Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Breamore, Hampshire

By now our sixth sense navigating skills were in the ascendant. Considering the amount of Anglo-Saxon awesomeness here, we should have homed straight in on it. Painted scenes in the high porch, long and short quoin stones outside, a big central tower, and inside, a superb time-travel-portal style doorway with writing over it. An Anglo Saxon inscription - how unusual is that? Very unusual, I can tell you.

The arch is in the lovely green stone that we've seen further north around Salisbury. And the imposts have big chunky twisty rope carving, like a delicious barleysugar, in a softly coloured honeyish stone. It's very nice.

Behind the arch were two long velvety red curtains which picked out the paint in the lettering. This was also rather good.

The writing is said to say 'Here the covenant is manifested to thee'. So listen up and stop staring at the stonework.

Here's the rood in the porch. It's been grievously hacked about, no doubt during the Reformation, when religious nuttery got in the way of aesthetic and cultural appreciation. But look at those bright colours, they're scarcely believable, especially the vivid light blue.

Now the trouble is, those arms are in a very particular, arched, formation. And of course looking at this we were instantly reminded of the rood at Langford in the Cotswolds. There I'd been so certain that the arms had been put back wrong when the rood was moved to the front of the porch, because Jesus's thumbs were on wrong. But here we have the same position as the one I considered 'wrong'. So I really don't know what to think now.

On the sides within the porch are more paintings. Here's what's believably Judas hanging from a tree. You can see his feet dangling for sure. And you can see the roots of the tree. So I guess that bright blue colour was once green. But there's not much else to be discerned other than his coat.

The interesting Painted Church website says that this painting is probably 15th century. And mentions, interestingly, that Judas doesn't hang himself in the bible. In modern internet talk, it's not canon. The way Judas goes in the bible actually seems more ripe for gorey illustrations. It's Acts 1 v18: "Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out." Gross.

I also have to show you the Breamore Lamb of God. Or is it a Dachshund of God. Sadly also hacked? Which seems a bit unfair and extreme.

Landford, Hampshire

It's hopeless to be without an OS map: you can drive up and down the long road in Landford repeatedly and have no idea where you're supposed to be going. We stopped at a new-fangled pub which had a desperate atmosphere. But I needed the loo and a fizzy drink. My dear sister took the opportunity to ask about the church. She doesn't care about looking mad and religious when there's a carving at stake. The directions were curious but we figured it out in the end. Landford's church is nowhere near the obvious Landford. We should have known.

It didn't look promising as it looked rather new (well, Victorian new). But its position high up above Landford did seem promising. I've now read that the church was rebuilt in 1858. It does seem that there was a rather obsessive Thing for doing this to old churches. I'm sure a lot of it was unnecessary vandalism - it's not that they were restoring what was there, but totally trashing it a lot of the time. I raged a bit when we found the door was locked, because it stopped us seeing what we'd come all this way to see.

This was to be a stone "2ft 6in by 1ft 6in, and has sculptured upon it the figures of two priests in full canonicals, with maniples at the wrist, supporting between them a Cross.  The stone is perforated with holes, each an inch square, about 8 in number" (to quote from the link). In the old church the stone was at one time in the foundation at the SE corner of the chancel. Then it was moved above the north doorway. But when the new church was built, it was moved back inside.

You can see a big photo on the CRSBI website, but here's another version, taken by Trish Steel. I feel like we're treading in her footsteps this trip.

CC image on Geograph
The stone doesn't look riddled with eight holes any more? Maybe it got trimmed. It's evidently two people clutching a cross. It's very like the sort of cross a Lamb of God might clutch (or rather, balance delicately on its foot). But beyond that? The CRSBI site suggests one figure is Jesus 'because he has a nimbus', but I reckon both of them have got that, it's not a Jesus-exclusive. Also suggested is St Helena and Friend. She is said to have dug up the True Cross, a bit like a female Indiana Jones, and because there were two other crosses there as well she tested them out on some dead/sick people and only the True one perked them up. A bit like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when there were all those different grails to pick from. But I think those figures have beards perhaps. So probably not St Helena if so.

Anyway. We didn't see it. But there were a couple of pretty nice Norman capitals at the door outside. So I drew one of them.

Minstead, Hampshire

B and I were both truly appalled by the outcome of the referendum, and hoped that our long-awaited trip out would soften the blow a bit. I decided we would go a bit further afield than normal and see something really good. So we made it over the border into Hampshire and found ourselves among the massive oaktrees and soothing greenness of the New Forest.

Naturally I'd not packed the right map, and it didn't help that at the edge of Minstead the road was unaccountably shut. We took a pleasant but fruitless walk into the village and spent our lunch ranting about the referendum on the picturesque green. A detouring drive later we finally made it to the church (Minstead is much longer than you expect when you've not got an OS map).

The church presents a very strange higgledy-piggledy prospect.

Minstead church, CC image by Trish Steel
In retrospect I think it also looked strange to me because it's brick, and we're used to our quarry being in older-looking stone churches. Once inside we found there was even another added room to the south. But I didn't even explore, because the font had been spotted. And It Was Good.

