- A glorious Victorian chancel
- Lovely nineteenth century wall paintings
- Sweet painted angels on the altar
- Special Norman or even Saxon font
- Great stained glass Virgin Mary
- Very good Arts & Crafts church gate
Little Torrington and the Garden of Eden
In Little Torrington there is a little hamlet on a little river with a little quay for a little trade alongside a little bridge for the little road that led a little south… called Taddiport.
And in 1400 or so, somebody created the Evesham World Map, with the Garden of Eden at the top, the Tower of Babel, Jerusalem, Rome, Cologne, Calais (‘borrowed’ from the French about fifty years before), then England at the bottom, with London, Oxford, York, Southhampton, all the big boys clearly marked…
Plus Taddiport. Near the bottom. Mirroring the Garden of Eden. As it does.
Now that is as fair bit of trolling as I have ever come across, and putting a Devon parish up against the Garden of Eden… kinda hope that humanity’s first paradise does not mind coming off second best…
Because it is mighty pretty up here, perched above the River Torridge on the edge of a limestone plateau and with a church to match.
The experts say that Taddiport is on the map because the map maker came from here, I say the experts have never been to Devon… and topping and tailing such a major map with the old paradise and the new makes perfect sense…
Experts, eh… !
Oh, and the map, about 94 cms by 46 cms, cost 6 Marks, or £3 13s 4d (£3.66p), about the annual wage of a farmworker or the price of a horse and cart, maybe the same as a new Mercedes A-Class nowadays.
Inside the church
But inside there is sound of trumpets and stringed instruments, and intimations of gorgeousness at the point of entry, because the chancel.
Those granite pillars though need a good glance, likely brought from Lundy Island, twenty-five miles by sea to Bideford, nine miles by river to Taddiport, two miles uphill to Little Torrington church, finished onsite, capitals carved, height adjusted, raised to God’s glory and here for us to devote a little love to.
As we wander up the nave, attracted by the glory…
… of this golden bonny.
Just look at that collection of colours and patterns, overlaid by a sheen of gold, stencilled walls, painted ceiling, tiles, marble, woodwork, saints, angels, it is a vision of loveliness, and for the parishioners who had not seen this degree of decoration since before the Reformation it must have been astonishing.
In truth, this degree of decoration in a little country church can give us more than a glimpse of the richness of Pre-Reformation churches when nearly every surface was painted, tiled or carved and full of stained glass… and saints were all over.
The present stencilling covers over a previous more expansive decoration apparently, which must have made it near overwhelming, but I do love this too. Gold. Gets me every time. I am shallow. Sue me.
The larger golden stencils are the IHS symbol, a Christogram or combination of letters for the name of Jesus. Here they are the first three letters of the Jesus’ name in Greek and also the initial letters of the phrase ‘Jesus, Saviour of Man’, or ‘Jesus, Our Saviour’ in Latin and Greek respectively.
St Giles and St Boniface
The saints at the far end are in a tradition stretching way, way back, when from is not clear but likely the early Middle Ages. There would have been a statue or a wall painting of the church’s patron saint on the left of the altar, here St Giles, and Mary or a locally important saint to the right.
They have gone with St Boniface on the right, a local lad from Devon who trotted off to Germany to convert the pagans and was a mover and shaker in the complicated life over there. To cut a long story short he was martyred in 754 AD by a gang of robbers and when his armed companions wanted to fight back he said:
Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good.
Not a bad approach at all.
Saint Giles on the other hand was a hermit, a vegetarian, and cared for the local animals in the South of France. A gentle soul seemingly, and a wonderful one.
Why pray to saints?
But for the church their lives, and these beautifully painted figures, are only important as a way into how they lived, and how through deep consideration of their ‘saintliness’ prayers can have more power.
That is not say folk can all get Ferraris instead of hatchbacks if we all pray through saints, at least I have not come across a church with that theology, but they can develop spiritually.
Now this is, or was, an Anglo-Catholic church, Anglican but very Roman Catholic orientated (said him with the vagueness of putting complicated into one sentence), and the Anglo Catholics and saints meant…
asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them
William Forbes (1585 – 1634)
So more a way of sharpening prayers, of making them clear in heart and soul; praying with a love that desires deep clarity and honesty.
And there is a lot of love in this area, such a compact wonder.
The church altar and sanctuary
Look at these details, alabaster carvings of wheat and grapes on the altar back (the reredos), symbolising the Eucharist of bread and wine, with foliage above. Delicacies.
An opinionated angel
Or this angel, one of three on the altar front, charmingly Victorian and giving one of the best heavenly eye rolls I have seen. “Oh my, not another visitor babbling on about delicate colours, vibrant golden background and finely drawn figures”.
