- Very nice tower indeed
- Enjoyable grotesques
- A multi-layered sanctuary
- Extremely rare and fine Easter Sepulchre niche
- Some good stained glass
- Delicate roofbosses
- Ancient wooden statue of St James
Bishop’s Nympton parish
Rivers and streams lace this parish, overflowing in seasonally to saturate an already drenched countryside; the fields become sponges, swallowing feet in a sticky embrace. A water country indeed.
Here the Rivers Mole and Yeo flow; the Yeo used to be called the Nym, so the name Nympton, Nym’s Town.
The land is harsh. The parishioners said their soil was ‘a gritty kind of earth’ in the eighteenth century, and that did not include the moorlands or marshes. Good enough, just, for cattle, and sheep but not a land for bounteous fields of wheat.
Into this landscape came the Bishop of Exeter in 974 when King Eadgar gave him the manor of Nymetone.
By 1328 the Bishop’s had built a nice deer park for hunting and very protective of it they were too. The Bish at the time even excommunicated the priest of the neighbouring parish of South Molton for hunting in his park, and for bringing his hounds into church. A tad extreme, I suspect deeper forces at play.
Outside Bishop’s Nympton church
The church has a tall tower with a chunky elegance like a tiered cake; it’s divided into four clear sections by those set-back buttresses and the horizontal mouldings (string courses). Without these it would be dead graceful, but then without those buttresses it might well be dead, fallen over long ago; as it is, stately is probably a good description.
A very fine sight from afar and one sorely needed; Bishop’s Nympton is a large parish with many outlying farmsteads and hamlets. Attending church would have been a real challenge in many a weather; the parish had at least nine outlying chapels over time for a regular accessible mass.
A babewyn to protect us
Up high on the tower is this gorgeous grotesque (binoculars or a good zoom lens needed).
Grotesque is a relatively modern term for these figures, differing from gargoyles in that they were not used to drain water from the roofs. Babewyn was the name used for these fantastic carvings in the 1400s and earlier 1500s when this church was built, which gloriously sounds like a term of affection today.
This one shown is called a mouth-puller for obvious reasons, and is relatively common in England, though rare in Devon. Granite is a hard stone to carve. In truth, this might be a copy of an earlier one.
There is no single reason why grotesques were placed on a church; the tradition stretches back to the Romanesque churches of France and Spain (from about 800 AD). Between then and the fifteenth century when Bishop’s Nympton church was built is time enough for customs to change and evolve, though they still had power and purpose after all that time.
Here they were arguably used to ward off evil, or to use the technical term, they were apotropaic. Folk knew that evil existed in back in the day, and evil powers were all around ready to get up to mischief.
So what was needed were weird or shocking images to draw the attention of the evil powers and trap them or push them away; sometimes like attracting like, sometimes this hood has its own demons.
Seems to have done their job too. The church still stands and the good folk of Bishop’s Nympton are still powerful fine souls.
Up the end, the sanctuary with its altar and back curtain (the dossal) catches our eye; its strong colours contrast well with the bare stone, especially in the atmospheric dimness of this chancel.
It is a theatre too, the colours and cloths will change with over the year, displaying and presenting different aspects of the Divine.
Here the deep red is the colour of Christ’s blood, a reminder of his horrific death as a mere human, suffered for love; suffering highlighted by the Crown of Thorns on the altar, reminding us that Christ himself is part of the community of the abused.
Then the East Window’s more primary colours draw the eye upward…
The East Window, the Crucifixion and the bronze serpent
Seeing scenes from the Old and New Testament with a still radical message of redemption.
On the left is Moses erecting a bronze serpent, on the right the Crucifixion. The Moses part is that the Israelites were plagued by poisonous snakes and Moses, led by God, erected a bronze serpent so that all who looked at it were saved.
As Jesus says:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up,
That everyone having faith in him might have the life of the age.
For God so loved the Cosmos so as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age.
John 3:14-16 Trans. David Bentley Hart
The parallels between the serpent thing and the Crucifixion would only become obvious later, even to us of the more obtuse tribe, but why choose this little piece of pretty art (unusual too, the passage is not so often depicted) to put above the altar, the main position?
Two reasons, I venture. One is the Crucifixion, that is a no brainer, but the other is far more radical. It is the ‘everyone’ and the ‘faith’ bit in the gospel passage above. Not just for the wealthy, the Jewish community, the big folk, but for every single soul… and there is no bargaining necessary, no temple sacrifice, no quid pro quo, just faith, open to every single person.
And Jesus points this out whilst chatting to Nicodemus, a big temple dude, socially connected, money rich, in the days when wealth was a virtue and temple dudes were awesome. Not really a message old Nick wanted to hear.
Intensely radical and upsetting in Christ’s times, it was a big bruiser of a message for Victorian times as well, when class distinction and wealth were so important, and which, arguably, the previous century’s church had been happy to enable to a great extent.
