- An unusual north tower
- Some good original windows
- A great gargoyle now at ground level
- A light-filled interior
- A wonderful 16th century rood screen
- Some stunning 15th century roof bosses all about Christ
- Like many Devon churches, exciting glimpses of Late Medieval faith
Burrington Church of the Holy Trinity
Nobody knows why some of our Devon Churches have a north tower; in truth there is no theological reason that they should have a ‘normal’ west tower, but near most all of them do.
This tower though has thirteenth century foundations along with stonework from the same period in the nave and chancel north walls.
Apparently there was an original church here in 1150, built by Tavistock Abbey; this likely had a north and south transept (making the church shaped like a cross). Maybe there was a tower on each transept, with the south one taken down when the south aisle was built in the fifteenth century? And maybe the north one was remodelled into a more modern shape then, rather than creating a brand new west tower? We can only imagine.
But the south aisle (on the left), well, hereby hangs a tale, because look at the two windows at the end of the aisle and chancel, the big and small ones.
For all the rebuilding of the chancel (the furthest bit) an original window size, more or less, seems to have been kept though the style has changed. But by the 1400s, they knew how to build big windows they did, and so they built a cracker at the end of their aisle.
The south aisle East Window
And here it is, pretty much all original (the lighter bits are replacements), a granite beauty; Perpendicular the style is called, because, well, near everything is perpendicular, straight up and down. Such a pleasure to have an architectural name that is understandable.
But why the difference in window sizes in the chancels? No single reason, there never is, but a big one was music.
The English were famous in the Late Medieval times for their use of polyphony in their worship, the clergy’s voices weaving and wafting like angels dancing inside rainbows, and for this they needed antiphons, or music books.
And of course if you are using a music book being able to see it is a doubly brilliant idea. Even Mr Cracked Voice here knows that.
Hence the new part of the church has a ginormous window up the singing end whilst they never got to enlarging the older window in the original chancel, put in before polyphony and music books wandered into the hood.
A yodelling gargoyle
Whilst this little beastie wandered into the hood off the church some time ago and yodels us up the path; a cutie too, well worth a pause to enjoy.
And ancient entrance
The entrance door is marvellously original with the aisle, installed in the later 1400s. It is missing the central rib, but Adam himself mislaid one of those and nobody dissed him for that.
Entering Burrington church
It is a big barn of place, high ceilinged and lots of light, only a few stained glass windows, with a graceful arcade of granite pillars. It is always a pleasure to find such well-lit space in a Devon church, it makes a grand change from the common dimness that so enchants them.
Here though the light aids us in having a good look at some of the beauty this church contains.
Burrington rood screen
This fabulous rood screen for example, a real stunner with its more recent colour done maybe around a hundred years ago or so. Some folks might not like the more modern painting, which is fair enough, but there are so many rood screens in Devon that I like the difference, and the skilled work.
There are a few major differences from Medieval colouring though.
It is not colourful enough and there is too much blue. Originally these wonders were painted in glorious colours and shades, and gilded in gold or silver. Very little, if any, blue was used as it was so very expensive; usually it came from Afghanistan or a somewhat worse version from Spain.
Also there would likely have been saints painted on the wainscoting panels at the bottom, with more subtle shading and gilding.
And I love this too, especially the way that the colouring on the vaulting emphasises the naked ribs, how they flow from the uprights and curve outwards with such elegance. Beautiful that.
The beautiful vaulting
Closer, the effect is more pronounced, and we can see the combination of curves and triangles that contrast so well with each other. Here also we can see how the arches with the tracery also bring away from those uprights.
Nature is here, very strongly so. The uprights are the tree trunks and then the branches grow from these.
Admittedly the vaulting’s primary purpose was to support the now disappeared platform of the rood loft for folk to walk on, but running a close second are about trees and flowers because look at those golden little bosses pinned on where the ribs intersect…
An abundance of leaves
Because leaves, and so very exquisitely carved leaves at that, showing the veins and bumps of a true leaf. Outstanding work. More so considering there are probably around seventy off these sweeties and every single one different.
Enchanting plants in the vaulting
And then, just to gild the lily, are these wonderful flower carvings between the ribs. The plant details would originally have been picked out in far more colours, but we get a better idea of their glory than we would have if it was still all bare wood.
On the left is probably a variety of the Arum plant, also called Lords & Ladies or the Cuckoo Pint, with berries in red, and on the right are vines with ripe grapes. Both signify the fruits of the sprit, the rewards for a righteous life, while the grapes are also connected with the Eucharist and redemption through the blood of Christ.
And both (and the all the others) placed here amongst the trees at the entrance to the sacred, the central mystery of the faith, the presence of the Divine on this earth and the path to salvation. This is, in a deep and meaningful way, the entrance to the new Garden of Eden.
And oh my stars and garters the screen so rocks, breathtakingly so. And we might be so privileged to see and adore the whole in context, in situ and still with the creators’ intentions drifting around it like a magical mist.
