- A very fine and precious 15th century church
- A wonderfully intact ceilure above the rood screen
- And equally wonderful 16th century rood screen
- Some very fine Victorian coloured glass
- A lovely 21st century Andrew Johnson stained glass window
- Stunning medieval bench ends
- A ‘must visit’ for devotees of medieval Devon churches
Lapford Church of St Thomas of Canterbury
Lapford Church, a lovely Mid-Devon beauty in a village once on a well-travelled route, bypassed back in the late eighteenth century, and happily basking in the beautiful countryside ever since.
A supportive little village back in the day too; in 1742 Tommy Dockett was unemployed, and at the monthly parishioners meeting they arranged for him to have work; each house gave him a day’s work or so at the daily rate of eight pence.
The householders employed him in proportion to their own payments into the poor rate, and this tradition seems to have gone back into medieval times; there is a record from 1597 of a similar custom in Cornwall, centred around the church as the Lapford one surely was.
The church itself is a corker, a sweet exterior with wonders galore inside. This version is fifteenth century, with various restorations after but there was a Norman one before.
The south door
Some say this entrance door is Norman though those vertical cover strips are nineteenth century; the iron fittings are certainly ancient, but my guess is that it is original fifteenth century. It is too wide for Norman, and seems to fit the present door just right, where a recycled one might not.
A goodly sight all the same.
Inside Lapford Church
As is the inside of Lapford church, though a fantastical gorgeousness of medieval woodwork might be a better description.
Even that does not do it justice.
Bench ends and a rood screen, called by some folk one of the best in the country; I cannot say yea or nay to that but it does seriously rock.
Here, let us take another look, because the ceilure up above, that special bit of roof, is original and gives a sense of the majesty of the whole design.
That carved crucifixion (this one is recent-ish), the rood as it was called, would have been painted and maybe clothed in rich textiles, and below there would have been a rood loft supported by the present screen; the present vaulting is part of that support.
The loft was for access to the rood, candles and incense and general care; of course all was painted and gilded like the rood, fantastically so.
The ceilure as well, with stars and more…
Stars and flowers and heaven on earth
The stars are still here, and the fancy roof bosses, and looking closely (binoculars help) there are still traces of the ancient gilding… Plus paint, there would have been lashings of bright paint as well.
It would have been wonderful canopy for the crucified Christ, a heavenly canopy to be exact.
Because through Christ, and through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Heaven and Earth are united.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven
The Lords Prayer
United here on earth too, according to many fine interpreters of the Lords Prayer much more theologically adept than moi; heaven is present in every act of grace, every glance of kindness, every holy compassion, and as for practising these acts… Well, hello Christianity, pleased to meet you!
As the man said,
The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
So earthly foliage weaves up the rood screen, meeting Christ connecting us to Heaven above…
My point being not to evangelise, but to demonstrate that there is always theology at work in the design of these lovelies, and if we ignore that we ignore a wonderful aspect of churches.
Plus pretty, of course, I do so love the pretty.
Lapford Church rood screen
Like this one.
And holy moley, it is crackerjack. One of the most intricate screens I have had the privilege of loving, full of Renaissanceries and fripperies, enough sinuosities to make even a quantum computer run home to its Mama crying ‘it is all too complicated’.
But not too beautiful, never that.
This seems to have been created by a team of master carvers that also built at least half a dozen other screens in the area; we can tell this because of style, chisel work and design.
The date is not clear; sixteenth century most very likely, but how early or late is moot; the general consensus, just, is around 1530-40.
This work is the most substantial of the aforementioned team; I am tempted to say the best, but all have value and I so find hierarchy a killer of beauty.
It also uses the best oak, very important that because of the intricate carving, oak which likely came from the Baltic.
But the design is a true fascination, a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance as it is; the wainscoting, the bottom panels, is totally Goth, as well as the tracery, vaulting and top frieze…
The rood screen vaulting and frieze
The spandrels, the space between the vault ribs, on the other hand, are just out and out fun Renaissance.
Here, take a closer look.
Intricate wonderful that really does require quality wood.
Along with everything carefully planned, each vaulted unit separately designed, individually carved and sanded, faces and flowers and foliage, fitting exactly in the right space, months and months of intricate work…
Not to mention arranging delivery of the right wood at the right time, managing the teams of joiners and carpenters, and ensuring all come together at the right time…
The accommodation, the food, the workspace, the money, the negotiating with the church wardens…
And then there is keeping old Bill Ellis off the scrumpy and away from the skirts… Now that is a challenge and a half.
All for beauty and awe in a little church deep in rural Devon. What a marvel!
A foliate head
Here a little foliate head from the vaulting, about seven centimetres tall, every little detail leaping out from the wood.