Mind you, faith and change is a constant process as Jesus makes clear again and again, and my theology is shaky enough as it is; really I am just proposing that some understanding (even as wobbly as mine) can dramatically enhance the delight of these wonderful churches.
The very fine Easter Sepulchre
In the sanctuary is this rare Easter Sepulchre niche, finely carved out of limestone with a style dating to the early sixteenth century (opinions differ, some place it earlier), full of foliage and cable mouldings (mouldings that look like cables unsurprisingly) and ‘quatrefoils’ (four leaf carvings) in the bottom two rows. Here they are flower heads, with more marvellous leaves in the corners.
Take a gander.
Quatrefoils and rituals and intricate carving
Marvellous, no? And to think all this would have been coloured, against a white plastered wall (the bare stone walls are a Victorian thing). Oh, and the plain buttresses on each side seem to be a later restoration.
This was an intoxicating religion back when, a sophisticated faith full of feeling, and the Easter Sepulchre niche played a starring role. Folk came to Mass on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter, the day of Jesus’s Crucifixion) barefoot, as mourners, and after Mass the cross was taken from the altar and folk shuffled on their knees to kiss it, full of heartache.
The cross and a Eucharistic wafer (the blessed bread used in the Mass) were wrapped in cloth, put into a wooden casket and placed in the Easter Sepulchre niche where they were prayed over intensely by the priest and maybe some of the parishioners. Indeed it was one of the few times that ordinary folk might have entered the chancel. A very sacred occasion.
More so as the bread, blessed as for Mass, was (and still is by many a Christian church) considered to actually contain Christ’s body. Not a pretend sepulchre, this was the actual tomb of Christ for a few days. Powerful and potent.
On Easter morn, the Resurrection, a procession or two, special hymning by singers from the church roof; joy and celebration thundered through the world, and the whole congregation received Communion for the only time in the year. Christ had beaten death and the unconditional Love of God still surrounded the world.
And all this with the foliage of the sepulchre niche. Nature, beauty, growth. The yearly renewal and resurrection of life. Nearly everywhere we look in Devon churches are the remnants of foliage, in wood, in stone, in glass whilst outside the lush, green landscape exalts the Divine throughout the seasons.
Told ya, an intoxicating religion.
Stained glass to wonder at
Made even more intoxicating by the marvellous nineteenth century stained glass around the church.
Here a Madonna and Child, both with very striking stares. I like this Virgin Mary, she’s not a classical artist’s beauty as so many tend to be, strutting the look as they do. She has the kind of face that can be seen on the village streets today; the beauty of the everyday, more precious than diamonds.
St Cecilia and her angel
And a radiant Victorian window to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians, vivid enough to leap out of the window and twirl with the angel who thought that he was in heaven
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r;
When to her organ, vocal breath was giv’n,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking earth for Heav’n.
John Dryden 1687
The angel that came to the party
Whilst the very same angel that has come to hear St Cecilia is up in the aisle roof just above the exact same window. Is not that just wonderful? Bet you thought it was just a poem. But here we have it, an early sixteenth century roofboss of an angel attracted here by the music of St Cecilia, gyrating around the church when the good folks of Bishop’s Nympton are safely asleep in their deep beds.
I wonder how many of them dream of deep operas and twinkling symphonies, jazzy hip hop and glittering rock… ? Or are they entranced to cavort under starlight, music flowing through their souls, the village green soft under their feet, until the morning comes and they awake…
If they all have the same dream, does that make it true?
Foliage roof bosses
Whilst the nave roof blossoms with glorious flowers announcing an endless summer, thriving on the melodies of St Cecilia as she intercedes with heaven on behalf of the parishioners.
Originally these roofbosses and ribs would have been painted to show off their designs, with the leaves and petals catching the light in their reds, greens and golden gilding.
Look closely and see how the ribs are so carefully carved, with the ends getting broader as they meet and the slight chiseled tracks which define these; unnecessary but needed, this is work for the Divine.
Saint James in the church
But St Cecilia has another fanboy in her audience, St James coming sheltering from the weather after spending five hundred years outside on the tower; paint dissolved, wood corroded, spirit infused… but yet…
I wonder… I wonder if maybe it was meant to wear away to nothing? Whether it was expected to change with the centuries, to dissolve away beautifully leaving a faint murmur of love forever embracing the parish community?
Us moderns are so intent on owning and conserving and preserving that we hardly ever stop to thing about why. Valuing what we own is what we do nowadays, whether as individuals or as our society’s heritage. Not saying we are all Nicodemus, but…
Better minds than mine can dive deep into this, but just for now we might acknowledge that the Late Medieval folk did not share our culture; they were not mini-me’s in fancy dress.
The carver the painter, the good parishioners who paid for it, erected it, prayed to it, they did not share our culture of ownership in the same way. This was dedicated to God and St James, and it would be natural for it to fade back into the formless from where it came.
After all, it belonged to God.