- At the crossroads of two ancient roads
- A 15th century rood screen in the nave
- The only surviving medieval rood loft in Devon in the north aisle
- Both marvellously carved
- Awesome medieval roof bosses
- Impressive medieval bench ends
- Ancient stone effigies adding to the atmosphere
- Some spanking medieval stained glass
- And equally impressive 20th century glass as well
- All in all, a wonderful church with a truck load of marvellous to fall in love with
Atherington Church of St Mary
Here, after two fords and hard climbs on stone-strewn tracks, torrents in the rains, two much used ways met, a pause, a breath, a relief for the weary, and here in Atherington St Mary’s they could sigh their thanks and troubles to Our Lady of Manifold Mercies.
A prayer to Mary
And as this sweet prayer whispered through the landscape the church was being rebuilt in the 1400s, re-beautified for all of us lovers of wonder and enchantment.
Inside Atherington church
Entering Atherington church is a pause, a questioning, a bareness, simply plastered walls, aged woodwork and clear glass taking a moment to reveal their gorgeous beauty and then more.
Because there is some of the most electrifying medieval work in the whole of Devon here, and that is high praise indeed.
A very old rood screen
Like this rood screen for example, a very early one, from the early 1400s or even late 1300s.
Square-headed, narrow lights, beautifully simple wainscoting, delightful tracery, and seemingly totally complete. Not a trace of any vaulting supporting a rood loft either, which is interesting, very so.
Because this seems to come before our wonderful vaulted Devon screens, with all their intricacies and wonders. The rood loft here was probably separate, a horizontal platform resting on columns and the big beam at the top of the screen, accessed by wooden stairs or by the present rood stairs.
Working this out gets all complicated so let us stick with the simple.
It is gorgeous.
Here, let me show you how…
Aged wood, flowing upwards, forming leaf-shaped openings and then two sets of budding foliage sprout from either side and sweep up to blossom, at the top…
Leaves to buds to flowering joy, I can dance with that.
So what happened to the rood loft? Queen Elizabeth I is what, who told everyone to take them down ‘as far as the groining’. Which they did, because guns and burning people at the stake, an argument difficult to contend with even if somewhat intellectually lacking.
Except for the very, very few who did not.
Especially the ones who left an exotic beauty chilling in the north aisle.
Atherington rood loft
To call this sixteenth century beauty astounding is like saying Stonehenge has bit of age on it, but even after entering the new stratosphere of awesomeness just here, realising that pretty much every single rood screen in Devon would have had a similar loft rockets us into another universe.
But firstly, why the two so different screens? Well, one came from a private chapel down the road in Umberleigh in 1800, but which one is not clear. I can make a good argument for and against either, so fat lot of help, me. Just enjoy.
So how does a rood loft work?
Well, just on the left is the entrance to the rood stair, which we are allowed up.
The floor of the rood loft is at the level of the that bottom band of intricate carving (the cornice) just above the vaulting, which in its turn is the structure that helps supports the whole loft, floor and side panelling, along with a thick beam running along the top of the screen at that level.
Here is the vaulting, those ribs sticking out, not the in-between bits, which themselves are called the coving, here both purely decorative and hiding all the busy construction joinery behind.
The decorative carving is in the Renaissance style, and helps date the screen to around 1540 or so.
The vaulting itself springs off the screen to hold the floor and panelling of the loft.
Here is that cornice, with very pretty elongated vine leaves on one horizontal, and when I said intricate I really did mean intricate. The cornice hides all the complicated joinery work as well, but the beauty of the carving was likely enough the most important point.
Above the cornice are the presently clear panels, though they are in fact painted but have been turned inwards for conservation. They have an Elizabethan coat of arms and a little bit of praise for that dangerous girl.
God save the Church, our Queen Elizabeth and Realm, and grant us pleace and truth in Christ. Amen.
Christ coming last, notably so, a political painting if I have seen one, and likely enough a major reason why this rood loft was let be.
Before this there would have been biblical scenes, saints or even statuettes of holy folk here, underneath the next level of awesome.
The rood loft panel carving
An entanglement of flora along the top loft surmounted by these…
Seedlings around the feet of the rood, the crucified Christ, new life, new Resurrection, carved to celebrate the Divine through the creation of beauty.
Gilded and silvered, shaded and highlighted in reds and greens and blues, this was a Garden of Paradise here on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven to come and the Kingdom of Heaven that the faithful could, in very deep and realistic ways, start to create now, in this very world…
Because this was about the path of Christ, a hard path yet the best in the universe, and above the rood loft would have stood the most important portion of the secular portion of the medieval church.
The rood, candles lit at the foot of the cross, candle upon candle, flickering light dancing shadows across the bejewelled and painted figures, dressed in fine cloth, alive up there replaying again and again the suffering of a Divine that loved so much as to die for humanity.
This one is much later, a Victorian one, but the meaning is here.
And this was the whole point of the rood loft, with its gorgeous screen below, to look after the rood physically and spiritually, and why the medieval folk called it a rood loft, never ever a rood screen, a term that came into use only in the nineteenth century.
Ancient roof bosses
Meanwhile, looking up… well, for the males of our species, better not to, I’m thinking! Some folk suggest this is a suckling scene, but I am not so sure.