Well, yes, I am afraid it is, and if you are going to pose like that then expect more, little angel.
Me, I think the collar really sets everything off. An angel with fashion sense. Mmmmmh.
The amount of tile varieties here is another pleasant surprise, these are but two, and a very well laid two too.
Victorian church tilework is such an undervalued art form. Each church seems to take a different approach, each one its own creative team, each one ending up with an arresting folk beauty.
They really are delightful.
An impressive font
Almost as arresting as Fatbelly Mama, Font of the Blues, a rosette in her girdle and song on her lips, singing of rebirths and reawakening, new understandings, new wonders…
An earthly passage, another realm
Where spirits roam rejoice rebuild
Each breath I take a baptism, a briny birth
My faith restored along this sacred path
… Will my wonder ever leave me
wishing for something else instead?
Saltwater Walking – Atticus Jones
Boy, would I so like to be here when this lady strolls around the church in the early hours.
She is old too, older than time, Saxon or Norman shaped in this incarnation, friend to generations, godmother to babies, lover of folk. She is a gorgeous sight.
And an odd detail. This is like a cauldron or a wooden bowl, slotted into a holder and on legs. It is almost as if the carver has used an existing wooden font as a model. Is this because it was carved before the Normans came with their Romanesque style, and the creator had no tradition in stone carving to go off? Being Saxon and all and living in a timber-built culture? Or a clever Norman design?
There is a font cover almost as unique as the font, with those four foliage-carved branches rising to converge on a resting place for the Holy Spirit, a delicate little plump sweeting this one, possibly carved later than the Jacobean work below it.
Grief and a memorial
A Holy Spirit that will play its part in comforting the grief of this family, mourning Henry Stevens who died in 1802, masterly carved from fine white marble.
Look, if you will, at the sheer theatricality of it, those drapes held back as if on a stage, the sarcophagus on the fanciful rock (find a stray rock, put a stray sarcophagus on it, just the way we roll), the enormous urn, and of course the grand guignolesque grieving greek girl.
And if we wonder how this truly great carving came to be here, the answer is that is by Peter Rouw the Junior, a famous London sculptor of his time and still admired today. Just as we are doing. Truth is, one critic has said:
Where he features the full figure, Rouw shows a commanding draughtsmanship and appreciation of the subtlety of the draped figure…
Which he surely does here.
Thing is though, it works because of its theatricality. Grief is ritualised in many ways in order to cope, both nowadays and in the past, and by presenting it as a state apart from everyday society it gives permission to feel so far away from home.
Many folk who go through intense grief know just how estranged from the world it can make us feel, and this strange scene says ‘Mourn. Cry. It is ok. You are in a different universe just now’.
Plus as the design follows the cultural taste of the day, the message also is ‘You are not alone’. The scene was (and is) for everyone suffering deep loss, comforting each and every soul.
Of course there are other interpretations, not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Beautiful stained glass
This Alpha and Omega roundel is another piece of theatricality, found in various forms in a number of churches in nineteenth century glass and the kind of thing easily glossed over as ‘seen before’ or ‘does not leap off the window’.
But the gold and black lettering does leap off the lush red foliage background, with the white dots emphasising the dynamism, and the surrounding black and gold circle reverses the colour order of the letters.
Then the blue outer circle adds a little touch of prettiness; always welcome, that.
A simple thing, not uncommon, but once we delve down how can we not get lost in the magic?
Another detail here, two angels above a Crucifixion scene, looking with distress and sorrow, but of course unable to help their God because he has chosen to be human.
Either that, or they have just glimpsed my bank account.
Again, the details win here, the tassels on the robe the right, the drape of cloth the left, the hands across the face, those cute wings…
The Virgin Mary
And this is full on beauteous, Mary holding her lilies symbolising purity, golden hair, golden…well, gold in lots of places, after all we are looking at the Mother of God, and then her blue inner robe. It is a lovely portrait of a young lady full of Divine peace.
A very nice farewell
Wandering back out, heading for nice cup of tea or coffee (just 10 minutes away in Great Torrington) the late nineteenth century gate is there to say a fine farewell in quite an Artsy Craftsy sort of way, that goodly woodwork sitting on brick sides and those really rather nice gates, bit like the church really, understated but when we look, really look, everything comes alive and starts to dance.
And the final message, a paraphrase of psalm 71…
I will go forth in the strength of the Lord GOD: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only
Psalm 71: 16
An old gateway, battered and bruised, still believing, still conversing, still singing the strength of God and the wonder of a world with the Divine in it.
A fine exit.