Thursday, 8 November 2018

Messing about in church: the sublime AND the ridiculous

North west Norfolk. You tend not to expect too much from churches in this small corner of the county. There are undeniably some real masterpieces, and a good number of truly pleasant churches, but the closer you tend to get to the Sandringham estate the more likely it appears that the churches will have been heavily restored. Restored to death. Like Sandringham church itself, they suffer almost from too much attention. Too many well meaning restorations. Too much money lavished on the gilding and stained glass. They almost glow in the dark, and in many of them even the most modest medieval survivals are a bit of a novelty.

I am sure that it was - and is - all very well meant, with many dozens of private benefactors spending vast wads of cash purely to glorify God etc. I am also sure that it is entirely a coincidence that it largely only takes place in these few churches clustered around the Queen's Sandringham estate, and not in the many hundreds of other churches across the county. Churches that would be only too grateful to accept a hefty donation or two, in the hope of keeping the rain from entering through the roof, or replacing an ageing bell frame. Instead this small pocket of churches does seem to have rather a large proportion of the country's gilding on show. Quite possibly the country's.

It is therefore a really quite refreshing change to walk into a church like Wolferton, only a stone's throw (gilded stones are optional) from the Sandringham estate. The outside of the church is typical of this area of the county, with liberal use of the gingerbread coloured carrstone, and the well tended churchyard that just begs to be visited by royalty. It all feels just remarkably 'neat'. It is therefore a wee bit of a surprise to wander in through the porch and find a church that still has so much of its medieval past on show - amongst which are some truly remarkable items.
Wolferton. The repainted doom. Just put down the paintbrush, and step away from the wall with your hands where I can see them...

Admittedly the church has been restored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's, and many may find some of the Victorian fittings a little heavy and cumbersome. The church may also be the perfect lesson in exactly why you shouldn't let early restorers of medieval wall paintings actually try their hand at full restoration, and the repainted Doom above the chancel arch is truly a sight to behold - if not entirely for all the right reasons. However, even this has a certain charm, having been recreated so many decades ago that now, as the colours begin to fade a little, it doesn't even feel 'too' out of place. Okay, it does - but I'm trying to be nice here. Even the Victorian font cover is a fairly good pastiche attempt at recreating a medieval marvel, and if you don't look too closely it really has a charm of its own. You might have to squint a bit.

However, as restorations go, I have seen far, far worse. They may have 'embellished' - and how they did love that word - but they didn't feel the need to create a clean slate upon which to build. What was of value from earlier times they tended to leave alone, or at least repair as best they could. A few things may well have been embellished, but not overly so.
The true secrets of this church take a little time to discover, and most are concealed in the woodwork. Close examination of the carved timbers in the roof is a good way to while away half an hour, and although there has been much restoration done even here, it has been done sympathetically and with a certain style. The timber screens though are what the guidebooks will direct you to examine - and rightly so. In the chancel arch are the remains of what was once a very fine fifteenth century rood screen, with the painted figures of saints - now sadly bedraggled - still clear to make out. To the north of this is another very fine fifteenth century parclose screen, that once separated off the east end of the north aisle as a separate chapel. The carving is still crisp and clear even after more than half a millennia, and although the pigment has now all but gone, it still feels an imposing sight as the sunbeams highlight the intricate carvings.

Wolferton. South aisle parclose screen.

However, in my eyes, the real hidden gem of this church lies not in the north aisle, but to the south. Here can be found yet another parclose screen, that separates the eastern end of this aisle off to form yet another chapel. Although the church records suggest that the man who created this chapel died in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the screen was already well over a century old by that time. It's exact date is unknown, but the style of decoration and carving would suggest the middle two quarters of the fourteenth century - a fifty year span bitterly and irrevocably divided by the terrible destruction and human decay known today as the Black Death. My own feeling is that it sits in the two decades after the coming of the pestilence; when church decoration and manuscript illustration reacted to the near destruction of the known world with an outburst of ingenuity, humour, quirkiness and, upon occasion, elements of downright blasphemy.

Wolferton parclose screen detail.

And that is what is captured in this screen. A moment in time - when a resigned population took stock of what God had sent their way, and what the church had failed to protect them from, and carved, painted and gilded their own reactions to events in the very fabric of the church itself. A stark irreverence combined with open elements of humour and parody. Fat friars and stupid priests, lecherous monks and harlot nuns, green men and grotesque beasts - all thrust into the very body of the church. Gone is the quiet reverence, and instead flows out a stream of self expression that obliquely questions the very structure of the church and the society in which they lived.

Wolferton. Laughter and misery?

All of this is captured in the parclose screen at Wolferton, in minute detail, but you have to look for it - and once you start to see it you simply can't stop. The more you stare at the screen, and its truly exquisite and tiny carvings, the more you become aware that the screen itself - or at least the dozens of leering faces that are hidden away in its decoration - are staring right back at you. Tiny imps carved into the head rail, green men with protruding tongues where ball-flowers might usually rest, leering grotesques of faces peering through the tracery. The screen is alive with a vibrant community of tiny faces. A chubby cheeked man rolls his eyes and pulls a face high up on the screen, whilst a near neighbour side-eyes the grinning demon carved a few inches to the right of him. It is the world made small, and a canvas for a wood carvers caricatures. It is, in my own humble opinion, a masterpiece - and the craftsman or craftswoman who made it a complete genius.

Wolferton. Parclose screen detail.

Exactly who they were we will probably never know, as no records relating to the screens construction survive. They are lost to us. I have only seen one other screen that is, without question, the work of the same craftsman - and that is to be found over thirty-five miles away in the south aisle of Mattishall church. It too is a work of art, but it lacks the humour and humanity of the carvings at Wolferton. For me the person who carved this screen is someone I'd really like to get to know. Someone I'd be happy to spend some time with. They were, in my own humble opinion, a wee bit good.

Wolferton. Parclose screen face, top rail.

You may be able to tell, but I rather rate this screen. The fifteenth century screen in the north aisle is good - a technical achievement of symmetry and rather orthodox carvings - but the screen in the south aisle is a thing of wonder. It has life. It has passion. It has humour. It has the story of an entire community, and entire congregation - the good, the bad, and the downright daft - locked within its tiny carvings. It tells a tale, and who, after all, doesn't like listening to a good tale. And yet, it may not be a tale that really belongs in Wolferton.

Wolferton. Parclose screen, top rail. I know how this one feels.

The thing is nobody quite knows where this fourteenth century screen comes from. It certainly shouldn't be from Wolferton itself, as the church suffered a devastating and massive fire in the fifteenth century, with the deep pinking of fire damage still evident on many of the stones. And it was a very big fire indeed. The upper levels of the south arcade still show bright pink, where the stones have been superheated, whilst the piers below, including that which the screen now abuts, were so badly damaged as to require almost complete replacement. If the screen had been in the church at the time it would have been turned to nothing more than a heap of ashes - unless of course this master craftsmen also managed to make his screen, not only sublimely beautiful, but fireproof as well. I expect even he had his limits though.

Oh, and there are also some nice mason's marks and a few compass drawn bits of graffiti there too. Just saying.

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