- A beautifully peaceful church
- Lovely granite work on the inside
- Good utilitarian pews
- A great 17th century pulpit
- A royal coat of arms in plaster
- Gorgeous 17th century Flemish carvings
- Good Victoria stained glass in the East Window
- A fine medieval granite font, well carved
Langtree Church of All Saints
Langtree church is one those churches easily bypassed by the non-church-nerds amongst our brethren; that would be a massive mistake. We never know what we can ferret out, what is waiting gently to display the love of generations, what is desiring to whisper sweet secrets into our ears.
After all, it is not about finding things to love in a church, it is discovering how much we can love each and every church that makes churching life so enjoyable.
So, a sweet little church in a sweet little parish on a sweet little hillside up in north-west Devon; what is not to like? Got that traditional Devon tower too, with the stairs on the outside as we can see above.
Entering Langtree church
The church greets us with an engaging sparse interior and a red chancel wall that really will wake us up for the sermon.
That chancel seems mighty off-centre, yet it springs so gracefully off the arcade (the row of pillars on the left). The aisle was added in the fifteenth century, it all seems a bit odd.
Maybe the builders just thought ‘It’ll do’ and left it at that…
Looking down the nave
Yet when we look back down the nave the tower arch seems far more central, so the best we can say is that there has been a lot of rebuilding going on. What we see now is mainly fifteenth to sixteenth century, with nineteenth century restoration. They say the nave and tower may be older, which might explain the chancel positioning.
Mind you, never overestimate the power of shoddy building, which went down in Medieval times as much as any.
That chancel arch is fair bonzer though, plumply curving to the point, and that arcade is a beaut too. I have met many a worse, and not a lot better when we are talking granite.
A fine pulpit
Though this needs very little ferreting out, sitting comfortably showing off its charms to all and sundry. A very good pulpit from around 1680
… most likely made by an immigrant carver based in Exeter and working in the outside district churches. This is seen widely in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall.
Possibly a Frenchman at work in Devon
Paul Fitzsimmons, Marham Church Antiques, Specialist in late medieval oak carving
Sitting a tad heftily too, a rustic work and needing to be loved in this way.
And a chunky angel
This sweet angel placed here possibly to point out that the velvet-voiced preacher is wafting words from heaven over the dozy heads of the congregation. Possibly.
It is a chunky charmer, a farmer angel in its way. For grace and elegance it does not hold its own with London and that is the point. Honest and modest, hand crafted with love and attention, it is just nice, real nice, and that hits the spot.
A royal coat of arms in plaster
There is a fine plaster royal coat of arms in the nave too, ‘a curiously archaic design’ apparently for George II’s time, but then fashion has never been Devon’s strong point.
It is an extravagant creation for such rural church, for a king who willed that he should be buried next to his wife Caroline, who died twenty-three years before, with the sides of the coffins open so that their remains could mingle. A charming request.
But then again, when his wife told him to remarry as she lay dying, he replied ‘No, I shall have mistresses’.
And they say that romance is dead!
The lion at least seems to see the fun side of life, and both animals are finely created.
The chancel and sanctuary carry on the simplicity, with those pale sunlight walls making a goodly contrast with the colourful stained glass and the rich brown of the altar.
And it when we reach the altar and stoop to look at the central panel that we know we are not in Kansas anymore.
A superb Flemish carving of The Supper At Emmaus
A beautiful piece of Flemish carving, 1660-1680, depicting the Supper at Emmaus.
According to Luke, after the Crucifixion some ladies went to Christ’s tomb to anoint the body with spices and found it empty. They returned to the apostles to tell them this astounding news but nobody believed them. Women talk, most likely.
A bit later two of Christ’s followers were walking to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, talking about the empty tomb and despairing over the Crucifixion. They met a stranger who walked with them, explaining how all that was going down fitted into the scriptures.
The Messiah had come.
They reach Emmaus and invite the stranger to stay with them. At supper he prays and breaks bread for all.
Suddenly they realise who this gentle man is; their very own Christ, risen, the Son of God.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.
They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
It is this exact moment that the carver captures here, the central figure of Christ, modest, humble, with the bread, the lad on the left throwing his arms up in amazement, the man on the right shielding his face as if he is afraid to look.
And these are your average Joes, bodies crumpled with work, even Christ not the symmetrical handsomeness he is so often portrayed as, but a guy from the streets, the alleyways of the world.
And the story is intimately connected with the Eucharist, the revelation of Christ in the blessing of the bread.
Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “their eyes were opened and they recognised him”
Ecclesia De Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II
And a perfect fit for an altar
More powerful Flemish carvings, Christ’s Passion
Marvellously there are two more pieces of Flemish work in the chancel, both from1620-1640 (thanks again Marham Church Antiques), both panels now incorporated into nineteenth century chairs.
Again, the normality of the folk stands out, and the immediacy of Christ front and centre in both (see above and the one below), inviting an intense spiritual meditation.
These these were not made for the Protestants, the new kids on the block since Martin Luther arrived in the hood, these were made for Roman Catholics and their churches.
