Sunday, 21 June 2015

Searching for a virgin in Norfolk - How to read a church

Well that was a weird weekend. No denying it. They don't get much more surreal than that. Today, much to my surprise, the Sunday Times ran a full page book review for the new Medieval Graffiti book in their culture section. 'Culture' might be pushing it a bit I feel - but they can be the judge of that. I'm not going to argue. All a bit of a shock really, particularly as the reviewer didn't pan it, and very, very unexpected. However, wonderful as the review was my thoughts have been completely elsewhere.
You see, the thing is, in the last couple of weeks two of my friends, both much older than myself, have suffered massive and life changing strokes. In the latest case, which only happened a couple of days ago, it is still touch and go. The first was a couple of weeks ago when Mike, or Captain Lynch as he is better known locally, was rushed into hospital. Mike is an old chum. A drinking buddy, teller of great (and sometimes tall) stories who has seen the world, done everything worth doing - and then told it afterwards exactly what he thought of it. Mike was a person who saw the world as a place of fascination - but not something to be taken too seriously. Mike survived the stroke - just - but things are going to be very different for him from now on; very different for his two sons and for all those around him. A tragedy. Then late last week I was told that Susan, another old friend, had also suffered a massive stroke - and that things were not looking good. Not good at all.
To describe Susan as an old friend is probably a bit of an overstatement if truth be told. She was a local publisher and historian who has been about just about all my adult life. She lives only a few miles away from me, and her son and I have grown up as friends together; grown older as friends. We have just always been around each other. Indeed, our children have now grown up together. His son and mine are only six months apart in age, have known each other quite literally since the day they were born -  and now go to the same school, share the same school bus, lifts to events and a mutual nervousness around members of the opposite sex. They have been mistaken for brothers, and sometimes bicker like an old married couple. So Susan has always just 'been there' - at every birthday party, school sports days and Christmas gathering. Quiet, clever and competent Susan.
However, in the last few days I have not been thinking about Susan the mother of my friend, or even Susan the grandmother, but actually Susan the local historian. You see, many years ago Susan wrote and published a slim volume entitled 'The Reformation in Norfolk Parish Churches'. It wasn't a massive work, and it certainly didn't have a massive print run, with the first 1000 copies being knocked out by Susan herself on her old letterpress printer - but it was an absolute gem of a book. It was written by someone who not only knew the churches she was writing about, but had actually trawled the archives, parish records and churchwardens accounts as well. It was, quite simply, a gem - and I bloody loved it! You see, despite its small size, it was just packed with information - and the information was put into the context of the reality of the Norfolk churches I knew. When she wrote about North Elmham church and the troubled churchwarden's accounts of the 16th century, I could walk along that very same nave and side aisles in my head, following their building works and repairs in my mind's eye. It was a first step towards learning that a church was far more than a jumble of architecture; that a church building was, like any written document, something that could be read and could be understood. You just had to look hard enough for the key.
I know. It does sound a bit odd. However, these days there are many and varied books you can buy that set out to teach you exactly that - how to read a church. Some are good. Some are a little bit dire. All are popular. But no matter the quality of the book, I am here to tell you that the real ability to read a church won't be found solely between the covers of a book. That might give inspiration and information, but the real key is to look, to dissect what you are seeing and to then assess each element as both individual parts and as a whole. Sounds complex? It isn't. In fact, here's one I made earlier...
Let's take a look at the west face of the tower of Fakenham church in north Norfolk. Why shouldn't we - it's a lovely church with some amazing carved and flint flushwork decoration. Okay, so Fakenham was voted Britain's most boring town for a couple of years running - but what the hell! We wear that as a badge of pride these days. The rest of the world appears to be having wayyyy too much excitement. Anyway, where was I? Ah, the church... The picture obviously only shows us a tiny section of the west face, but it is here, around the doorway, that the decoration is concentrated. Lovely isn't it...
