold has got an arrow in the eye. There's a wider image here in which you can see the red wyvern being held up, and a lighter one being trampled. These excellent (perhaps hollow) banners were those of the Saxon army. So the Saxons obviously viewed dragons positively. Perhaps when I've seen dragonlike creatures on carvings like that at Colerne, it shows that they weren't all evil and naughty at all.

Dragon banner - Harold Rex interfectus est

Of course, the dragon is famous today for being on the Welsh flag. And this connection with the Celts can be proved to go back to 800 AD, since an allegorical tale of red and white dragons can be found in the Historia Brittanum (look at section 42 ). The dragons represent the native peoples and the Saxon incomers. Of course, it's possible (nay, likely) that dragons were important symbolically before this too.

To add to confusion, the Normans seem to have seen themselves as dragons too - there is a 12th century poem by Stephen of Rouen called Draco Normannicus.

And much later on, Henry VIIth, the first Tudor king, had a dragon as one of his emblems, because he was trying to convince everyone he was the right man for the job, ruling over both England and Wales. He claimed uninterrupted descent from the Princes of Britain - people (or legendary figures) like King Arthur and Cadwallader.

So in short, everyone likes to have the dragon as their symbol. And that is because dragons are excellent, and not just symbols of evil and badness. Anyone who has been brought up on Ivor the Engine and little Idris must agree.

saint and wyvern image © Rhiannon 2014

Monday, 9 June 2014

Chew Stoke, North-East Somerset

These two carvings are in the north wall of the graveyard of St Andrew's church. I only found out about them the other day, from the South West Corpus. I picked away quite a bit of newly grown ivy off one (it wasn't stuck fast) and cut back a bit of the hedge. They're thought to be early 10th century.

 With such worn stones, it's a particular kind of drawing enjoyment, because to begin with your resistant brain tells you there's nothing to draw. But as you work from one area to another, some sense begins to emerge, and that's satisfying to a primate brain. It also feels something like a process of recording. Yes there will be craftily lit photos in the Corpus book (and you can see photos in a 1938 volume of the Antiquaries Journal, albeit the wrong way up!). But there are things you can't get from mere looking, I think. There is something special about the process of drawing that helps you understand what the pattern is.

Both stones have had a hole put in them at some point. With the patterns quite faint, that doesn't help with interpretation. While I was drawing the one above, I knew there was something that didn't add up about the right hand side - (literally) too many ends not tying up. But now I'm refining the drawing at home, maybe it makes more sense. I think they just loop together where the hole now is. It's a large design and some of the ribbon is rather wide - in fact I thought I could see a border on one bit (rather than just a line down the middle) and that makes me wonder if a snakey creature is involved somehow. It's obviously not one of those neat symmetrical knotwork patterns. So perhaps it's more like something at Ramsbury.

This is the stone that's on the right of the doorway. It was very hard to make out anything but the basic shapes - there were only a couple of places where it was clear if anything was going over or under anything else. There are some clear spirals though and the two club-shaped foliage shapes. Maybe there was a cross in a circle in the top corner or maybe that was my imagination. It's pretty elaborate and seems rather different to the other Anglo-Saxon stones I've seen so far?

Images © Rhiannon 2014

Chelwood, North-East Somerset

This font is in St Leonard's church, Chelwood.

Fat font with scallops, scallopy circle and volutes

Another angle of the chunky square font

The more I look at these sketches, the more problems of dodgy perspective I can see. But they're only on-the-spot drawings so I'm not going to beat myself up too much. I think I've got something of the font's chunkiness. The nice little spirally scrolls at the corners are called volutes. In Codford St Mary we saw some much bigger ones on some columns, and they had an animal-eye effect. But these didn't really.

 Images © Rhiannon 2014

Twerton, Bath, North-East Somerset

These large-fanged creatures are in the porch of St Michael and All Angels, Twerton. 
The two creatures bite down with wrinkled noses on the columns

A drawing that shows the arch and its diamonds and inscription: "This is none other but the house of god and this is the gate of heaven"

There's a photo of the real thing on the Proud of Twerton website. The presumably Victorian inscription (the door was moved in the 19th century) is from Genesis 28:17.

 Images © Rhiannon 2014