- A full-on Dartmoor granite church
- Beautifully conserved roodscreen
- Stunning Medieval pulpit
- Quality Victorian stained glass
- Medieval paintings that carry so much meaning
- A sparse granite interior
Westwards squats bleak High Dartmoor, southside Holy Brook tumbles down Gibby’s Combe; peat-dark, stone-cold Old Man Dart chisels its gorge to the North; ghost-brimmed Hembury Hill Fort guards the East…
… Holne parish, time-worn, time-embedded, megaliths, barrows, hut circles, ancient granite-walled boundaries, Medieval farmhouses, tinning pits, deep-hedged lanes…
… and the green fields, always the green fields, drenched by the Atlantic rains, embracing the moorland peaks in waterlogged love…
And then there is this little old granite church way up in the clouds…
Approaching Holne church
That green creating fortunes for the sheep herders, the spinners, the weavers, for the folk who built this church around 1300, the tower, transepts, nave and chancel, and then added the two aisles and porch around 1500.
Outside it is, admittedly, a tad unprepossessing with its cement render from the twentieth century, a valiant attempt to keep the damp out… but cement ages oh so very badly, and it doesn’t keep the damp out. In truth it keeps it in, being impermeable, and does not allow the building or the stones to breathe, but nobody realised that at the time and they were doing their best. Lime render is the traditional method, a far more gentle solution that lets the church dry naturally in the summer.
It has cracking little porch door looking out onto the lush graveyard, a fine place for a rest and snack and there is always the Church House Inn next door for coffee or more.
The church is built from granite, as we would expect for a Dartmoor church, granite rubble mainly, which means roughly shaped stones like the walls streaming over the countryside, better shaped around the openings as here.
Entering the church
The inside is bare, stripped of nearly all its finery centuries ago, the operative word being ‘nearly’ here, because there is treasure still left. The nave, the central portion, and the chancel, beyond the screen, are part of the original 1300 church with the transepts that can be glimpsed going off right and left. The aisles were added around 1500, with the pillars dating from around then.
Then there is the screen…
The roodscreen at Holne
A most wonderful screen, superbly preserved and sublimely restored earlier this century by Eddie Sinclair. It glitters and gleams like one of Elton John’s more outrageous stage costumes, only far more fun (well, arguably so anyway). Truth be told, when Eddie scrubbed away the grime of centuries and previous well-meant restorations, she found the gold and paint underneath was so bright that the parishioners worried that visitors would think it was newly applied. There was even some discussion of dulling it a tad.
Luckily for all us they did not, and it is marvellous… the colouring, the carving…
The saints on the screen
… and the figures painted on the wainscoting.
Here we have, from the left, St Roche who looked after plague victims and whose dog looked after him when he got the plague himself; he is the patron saint of the sick, the plagued and second-hand dealers, which seems to be a slightly arguable connection. I know of some very nice second-hand dealers…
Next is St Margaret who was swallowed by a dragon after many torments only to emerge from its stomach, as seen here, and now the patron saint of childbirth.
Last is St Bavon, who repented after 50 years of dissipation (we should be so lucky) and ended up a hermit. Often shown holding a falcon, as here… kind of. It is a two-legged bird anyway, so we will give it falcon.
It can be easy to define these as sightly clumsy ‘folk art’ but that would be to misunderstand their purpose. There was a tradition to these paintings, and a purpose. They were not just pictures of saints, they were symbols, icons if you will, seen as intercessors with Christ and also reminders of sin, in this case sins inflicted on the saints and that the saints overcame. The saints forgave.
They did not ask God to go full Rambo on their executioners or moaned about their tough lives, they practised forgiveness and love, a hard thing to do inside a dragon’s stomach I suspect… challenging enough outside, too…
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” as yer man himself said on the cross.
Faces full of character
And if anybody still wonders about the quality of this art… feast your eyes on these lovelies.
Hauntingly real, unsettling direct gazes, emotions rippling across their faces, awe, despair, revelation… the revelation that their faith is true because God just had a word in their ear, or gave them a little wave…all these on little old screen paintings in a little old Dartmoor church, far from the frills and fripperies, the politics and theologies of the Pope or Luther, just us moor folk, the Divine and a transcending faith…
And the skills of the painters…
The Holne medieval pulpit
… and the carvers because this, just this…
When the screen has finished filling our souls, along comes this medieval pulpit to overflow them, a superb marriage of colour and sculpture, all original, all stating a mastery that is well worth a closer understanding.
Here we can see the foliage that covers, and gorgeously, the leaves rising up the outside of the arch and just at the tip, where we would expect a flower blossoming out, transforming into two lines of foliage that circle around to start again; life recycles, born again.
Beautiful gilding too, gold and silver, the silver now tarnished to black (the dark flat background is painted), with red highlights, and the inside of the arches (the chamfer, the angled bit) have little stencilled yellow flowers. How sweet is that?
