- Beautifully situated in the Teign Valley
- An enchanting window into Late Medieval faith
- A top quality rood screen with delicious medieval saints’ paintings
- Astounding religious grisaille paintings in the north chapel and chancel
- A powerful medieval wall painting of Christ and Instruments of the Passion in the north chapel
- A very nice 15th century font
- A fine selection of medieval stained glass
- A rare 17th century wooden wall memorial, well painted
- One of the most quietly intoxicating churches in Devon
Ashton Church of St John the Baptist
Somewhere between the land of mind boggling and the kingdom of awesome lies the universe of Ashton Church of St John the Baptist; a bit scruffy, all quite shadowy with hints and glints of gems and gold, but such a wonder too. Here we can travel through a darkling glass, and catch glimpses of another world, a very special one, over a special period in a special place…
And then just pick out when everything ended, magic retreating back to our combes and hills, still here mind you, for those of us who let it in.
Because this is an early fifteenth century church which folk carefully added to with passion and faith, waiting to envelop us in its stories.
The old priest’s door
We walk past the old priest’s door to reach the entrance, a symphony of pale whites set off by the old green, a seventeenth century door and original windows with some repair.
Life is good and going to get better.
A beautiful entrance
Because this west door, how delicious is this? And look, no granite!
The surround is volcanic stone; more delightful palenesses set off by that nineteenth century door weathering into the colour scheme. This is the main entrance now, and a better one I cannot think of.
Inside Ashton church
Entering, here is a chorus of sweet voices that make an enthralling opera of wonder; the pillars for one, with their very high quality carvings, more refined than most from this era, carved from Beer stone, brought by sea to Newton Abbot most likely and hauled ten miles inland by river and land.
The font, made around 1476 to celebrate Sir James Chudleigh’s first marriage (he had three more).
The fifteenth century rood screen, somewhat repaired, with its 1915 rood (crucifixion scene) by Herbert Read, that shows how the original medieval one totally dominated the nave.
The fifteenth and sixteenth century benches and bench ends, such a radical innovation for space that had never had any fixed seating.
This is a classy joint, and moreover it is a Chudleigh joint, the local big boys, and while ‘money can not buy taste’ as us empty-pocketed beggars hopefully tell ourselves, in truth it can, and holy moley it does here… along with impressive sophistication…
Until it did not.
Ashton church rood screen
So the screen, wonderful, intricate and carefully renovated. That vaulting, most of which is renovation and well done too, once again supports a platform like the old rood loft, though without the high sides and extra carving.
That wainscoting, well what have we here?
Saints on the wainscoting
Paintings, that is what, fabulous beautiful paintings, saints and holy folk standing in doorways into the sacred space of the chancel, surrounded by glorious carving and glowing colours.
From the left, St Anthony of Egypt, St Ursula, St Leodgar and St Appollonia, all identifiable by what they are holding. So St Appollonia had all her teeth pulled out, and there she is holding a tooth, and she was just the gal to have a word with about toothache.
Not that anybody would pray to saints, no way José, that would be making them into little gods. Folk politely asked them to intercede on their behalf, and to pray for them.
All these saints (and there are many) would have been chosen carefully by the main donors (the Chudleighs surely?) and possibly the parishioners. But chosen carefully, with a deep knowledge of their attributes.
Saint George and Saint Mary Magdalene
Mind you, St George and Mary Magdalene were pretty much no-brainers here, being so very popular in England.
But the painting quality is stupendous, even if it does not follow our artistic norms. This is another world, and it is not meant to be seen flat on a page, or even flat on a rood screen. The surrounding three-dimensional carving and colouring is an essential part of the design.
Then there was the incense, the candlelight, the chanting clergy, the soft hum of praying, the rustle of clothing, the smells, the kaleidoscopes of stained glass, the painted walls, the textiles, and the deep, deep faith in the Divine that breathed through all souls here.
Of course I would be totally out of order to suggest the Georgie boy was giving Mary a bit of an eye, posing with his dragon, while she is acting all fake flustered. But he is, and so is she.
Lovely to know youth never changes.
The Incarnation of Christ in Ashton north chapel
Around the whole sides are this series of ‘grisaille’ paintings, which is a posh way of saying painted in shades of grey, and oh my sweet Mama, are they good.
As a side note, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is grisaille. Probably not influenced by these darlings, to be fair.
Words and paintings
The faces are so full of character; most likely they are old style prophets and holy folk, because they are ‘announcing the divine significance of the Incarnation’ as Marion Glasscoe so succinctly puts it, in her paper which offers a convincing interpretation of these glories.
The Incarnation meaning the becoming truly human, body and all, of the Son of God.
But first, the illustrations. Marvellously, they seem to come from the tradition of ‘block-books’, books with each page printed from a wood block, text and all, which tend to be very illustration heavy and with minimal text in scrolls like… well, exactly like Ashton church, beautifully enough.
More, they are related to the Biblia Pauperum, or Pauper’s Bible, which was not for paupers (the name is a twentieth century German invention) and was not one bible. Before you ask why, I have no idea.
Anyways, these bibles usually had a series of pictures on each page showing how events in the Old Testament and the new Testament were connected in various ways, with accompanying texts in scrolls.
And here, in little old Ashton church deep in the back of beyond, these illustrations and scroll texts seem to be doing something very similar, in a very sophisticated manner.
The meaning of the paintings
So in the north chapel the texts were chosen mainly from three Liturgies (church services), the First Sunday in Advent and the individual feasts of The Transfiguration and The Annunciation (as above).