Enchanting Renaissance carving
More here, with the minutest little flicks of the carver’s chisel bringing life and character to the wood, the hair, the eye, the beards, the foliage…
And then the whole heads, how they fit into the complex whole.
And each one different, oh so very different.
The intricate frieze
Though the Gothic is certainly neck and neck with the Renaissance in the wonder stakes here, the top frieze, minds blown for five centuries.
Now imagine it gilded. Mind doubly blown.
Here is originality, nothing stolen from great masters of engraving or etching. The impulse is from nature, but it is followed freely, every plant adapted to suit the purpose, almost regardless of absolute fidelity to truth of form, more careful to attract by the beauty of the long-curves of the festoons of leafage contrasting with one another, curve competing with curve…
Wood Sculpture, Alfred Maskell, 1911
And still folk of the Faith come, to dream intricate dreams of the Divine and the complexities of the soul, to gaze at this and see God around them, here, in Lapford church.
What a beautiful world we live in.
Stained glass by Andrew Johnson
Back to the wild and free with this modern enchantment by Andrew Johnson, a stained glass artist based in Exeter.
The cross, with the symbol of the Holy Trinity in the middle as well as the Star of David, showing the deep Jewish foundation of Christianity, surrounded by Mary’s white lilies of purity and the Holy Spirit swooping down to flood another soul with love and compassion.
And a little old pigeon getting in on the act, Nice touch, that.
The Holy Spirit and a photobombing pigeon
Here, the passionate spirit and the photobombing pigeon. Bet her mates will not believe her when she gets back home.
Andrew is an ordained self supporting Priest, and works on the principles laid down by St Benedict, that to work with your hands is to praise God at all times.
Andrew Johnson website
And what a way to praise God.
Gorgeous bench ends in Lapford Church
The bench ends reach out to us too, Medieval as it happens, a touch expected in this bonny church.
They were installed at different times for sure, this style above is the earliest, fifteenth century. Plain carving, with the right hand one very Gothic, but the biggest clue to their date is no carved edging, just plain moulded.
On the left could well be representing the Tree of Life, and I love how it is repeated on the right growing out of what surely is a stylised representation of a church.
Gothic and Renaissance playing together
And then there these, sixteenth century, possibly post Reformation, interestingly still very Gothic but with Renaissance decoration on their shields.
The lack of clear religious symbols here leads some folk to date it post-Reformation (say 1530s to the 1560s) when that kind of thing was thing was cancelled (yup, cancel culture is a deep historical thing).
But equally possible, if not more so (see the screen) is that the carvers and church folk were happy to mix up new and old styles, and the benches date a tad earlier.
The Five Sacred Wounds of Christ
Because there is religion on the bench ends; here the Five Sacred Wounds of Christ, a major symbol of the Roman faith that was considered, to some extent, the coat of arms of Christ, assuming Christ was an English gentleman of the sixteenth century.
Which he was in a significant way, as well as being a beggar, a king, a twenty-first computer programmer…
Not so sure this carving was making this exact point though.
Or take this one, said to be the initials of the family of St John who lived hereabouts; however Dr ET Fox makes a very fine argument that they are a designation of Iesu Salvator, Jesus the Saviour or similar, as they appear in other churches both in the West Country and outside.
The scourging of Christ
Or this frightener, referring to Christ’s scourging during The Passion, his suffering through the crucifixion days.
And it truly is a frightener, the carver understood what such a vicious act involved, probably having seen it in real life in what passed for justice in Tudor times.
The flail is knotted, designed to break the skin of the back and flay it from the bones, and there is a counterweight at the other end that dramatically increases the power of the blow; the man is lunging too, which adds even more force.
Possibly the most terrifying thing though is the facial expression: Just another day at the office, tick the box and get back home to the wife and kids for a good meal.
T for two
The religious imagery is outweighed by the Renaissance work though, and Todd Gray does wonder if maybe these benches were paid for by individuals for their own use (benches were starting to be rented to or bought by the great and the good) and if they chose their preferred design; the Roman imagery being acceptable as this area still had not yet accepted the new faith (The Prayerbook Rebellion is a mighty fine clue here).
And some see it as the makers’ design choices, experimentation with the new if you will, allowing both old and modern tractions to come together and make something a little bit unique to little old Devon.
All could be, there is no clear answer, except that the carving rocks, magically so.
Heaven and Earth
Whilst the Victorians contribute with their own personal magic throughout, including these gorgeously coloured windows, a bit of foliage up top and glowing enchantment below.
Which is one reason why I cannot get overly worried about dating or even originality versus restoration, or even the new replacing the old. They all bring their own beauty, their delights, their raptures, and they all reflect heaven here on earth.
Which is, at the end of things, the purpose of a House of God.