The painters, masters of their art, would have created their own paints by grinding up pigment powders from mineral, plant, animal or manufactured sources and mixing them with glue or oil depending on the layer of the paint. There were at least six main layers used, from the grounding, which was the base layer after the sanding, through the primer, gilding, painting, glazing and varnishing, and each layer had one or more coats. Each coat had to dry before applying the next, and this could take weeks or more, especially in damp Devon.
Attention was paid to every detail and these folks were deeply knowledgeable. So usually real gold and silver gilding was used on the three dimensional carving, as here, which gives an awesome lighting effect, especially in candlelight, but on the flat panels the yellows, haloes or hair, were from pigments (Orpiment or Lead Tin Yellow) allowing shading with a brush and skill, and creating a three dimensional effect that flat-surface gilding cannot achieve.
Astoundingly detailed carving
All this aided by the genius of the carvers, who continuously altered the carving. There is a pair of these at the bottom of every arch (see previous photo), about three centimetres across, and each pair is different, as here.
So always the difference, masterly created, which was a lot about the light, the gleam and the glitter. These were meant to emulate jewels and goldwork, bringing to mind the sumptuous reliquaries that held the remains of saints.
Not bad for a little old granite church way up in the clouds, eh?
A granite web
Looking up, we have a real good sense of the web of granite arches and pillars, a tad rough but totally does the job, all from around 1500.
By this date, the stone would likely arrive from the quarry already shaped and sized, and the onsite masons would just need to smooth it off, make any final adjustments and of course build the thing.
The arches would have been supported by wooden structures, or frames, when they were first erected, until the mortar had dried. The granite stones would have been jointed internally (hidden now) to fit exactly, and to help transfer the weight of the walls and roofs onto the pillars.
All this would take time; if the mortar was not left long enough to dry properly at each stage, the whole caboodle could do a Walls of Jericho thingie and come tumbling down.
Beautiful Stained Glass
Luckily for us another folk who loved colour were the Victorians and there is some fine stained glass, this gorgeous angel head detail being from the workshop founded by one of the best nineteenth century stained glass artists, Charles Kempe, and run after his death (1907) by his cousin, Walter Tower.
Their windows are famous for glowing hues, beautifully costumed figures, the amount of detail and, as here, stunningly expressive faces.
A face full of the knowledge of the Divine, the face of an angel… oh, and that hair, love that hair…
Whilst the East window offers a more stylised vision of the crucifixion in solid colours, very much rhyming with Medieval style but not slavishly copying, full of lovely details like the grass and the foliage backgrounds, with faces that are not so much individual as conveying a human truth of grief and that timeless moment when deep despair strikes.
Jesus though seems acceptance personified, full trust in God, whilst Mary and John are still on the journey towards that end.
Or the simple red edging here, in this double lancet window, just offering a splash of colour to bring the numinous out, with simple earthenware and garden flowers. Sometimes I can fall into these scenes and live here for moments piled upon moments, submerged in peace.
World War 1 memories
And this peace is for all, in pain or in quietness, and after WWI there were many in pain, as this cross brought from the battlefields of the Western Front shows. Leslie Gould, every parent’s son, every child’s father, how powerful it must have been for families in mourning to see and touch a real cross, planted in the mud of battle, retrieved when Leslie was reburied in a War Cemetery, and reverently transplanted here for all to grieve their own.
How much comfort, how much peace, how much tenderness blossomed from this cross just as came from the original… ?
Sweet Mary, the Queen of Heaven, Mary of England
But wait… that battlefield cross slips seamlessly into this church, into the old ways that still soul-shadow these Devon treasures…
Because remember, all this bling, all this wonder, all this imagery was about the Divine… cherishing our love for it… our dreams of God…
Here is the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary being crowned by Christ, so important as to place it on the main screen doors, surrounded by golden foliage and jewel-hued awe, music floated by angels, a pageant of feeling.
For Mary was England’s, just as England was called the Dowry of Mary from before the Normans stole the country, and this church is dedicated to St Mary, sweet Mary, Mary who lost a child, killed horrifically, Mary who struggled through that dark night…
Just as Leslie’s parents, just as all the bereaved did in their age, in every age and still now…
And this empathetic, emotive religion was the faith of the Middle Ages…
Take this sweetness, a poem written before 1240, original on the left, translation on the right, Pity for Mary.
Now goth sonne under wod:
Me reweth, Marye, thy faire rode.
Now goth sonne under Tre:
Me reweth, Marye, thy sone and thee.
Now goeth son under wood:
Pity, Mary, thy fair face.
Now goeth son under tree:
Pity, Mary, thy son and thee.
[Some word play here…
‘sonne’ for both ‘sun’ and ‘son’
‘wod’ for both ‘wood’ and the ‘cross’
‘rode’ for both ‘face’ and ‘rood’, the crucifixion
‘tree’ means both ‘cross’ and ‘tree’
‘goeth…under’ could also refer to ‘undergoeth’]
Emotive does not cover the half of it.
And that war cross fits right in, not only as heart-broken grief, but as the path out, just as Mary came out the other side and her son looked through his own torture and slaughter with compassion, with love, with forgiveness…
In this little old granite church way up in the clouds…