And the sequence is about the foretelling and the reality of the Incarnation through scriptural references, from prophecies to the fact (as above, the Annunciation, when God took human form in Mary’s womb) followed by the result (in the last illustration), which says:
Omnes resurgent in novissima tuba
All will rise up at the last trumpet
Probably based on 1 Corinthians 15, 51:52
Which, just to add another layer of richness to the meaning cake, is such a perfect sequence for a private chapel where prayers for the dead of the Chudleigh family were said and where their private burial vault was.
And choosing the liturgical excerpts was so extremely sophisticated, more so than is immediately obvious. There were no libraries, no filing cabinets, no databases, this kind of stuff took years and years of study and memory.
On top of all that, some of the feasts and liturgies were relatively new, so a broad and modern knowledge of theology as well as numberless pages of text was needed, and then all put into paintings, really, really quality paintings.
Astounding faces of holy folk
This kind of quality, where the background red is used as awesome shading.
But consider this; these figures were painted to be seen in changing light whether through stained glass, or by candlelight, this is the North Chapel, after all.
And candlelight flickering and glimmering from various directions across the shaded, almost sculptural faces, defies modern imagination. These would have come alive, three-dimensionally, and the words in the text would have reverberated in the heads of the readers.
Deeply spiritual, deeply real, deeply subtle, deeply sophisticated.
Ashton wall painting, the Wounded Christ
Then there is this, an earlier beaut of a fifteenth century wallpainting of the Wounded Christ in front of the cross surrounded by Instruments of the Passion, objects used during his Crucifixion.
Just above the entrance to that old Chudleigh family vault (now closed), a perfect spot to pray for their souls.
The Visitation painting in Ashton chancel
Yet more magnificence in the chancel, where there are two grisaille pictures, the beginnings of a new sweep of deep theology and broad liturgical knowledge, probably about the birth of John the Baptist and his foretelling of the coming of Christ.
Here the Visitation, a pregnant Virgin Mary (on the right) visits Elizabeth, well past menopause, yet pregnant with John the Baptist. Hearing Mary’s voice, the baby John ‘exulted in her womb’ and the two touching bumps; tenderly on Lizzie’s part, but on Mary’s part maybe somewhat clumsily?
Look at their faces…
Faces of today
On the left, rich well-fed Lizzie, the wife of a Temple Priest, very high status, a face we can see in Waitrose nowadays, and on the right lowly Mary, the teenager who got pregnant and says that God did it! Covering over her deep insecurities and savage hurts with mistrust and slight sneer.
All this, I venture, caught in these marvellous faces. Local faces, True faces. Faces we meet everyday.
And yet she made the trip, to see Mrs Big Noise, because she trusted in God; this was not just dropping in on a posh cousin though. In a society of strict social boundaries based on patron and client relationships, breaking these boundaries must have been so shocking to the reader let alone the two woman involved.
Yet totally trash them Lizzie does, saying
‘Blessed are you amongst women and blessed the fruit of your womb. And is this happening to me – that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’
Luke 1, 42:43
Which was the sound of society’s rules crashing into ruin.
And with the next picture, the only other one finished, a dude proclaiming ‘The barren Elizabeth gave birth,’ it ends.
On the remaining panels sketched out scrolls and outlines, as if the painters just downed tools one day and ghosted away; another society crashing into ruins, though not in such a good way.
The Reformation had lumbered into town
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Medieval stained glass
The faith-filled stained glass now faded, cracked, only surviving because it is small and up in the lights, meanings half-remembered, fragmented beauty whispering softly.
The Angel Gabriel desperately seeking
A medieval Angel Gabriel, part of an Annunciation scene now broken up, scattered, no Mary here, Gabriel’s words shattered and full of static, stuttering across universes, despairingly questing the Mother for God, hoping against hope that Mary will return for the faith of her folk
Ave, gratia plena, Dominus tecum
Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you
A desperate SOS across the airwaves, seeking, seeking…
The desolation of George Chudleigh
And then this desolation.
The 1657 memorial to George Chudleigh, made from wood, a real rarity, bigging himself up and showing just what a well connected big boy he was, with the coats of arms of all his family networks and his own enormous display at the top.
No Christ, no Incarnation, no God for the poor, and where does George’s family decide to put it originally? On top of the wall painting of Christ, hiding it away for over two hundred years.
Oh Georgie lad, you poor, poor soul.
This, to be clear, is not about Protestantism against Roman Catholicism, it is the destruction of a local culture and its replacement with… not much, to be fair, out here in the deep rural.
The eternal Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is still here, a raggedy, feathery, scrappety old bird, not the modern soap and water version.
This one will lie in wait behind the next tree, rocket from a blue sky, prowl dark city streets, pounce anytime to hurl us into a revelation of the Divine, each to our own way.
This one is not going down without a fight, it torpedoes us with constant love and infinite compassion, the sneaky little dazzler.
Life goes on, and faith is always there in unexpected corners.
The end of history and the permanence of beauty
Wondering at the traces of this old Devon civilisation misting around Ashton church, it is difficult not to feel nostalgia for the unreachable, a wistfulness for the beauty of folk, creativity and faith that peeks shyly through time’s darkling glass.
A sophisticated faith gilded with the art of cultured people, even here down in deep country Devon, and we can see the intensity, and we can see the end and yet a continuance.
The church, the beauty, the faith, the wonder are all still here, all still valued, all still loved…
And to touch this, ever so slightly, ever so gently, is a rare privilege and a pure delight.