- A powerful contrast between the tall tower and small nave/chancel
- Good grotesques on the tower
- A very rare Madonna and Child medieval statue still on the tower
- A lovely, simple interior
- Good medieval roof bosses
- The remnants of a very fine 16th century rood screen
- A chunky Norman font
- Glorious figurative medieval stone carvings on the tower arch
- A lovely 18th painted board describing the Holy Trinity
Clyst St Lawrence and its name
Clyst St Lawrence is a fascinating little place name unexpectedly connected with enemas, not a common connection to English names I suspect.
The St Lawrence bit is from St Lawrence, even I can work that one that out, and Clyst is from the River Clyst, meandering through a near endless flat-bottomed valley surrounded by lush farmland (West Devon gazes longingly).
But Clyst itself, there is the rub.
There is a reconstructed Paleo-Indo-European (the ancestor of nearly all European languages and more, including Sanskrit) word-root ‘kleu’ meaning ‘wash’.
To cut a long story short, its derivatives pop up in various languages, from Greek (klyzein “to wash off, rinse out) to the Middle English word ‘clyster’ meaning ‘enema’, still occasionally used today.
That is probably a bit of information too far, but I do so love my rabbit holes.
So Clyst probably means ‘clean’ and even though most all rural rivers were relatively clean back in the day, this one drops only forty meters in the last twenty-two miles of its twenty-four mile length; a very gentle flow, not picking up much mud or silt at all.
Because of this it might also be connected with washing linen and wool as part of the manufacturing process, which needed lots of clean water and flat meadows to stretch out the cloth for drying and keeping the fibres in good shape.
Clyst St Lawrence Church of St Lawrence
Like the name, Clyst St Lawrence church is a true one off with that ginormous tower miniaturising the nave and chancel, not exactly Westminster Cathedral size to begin with. It really is quite a sight, helped by the tower being at the uphill end of the church.
The whole seems to have been rebuilt in the fifteenth century but I would lay good odds that the chancel (on the left) is on the original Norman footprint. Or was there a Saxon chapel?
Whatever the truth, there is still the basic Norman two cell plan with the tower plumped down later and no aisles added at all.
Nice babewyns clambering over the tower as well, we call them grotesques nowadays but babewyns they were back in the day.
It is an odd thing, but the further East in Devon they more common these critters become. As they are probably up there to ward off evil, and as we are getting closer to Somerset, Dorset and on into the bowels of the England, that makes a lot of sense. Keep Devon pure, I say!
The Rev John Donne (no, not that one!) of the parish probably totally agreed with this sentiment in 1561, when he was identified as one of three remaining unlicensed preachers in the Diocese of Exeter by William Alley, Bishop of the same. Queen Lizzie had decreed back in 1558 that all priestly folk had to be licensed to ensure they were walking the talk of the new religion.
The inference being that Johnie Boy was still happily somewhat Romanising away, though as he seems to have survived until 1580 he was probably left to his own desires. A shortage of clergy that began with a serious flu outbreak in 1558 might have helped with that.
And there is a lovely reminder of the Old Faith remaining in the tower.
Mary Queen of Heaven
Up on the stair turret, looking sweetly over the main north entrance, is this Madonna and Child from the fifteenth century, with a crown and more carved above her showing her status as Queen of Heaven.
There are still traces of medieval polychrome up there, in her hair particularly, to give us an enchanting glimpse of just how colourful they both were.
Baby Christ is holding a dove, the dove of peace maybe, an age old Christian symbol, or maybe the Holy Spirit.
The north door
Entering Clyst St Lawrence through its north door is a keen anticipation. This is an ancient church, kept very modestly and all the better for that.
Inside Clyst St Lawrence Church
The interior gives the impression of having seen many centuries and a fair few storms with them. It is beguilingly rough, softly calm, retired from the inanities of the world and living in the transcendent forever.
Worldly goods and urban artifices steadily clearing away to reveal the pure light of faith within.
The eighteenth century pulpit
Like this Georgian country pulpit, once towering above the congregation with the preacher the figure of authority, lowered in the restoration of 1924.
Medieval roof bosses
Or these medieval roof bosses still carefully watching over the nave.
They would, of course, once have been gaily painted and the shield would have had the coat of arms of a local family; by 1908…
There are some carved bosses in the roof, but they have been whitewashed over, as has also the font, which is of plain design.
Some Old Devon Churches, J. Stabb: 1908-16
The bottom left dude looks like the spirit of nature, top right looks more deathlike, but the artistry is evident whatever the meaning.
Clyst St Lawrence rood screen
As here too, which really is the skeleton of the original rood screen, wainscoting gone, windows gone, tracery gone, not something I have seen before; usually with this level of destruction the whole screen has gone.
The paintwork is of course modern, twentieth century, the screen fifteenth.
But back in the nineteenth century there was still ancient colour there…
… Leaving the naked uprights which still, however, support a glorious fan-vaulting and very perfect cornice having two tiers of delicate vine-leaf enrichment retaining its ancient colour and gilding.
Exeter Diocese Archeological Society Transaction, 1863
So there is a good chance that the newer colour scheme is not so far off the old; they could see the former.