They were a product of the Counter-Reformation (starting around 1543), the Catholic answer to the Reformation (in a sense at least).
Changing their art was part of that Counter-Reformation, because it had got all too frilly frilly and silly silly and had almost become art for art’s sake and not for God’s or the church’s sake.
Christian art, it was decided, should bring out distinctive Catholic teachings and beliefs, as shown by Christ’s suffering here in both panels.
Then it should be clear and compelling, not full of imaginary additions but immediate, powerful.
It should be spiritually intense, affective, something to pray in front of.
Lastly it needed to be ordinary, identifiable to most all folk, something that the viewer could easily understand.
And do not these panels, and the Emmaus one, do just that? Ordinary folk, you and I and Joe Mudge down the pub, ourselves alone doing the whipping, the jeering, the crucifying, the suffering, in an extraordinary scene, so very relatable and spiritually powerful, as well as being so very Roman Catholic in its immediacy.
And as Flemish work comes from Flanders, which was a Spanish (very Roman Catholic) colony at the time… well, these panels now have a deep context and for some of us that adds a extra layer of meaning.
Christ being nailed to the cross
Such a beauty this one too, intense, relatable, spiritual, powerful and handsomely carved with compelling detail.
So how come these darlings ended up in Langtree church?
‘… when the storm of the French Revolution burst over different countries in Europe… scarcely was a country overrun by the French, when Englishmen skilled in the arts were at hand with their guineas’
And another art critic wept
To tear from a monument fragments which often, far from the whole, lose all their interest and value just to embellish a cottage garden, it’s a deplorable madness
Baron Taylor (translated from the French)
So there we have it. Revolutions, war, invasions, social upheaval, folk wanting to make a quick buck, and the English there with their wads of cash, art dealers, art collectors and doubtless many shady inbetweeners.
And these carvings here are out of their original context, ripped from their own churches, maybe an altar back, maybe a devotional space, possibly an altar front, but they are still loved and cherished and far, far more importantly they still fill their spiritual service, they glory Christ and the Christian way, still, in this modest little church in the magical landscape of North West Devon.
Newly homed, with a Christian family, adopted and loved.
Victorian Stained glass in the East Window
Yet jumping ahead two hundred and twenty five years or so, the stained glass in the East Window couldn’t be more different, coming from another tradition entirely. Heavily stylised, showing a very clear historical scene, not emotive at all, and this very much on purpose.
This is not about meeting deep spirituality with feeling, this was more about meditating on the meaning of the scriptures, the word, which these images illustrate. A different approach, an arguably more Protestant approach, for sure less mystical, more intellectual, though to be fair the Church of England can near out-Catholic Roman Catholics in a heartbeat with their High Churchery.
But not here. Here it is about the scriptures and thinking about their meaning, and just to emphasise this point…
The Four Evangelists
Around the outside are the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the writers of the Gospels. Can’t get much clearer than this. Words. Writings. Meanings.
Pretty colours too, very so, with such bonny creatures. I do love this window, mighty attractive as it is. Those wings!
A right proper granite font
Wandering down the nave the old fifteenth century granite font with its big bold carvings is a connection to the deeper past. This heavyweight is not going anywhere, revolution or no revolution.
As ever, granite is very difficult to carve. It is one of the hardest stones in existence, and definitely the hardest used in construction.
Then we have the quality of the metal available to medieval stone masons; it kinda sucked. No Industrial Revolution, no hardened steel, at least not for Stan the Stoneman; special swords maybe, and possibly the most expensive armour, but way beyond the reach of the average Stan.
The Lamb of God carving on the font
So when we look at this superb Lamb of God on the font, we might think clumsy, maybe even naive but the audience would have understood the work involved in carving out all the surrounding stone and the symbol of Christ, the Lamb of God instantly recognised.
Some might say it is not exactly over-lambish, with that long tail and neck and all, but then again medieval lambs were not our modern ones. The merino sheep had not been imported from Spain, and sheep were valued for more than selling or wearing the wool; cheese, milk, mutton (no lamb meat then) from these animals helped all survive in the hard times.
Then that long tail, that’s the natural length of a tail on many a sheep. Modern farmers cut them off, as humanely as they can of course, but this practise was not common until the eighteenth century.
So this was a symbol of sustenance, of daily needs met, essential to life. Just like, oh, maybe the Lamb of God, Christ the Lord himself…
The whispers of the church
And now the churches are calm, no longer the hustle and bustle, the colours of the medieval; the Divine whispers to our hearts through our own twenty-first century understandings.
Here too are the jeers and whistles as we crucify our God again and again, and dragging him through streets and nailing him up because… well, because humans, but also because some of us individuals fail every day, always with our crucifixions of someone or something…
Yet here too is the word of God, the shocked cry of love as the Emmaus lads discover the risen Christ in their midst, that Lamb of God gambolling in the shadows, back from death, infinitely loving, infinitely forgiving, infinitely guiding, infinitely nourishing…
With faith or without, this is heaven.