The Minstead font is chunky and four-sided and replete with excellently bold carving. As you'd expect, there was some explanation in the church about what the carvings are, and what they represent.

CC image by Maigheach-gheal
  But I like to prevent brain contamination, and try to have a look and a think before finding out how others have interpreted them. We've seen a lot of fonts now (though not enough as intriguing as this) and it's interesting to see if there are any familiar patterns or motifs.

That doesn't necessarily help interpretation I suppose, as I don't share the cultural environment of a Norman stone carver (fonts our speciality. ask for our latest offers). But I can recognise a few things - like the lovely Lamb of God. It's always so jauntily portrayed in the Norman era. And despite some suggestions in the church that this font is Saxon... don't be deceived. Victorians used to say stuff like that because they thought such carving was "primitive" and so must be earlier. Maybe it was the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution. But we know Saxon carvings aren't like this at all - they're twirly and knotworked. Never mind.

I liked the lamb's long body, stretched out a bit to match the shape of the font. But the animal's identity was instantly recognisable by its bent back foreleg.

Perhaps it's surprising that we haven't seen more LoGs on fonts, because they're very apt. It seems that the phrase "LAMB OF GOD" appears only twice in the bible, both in ch.1 of St John's gospel. This seems a shame as it's got a ring to it (though symbolic lambs do appear elsewhere). John is baptising people and he spots and recognises Jesus because he's got a pigeon on his head. Or at least, it does say he saw "the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon [Jesus]." And so John goes, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world".

Likewise, and according to this amusingly-written blog, Life in the Middle Ages,  baptism washed away your own sins. People tended to get baptised when they were adults, because it meant you could get the maximum number of sins dealt with in one go, rather than doing it young and then having to confess a lot. But note that you had to get it done or you'd be going to HELL. No-one wants that.

But onto the other sides. Which are considerably more peculiar to the modern eye.

Well the blurb in the church suggested this side had eagles and a tree, and related it to OT Ezekiel 17. Well, maybe. The text has two eagles in it, they've planted a plant and they're hoping it's going to grow. It's a riddle, an allegory for something that's happening (it says this at the start of the chapter). But it doesn't seem to have anything to do with baptism. It seems a bit of a random passage. I feel very sceptical.

What's more, I am quite sure that these birds have two heads. This doesn't help much because the double-headed bird / eagle is a very old symbol and a scout about the internet doesn't help at all about its meaning or origins. But there we are. That's what I saw. The thing in the middle could be anything. It's not particularly planty. You could even see it as a figure. I dunno.

Next up, the Cheshire Cat. With not one, but two un-catlike headless bodies below. Not convincingly attached to the catface in any way. There are no cats in the bible apparently. But we've definitely seen enough Norman catfaces to know a catface when we see one. We saw a lovely cat on the font at Stottesdon. Cats have gained a bit of a reputation for consorting with witches and being a bit evil. (When I catch the pair that have been crapping on our lawn there is going to be trouble). Who wants something evil looking at you when you're getting baptised? It seems a bit weird.  Lullington has cats on its amazing font and also carvings of creatures with two bodies and a shared head. The one at Avening is also strikingly similar. But the latter are on corners, to make a bit of an optical illusion. The carving on the Minstead font is flat and rather different. (The suggestion in the church, relating it to Isaiah 11.6 is, I'm afraid, first class piffle, and I think you'll agree). The animals have got lovely poised legs though, and fit nicely into the shape available.

Finally the side that faces you on entering the church. The suggestion in the church says 'Our Lord's Baptism'. Although you will recall John wrote about the pigeon etc, he somehow forgot to mention Jesus's baptism. But the other evangelists fill in. (It amused me that the Wikipedia page about this says 'This article is about the historical event. For other uses, please see...'). As you may read  it's a similar story though - a dove descends and a loud voice (God, that is) says 'You are my Son'. There's an excellent illustration in this 14th century psalter. John the Baptist is applying talcum powder I assume.

Disgracefully borrowed from the Morgan Library. I apologise.

Now does that fit with what we can see... I don't think it does. I'm not even convinced that's a person being dunked. You can see wiggly lines that could be water. But there's only four wiggly lines - shouldn't they be limbs? Jesus wasn't a baby when he was baptised. And that middle figure would have to be holding the poor child by its ear. It is without doubt, confusing. I wonder if he's just pouring water out of a vessel. Hm.

The figure on the left could be wearing a gown with floppy sleeves (not unlike those on the font at Chirton). Or is it an angel with wings? The one in the centre holds a staff with a cross. And the one on the right.. is that a towel? (Here, have a towel. thanks). It's a funny shape whatever it is. And is that a wing? Or a shield?

I'm none the wiser. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

The church leaflet says the Rector's gardener, Henry Abbott, was doing a bit of digging in the late 19th century, when he found the font buried in the shrub bed. Perhaps it was buried to protect it from the idiotic iconoclasts of the reformation. But it has returned victorious! And was given a new pedestal in 1893. Hoorah.