What though can we deduce about the past of this church from looking at the decoration? What is it telling us. Well, the most obvious thing is the church's dedication. Fakenham church is dedicated to the Saints Peter and Paul - and everything outlined in the image in red relates directly to that dedication. The two empty image niches would once have held statues of the saint. Above the niches are two shields; one showing the crossed keys of St Peter and the other the crossed swords of St Paul. Running between the two shields is a long carved frieze made up of the crowned letter 'P' in a nicely lombardic style.
So far so good. All a wee bit straightforward actually. Childs-play you might say. Ah, but then things start to get a tiny bit more complex. Why not take a look at the two other shields - the ones marked in blue. Not easy to make out I'll grant you - I was using my phone and was in a rush to check out the reduced book sale inside - so I'll save you the trouble. On the left the shield shows the 'Instruments of the Passion' - the spear, nails, flail, etc all associated with the events of the crucifixion. The 'Instruments of the Passion' is actually a pretty common theme in East Anglian church decoration during the later Middle Ages. It smacks a little of the blood and gore that appears to attract religious devotion in the years after the Black Death. At the same time one of the images of the Virgin that begins to appear with increasing regularity is Our Lady of Pity. Not the comfortable image of the blessed Virgin holding a bouncy red-cheeked child, but a darker image of Our Lady with the body of the crucified Christ lying across her lap. Cheery. The shield on the right is a little easier to see - and appears to show the 'lions and lilies' of England; essentially the arms of the king. Except, in this case, I suspect that they have made a mistake! Whilst it would be perfectly legitimate for a church to display the royal arms I strongly suspect that these are not the arms that the parish asked for. You see, what most people don't know is that the town known today as Fakenham was actually once known as 'Fakenham Lancaster' - indicating that it was actually part of the powerful Duchy of Lancaster. The arms of the Duchy and the king are really rather similar (almost identical) and the town and church have no obviously royal connections. Conjecture I know - but I'm allowed the odd moment or two of whimsy.
Having dealt with most of the carved decoration we are left with only two other features - here outlined in yellow. Both were created using a technique known as flint flushwork - a building style that used the glossy dark surface of the black flints to infill around the pale carved stone, creating an almost two tone effect. The symbol on the right is a fairly obvious one that most church crawlers will instantly recognise - the crowned 'M', representing the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. What we would term a 'Marian' symbol, and one that turns up just about everywhere in just about every type of material. The symbol on the left is slightly less straightforward. It is usually regarded as a 'V V' symbol, supposedly representing the Latin prayer 'Virgo Virginum' (Virgin of Virgins), and is again considered a 'Marian' symbol. However, here at Fakenham, things may not be quite that simple. Firstly, if you peer closely at the screen (those of you looking at this on your phones may as well save yourself the trouble and just take my word for it) you will see that this particular example is very, very clearly not a conjoined 'V V' - but actually a very clear 'W'. Well that certainly throws things out slightly. Not entirely what might be expected. That is, until you remember exactly where we are. The town of Fakenham - only a bare few miles from the major medieval Marian shrine at Walsingham - and the last stop for many hundreds of thousands of pilgrims before they made the last effort to trudge northwards. Perhaps then this particular piece of decoration is actually a reference to the nearby shrine, balancing the reference to the Virgin on the other side of the tower? Perhaps indeed it is both - a reference to Walsingham AND a reference to 'Virgo Virginum'? A double edged decoration to honour the holy Virgin?

How much further can we take this story? How much more can we read in to this church? Is the great tracery window that sits above this decoration actually the work of the same master mason who created so many other works of art at this time in Norfolk? A man of such sublime skill that he has become known as the 'Wiveton Master', after the church on the coast that has few equals? That, you see, is one of the main things I have learnt from Susan and all the other local historians who have spent lifetimes studying our amazing, superb churches. That the story can always be taken a little further; that there is always more to discover. The problem though, as I have discovered for myself in these last few weeks, is that time is, apparently, always against us...

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