Through the rood screen is a simple chancel with an interestingly carved altar. The altar back is now down the end of the aisle, making for a much lighter space.
The old altar back
As we can see here. Personally I find this more fascinating than beautiful, it seems to be trying just little bit too hard and is a tad over-heavy, but I suspect that there is something missing in those niches. Maybe paintings, possibly symbols, either way they would have lightened the whole creation and made for quite a wonder.
Stained glass saints
One of the few pieces of stained glass in the nave is this intricate cutie, St Thomas, who appears alongside St Matthew and Christ; a good face, twirling hair and rich textiles make for a grand vision.
Very sweetly, it is in memory of a local vicar, Matthew Thomas Loveband and so the whole window has Matthew and Thomas on either side of Christ.
Angels and roofs
These medieval angels are appreciably older, the one on the left has Victorian replacement wings. They would very likely have been painted with various colours back in the day.
Part of the use of angels up here was to serve as the heavenly choir joining in with the earthly one below, bringing the Holy into the church more and more.
Mind you, another part might have been to display the coats of arms of major donors to the church costs.
Raising our eyes further we find one of the glories of Devon churches that should get our blood flowing, medieval roof bosses and plenty of them.
Originally the space between the rectangular grid of ribs would have been plastered, and would have contrasted well with the then coloured bosses, helping to pick the details out.
And the parish folk would have known each piece intimately, foliage or figures.
Throughout these medieval times the relationship was intimate between the artist and the most humble of the public in who’s interests he worked. Art was the property of ordinary folk as well as of the learned… The inhabitant of the smallest village acquired the instinct or refined taste from their earliest years
Alfred Maskell, Wood Sculpture, 1911
And Jiminy Cricket, is there some art up there…
Burrington’s medieval roof bosses of Christ
That rarest being this, St Christopher bearing the Christ Child; there are only two other St Christopher roof bosses in England, one in Norwich Cathedral and the other in Selworthy, Somerset. The rarity is likely due to him being usually shown in a humongous wall painting (Chris was considered to be a giant) just opposite the main south entrance of church.
Seeing his picture would protect against a sudden or ill death for that day so the belief went, so making it the first sight to hit the eyes on entering the church seems a no-brainer.
But this one is a little beauty tucked up on high, the Christ Bearer carrying Christ across a river. Maybe that is a whole tree on the left for scale, and the size of Christ shows how heavy he was, for Chris only just managed to carry him.
And when he wondered why…
“How can a little boy be so heavy, me being a giant and all that.”
The little boy smiled sweetly, “You had a little boy on your back and I had the whole world on mine, you didn’t do so badly.”
There is tenderness in Chris’ gaze, a sweet scene.
Madonna and child
Another Christ child saunters on stage here, being cared for by his Mom this time. Again, somewhat rare for a Devon roof boss, but these bosses seem to be all about Christ, which is unusual in itself, rather marvellously so dare I say.
Of course they are not just portraits of yer man, they are reminders of the way to salvation.
And, whisper it not, they are, shall we say, more rustically carved, compared to the screen’s elegant work, likely because they came with the fifteenth century rebuilding of the church, whilst the screen was created in the sixteenth.
That is not a reflection on the bosses, they do work so well as they are.
Facets of the Lord
And two more Christs here, all growed up.
On the left is the Pelican in her Piety, a symbol of Christ and his sacrifice which I go into more depth with this What is the Pelican in her Piety article, and on the right is a crowned Christ with a lion.
Admittedly the creature is somewhat frog-like, but the tasselled tale is a giveaway, and Jesus as the Frog of Judah really does not work for most of us; because here is one meaning, Jesus as the Lion of Judah, the true ruler of Israel, the direct descendant of Judah and David.
But there is more. Lions, according to medieval wannabe-zoologists, used their tail to brush over and hide their tracks when being hunted, in the same way the Christ hid his deity when in this world; some folk also saw the tail raised as justice being placed over us, and so a reminder of Judgement Day to come.
But why so many roof bosses showing aspects of Christ? There are even bosses with the Four Evangelist symbols on, who spread the good news about him.
Especially there would have been huge rood above the screen showing him, stained glass wall paintings, more carving…
My guess, and guess it is, is that all these are showing aspects of the Christ, a deep meditation on the Holy Son of God if you will, something very powerful and deeply heart-felt to the faithful of that time and still now.
And wonderful pieces of carved art as well.
The joy of churching
Importantly too, these roof bosses would have been put up with the new roof on the new church most likely before any other image was installed. They were a powerful statement.
But for me the main takeaway from this church is the comparison of the carving between the screens and the bosses, one so very elegant and the other so naively powerful, both full of magical meaning.
Plus of course the gargoyle in the church yard. And the front door. And that design with a north tower. And those medieval angels. And…
Crikey O’Reilly, get into churching and what more do we need in this world?