As for the meaning of this little scenario, proving once again that horror movies are playing a five hundred year catch up, the jury is not only out but wandering aimlessly in a blizzard many thousands of miles away from home. Its immediacy and power seem to demand a meaning, but maybe they are that meaning; there be monsters out there and better beware.
There is a similar roof boss showing the same winged creature, alone this time, forty miles away in Ilsington down in South Dartmoor, so another possiblity is that this was taken from local folklore.
A fine demon
Whilst this little critter is definitely a demon from the bad boy catalogue, a beautifully insane rendition amplified by its near obscene pose bringing to mind a sheela na gig.
Often a ‘tongue out’ carving refers to gossip, but here it is more likely another rude gesture, especially with those industrial-strength teeth, and clearly shows this babe is a depraved bit of evil.
Maybe it is warning of the dangers of lust, maybe it is up there to ward off evil (apotropaic), or maybe another purpose, but it sure is a magnificent work of art.
And as an aside, these roof bosses take about a week to carve according to woodworkers who have created modern versions, and there are over a hundred and five here in Atherington church. That’s a lot of work for the bosses alone, without considering everything else.
Atherington bench ends
The bench ends were put in a tad later, around the sixteenth century; two types, square-headed and shaped. The former is the common type here in Devon, though not this design, whilst the latter is very rare.
The woodworker has tried to make the pinnacle come up at the backrest, which is a brave design choice and takes a bit of time to work I venture, especially with this gothic carving that rather requires symmetry.
But work it does, with those nicely balanced curves galumphing upwards.
And, as ever, it is all about the foliage.
The sanctuary is a simple beast, lovely as simple often is, tidied up with a new floor by the Victorians.
With some really very nice indeed tiles, flowers growing from lions possibly riffing off the Lion Of Judah, a symbol of Christ, bringing life to the world. An outstanding design which stands strong without any interpretation, there is that.
Most interesting are the effigies in the chancel of Sir Ralph Wylmington (died 1349) and his wife Eleanor, who was a Mohun; we last came across a lass from the Mohun clan having a bit of a lie down in Membury church over East Devon.
Eleanor herself is wearing one of those fancy headdresses that we also come across in roof bosses when the carver wanted to warn against the sins of vanity and pride. Not sure that this dame cares a bent toenail for what folk might think of her fashion.
Whilst Ralph is a bit of dandy dude himself, his aventail, the chain mail piece that covers his neck and shoulders from the helmet down, is covered in fabric with only a bit of fancy edging showing across his chest. That is rare, that is, and I point this out not because I am an armour nerd but because these kid of fascinating details pop up all over the place in churches, and I hope the gentle reader can come to love them as much as I do.
Sir William Champernowne
On the other hand Sir William Champernowne (around 1240) here can hardly be called a fashionista the state he is in, but he is more important than first appears. This is one of the earliest effigies with crossed legs in the country, even though the legs are somewhat lacking nowadays, and would have been a very high quality piece when made.
The stiff leaf carving (lower image) around the edges is also a relatively new approach for its time, and works I am thinking. Clumsy to our eyes, but is not foliage clumsy? And each leaf different, lovely touch.
The Basset Brass
From a later period, 1528 to be more or less exact, comes Sir John Basset, with Honora and Elizabeth. It is a beautifully detailed brass, another one for armour nerds too, and I particularly love the two ladies either side, very modest and prayerful.
Looking at this, with Johnny Two-Wife in the centre, it might be easy to think ‘patriarchy’, which would be true to up to an extent… Though the average male peasant might well have wondered when this ‘men rule’ thing was starting.
But their positions of deep religiosity, both in their praying and their expressions, shows, I venture, that there was a divinely ordained place for all, which also meant that all had their divinely ordained duties to each other and to society, rightly or wrongly.
Colourful stained glass
Armouring is still a bit of theme in this lovely window showing St Michael and St George on either side of Mary. Sometimes the figures in this stye of windows are static, but here Mickey is leaning towards the Virgin and George seems about tot take a step towards her.
They both seem to be moving to protect her and baby Jesus from all dangers, having already slain the Devil and the dragon, a sweet composition if I have ever seen one.
Angels and a plectrum
And here some medieval angels, beautifully depicted, playing a harp and a lute, from around 1480 when there is a record of stained glass being given to the church.
They are also keenly observed, how that harp hangs from the neck of one angel, and the plectrum of the lute player…
Because that plectrum is exactly the right type for its time. Nowadays we have mass-produced plastic and metal plectrums, but medieval musicians made their own, and they did this from feathers, crow and raven mostly, doubtless others too. The choice was important because different feathers gave different sounds.
They cut the feathers off as close to the shaft as they could, and as short as needed, then sanded it down real smooth (nobody wanted a stubbly quill, it could move in their fingers and cause many a false note).
Ad hey presto, a plectrum as it looks like in this window, made from a feather. Well observed that by the artist.
A prayer from Mary
Back here to the church’s patron saint here, a medieval Mary, calm and peaceful, with a crown portraying her role as the Queen of Heaven.
A powerful image, and so very important to the faith in England, which was called Mary’s Dowry.
Here, beautifully timeless, the Queen of Heaven praying for the souls of Devon, the passing travellers…
Still here, still praying, still loving, in this beautiful church, though centuries of travail, and that is a comfort beyond words.