Dead right though about the fan-vaulting, it is very well done, with the intricately carved gilded pieces nicely ensconced in the red, white and blue of the background.
Fine carving on the cornice
Right also about the ‘very perfect cornice’, which really is a marvel of tanglement, grapes and leaves twining around each other, all so carefully carved.
This is, whisper it softly, carving on a different level, a better level even, than the roof bosses, and there is probably a good reason for this.
The parish was not very wealthy, as seen by the smallness of the church, tower notwithstanding, and the cost of the church rebuilding probably precluded getting the best carvers for the roof.
Yet the rood screen and rood loft would have been installed later when more money had been raised, through church rates, church jollies, donations and more. And the screen and loft, along with the actual rood, were so important that they needed to be the best of the best, or at least as good as the next door parish’s.
So the church wardens waited until enough money had been collected to pay for a magnificence, which this darling most surely is, even in its stripped down state.
The Norman font
The Norman font on the other had, down the nave, is the opposite of soft, a powerful, rough lad carved from two blocks of volcanic stone. That is quite a statement in itself, beauty subservient to strength, the rite of baptism standing over everything.
It is called a girdled tub-font, and is one of only two of the like in Devon that are totally unornamented except for that simple girdle.
There are probably various reasons for keeping such a bruiser instead of getting a fancier one as the centuries strolled by; one of the most probable reasons is that it shows proof that this church had very early rights to baptise folk.
This right was jealously protected by larger churches, a local big boy probably having some power over this one back in the early days. So this was strong evidence, especially in an age when text records were few and far between, not always carefully stored and always open to falsification.
The gorgeous tower arch
The tower arch is another impressive delight, and I am often gently enchanted how easily a little country church in a relatively poor parish manages to create these kind of bewitchments.
When the parishioners stuck the tower on the end and chopped through the back wall of the nave they could so easily have gone with a simple arch and nobody would have any the wiser.
But no, they got themselves pricier Beer stone from about forty miles away by water and created a delightful little panelled arch springing from those carved ‘imposts’ above the curtains.
Foliage and faces
And what carved imposts they are too! Deep foliage, simple and powerful, likely enough originally coloured, with some mighty vigorous faces peeping out, not in a good way.
A ‘Green Man’
There are four faces, or masks as they are sometimes called, or even Green Men when they have foliage entering or leaving an orifice or three. Here, facing into the church, is one such ‘Green Man’, an unfortunate phrase created in the1930s and now severely overused, usually to claim pagan origins for Christian sculpture.
Because this one here is Christian for sure, with those non-human ears denoting the Devil or a demon, and the foliage… ? Is it the entanglements of sin spreading from his mouth? It could be, with the ginormous caveat that interpreting meanings centuries down the line is a speculation upon a speculation, especially as mouths seem quite the fashion down this end of town.
Mouth pullers and sin
As shown by this proper human with their tongue well up front.
And allowing for a meaning or two here, this could well be an obscene gesture, seen still in some cultures, but it could also be to do with sin, the Sins of the Tongue especially.
Sins of the Tongue were a huge concern for the Medieval Church, from gossip to pride to boasting to false witness; clergy spent many a time warning against them.
If anyone does not falter in speech, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
And when we insert bridles into the mouths of horse to make them comply with us, we also direct their whole body.
And look at how ships, which are so enormous and which are driven by powerful winds, are directed wherever the pilot’s impulse determines by a tiny rudder.
So also the tongue is small bodily member yet it boasts of great things. See how immense a forest so tiny a fire ignites.
James 3: 2-5
This concern with the usage of tongues is also psychologically astute. What we think, we speak, and what we speak, we think.
Spend a month just speaking beauty, blessings and compliments, looking for the best, and our thinking changes too, mighty pleasurably so in my own small experience.
So this Sins of the Tongue thing was more than just ‘oh you naughty, naughty Christian, you sinner you’, it was about transforming ourselves to be more Christ-like.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, reasonable, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, unfeigned.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for this who make peace.
James 3: 17-18
Which seems a pretty fine endpoint to this ageing sinner, unlikely as it is that wrinkled old moi will achieve it.
An old-time infographic
Whilst here is a much in your face image, not really open to interpretations. It is an eighteenth or early nineteenth century painting of a symbol that became popular from the early 1400s, and shows the facets of the Holy Trinity.
And you thought infographics were a modern thing!
It is, to be fair, somewhat didactic but all the same a very fine and rare example of its zeitgeist, especially with the mighty Old Testament Jehovah being all shouty shouty up top; very eighteenth and early nineteenth century that is.
Colour and light
And talking about the nineteenth century there is some lovely simple stained glass in the window traceries, little flashes of colour bringing a touch of the rainbow to the fine interior.
To be fair, it is difficult to think of a better place than this darling to start speaking and thinking beauty, blessings and compliments all the way down.
It has a powerfully modest enchantment that is set off by the pretties within but not overwhelmed by them.
Alongside are the ever-changing sights and delights from the lights and shadows, the echoes and whispers, the scents and smells, the rough and smooth that make this a place to just be in, short or long as you will.
A fine place indeed.