- A beautiful spot in the Blackdown Hills in East Devon
- A wonderful exterior nestled into a south facing hillside
- Good grotesques
- Beautiful interior with clear lines and peaceful space
- Wonderful 14th/15th century roof in the nave
- Nationally important early Norman font
- Font is deeply carved with fantastical scenes
Luppitt Church of St Mary
Beautifully placed Luppitt Church, snugly nestling into its south facing hillside, gazing across to Hartridge and its bronze age burial mound, below runs the valley of the River Dolish and medieval fields run on the steep slopes of the Blackdown hills…
Hart ridge from heorot ridge, heorot being Old English for a red deer stag, the king of the beasts, Dolish from old Brittonic Celtic, dark water; Bronze Age, Celtic, Saxon, Medieval…
Here be deep history, here be deep wonder.
Both inside and out, because inside it has a seriously magical National Treasure, and outside… well, just look…
Norman origins, late thirteenth early fourteenth century rebuild, new tower, porch and a general tidy up in fifteenth, and various refurbishments after.
Also acoustic bowls. Acoustic bowls are soooo cool.
No added aisles either, still keeping its cruciform shape.
And the top of that tower? Yup, rebuilt recently, 1905 to be exact. Lightning.
Luppitt parish also had the earliest recorded licensed domestic oratory (private chapel) in Devon, 1308, Sir Simon Montacute in the manor of La More.
No evil allowed
While this wee beastie up near the peak of that tower, its gesture admittedly less wondrous than rather extremely rude in medieval terms.
Still, its function was probably to ward off demonic sprits in one way or another, apotropaic as we say, guarding the boundaries of good and evil, as this building sits on the boundaries of the low fertile valley and the heathland (as was) wild of the plateau above.
As the Church of Christ sits between life and death, heaven and earth, redemption and pain.
The priest’s door
While the priest’s door into the chancel, a probably reset thirteenth/fourteenth century beauty, another boundary, between the holy and the profane, the sacred space inside, sanctuary, altar, chancel, and worldly affairs outside; only the clergy were allowed to enter the sacred except for very special circumstances.
This was, back then, the entrance to the deep mystery, the place of the transformation of bread and wine into the living body of Christ. No ifs, no buts.
Inside Luppitt Church of St Mary
Nowadays inside Luppitt church simplicity rules, rough plaster, beautiful wood, and the various arches and curves playing with light most delightfully.
Along with a far less strict understanding of that there bread and water transformation, of course. The Church of England is broad church.
The crossing roof
Another broad babe is the magnificent central crossing roof, where the two transepts, the nave and the chancel meet.
Very probably the original, full of the beautiful forms and swirling energies of the same woodlands that the ribs and rafters came from, bringing their ghostly memories with them.
Such a labour too, the growing of the timber not least. Folk would very rarely let a tree get old, as young straight wood was so much more useful, not a big call for big roofs in a rural peasant society.
But some estates would carefully let the right shaped trees grow out, so they could use the curved timber in future projects, like this one.
Then the cutting, sawing, axing, shaping, dragging, adzing, erecting, pinning… and the same process with the roofing material, probably oak shingles, maybe thatched.
It is potentially one of the earliest surviving church roofs in Devon, and at one point it would have been plastered.
In between the main ribs, little spaced strips of wood (lathes) were nailed, connecting those smaller curvy bits for the plaster to stick to. We can still see the old nail holes.
The main boss
And at the centre, Christ the King wearing his crown and also God the Father from whom all creation flows.
This is a copy of the original, which was found to be too rotted when conservation work was done in 1952, carved by the Herbert Read workshop in Exeter.
The chancel arch frames the East window well, most of the chancel being rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.
But earlier, in the 1820s, there was stone rood screen removed which ran across the chancel opening, as well as another across the north transept.
The sanctuary and acoustic jars
While the simple sanctuary sits quietly in its hillside light.
But during the late nineteenth century restoration some things were discovered hidden behind the chancel plaster, some most truly very fascinating things that can be seen in a glass case in the nave.
Acoustic jars is what, pottery jars with one side flattened to they lie horizontally. They would have been embedded in the walls sometime around the fifteenth century, with their mouths open to the chancel; later, after the Reformation, they were plastered over.
Why? Polyphony, two or more equal voices following independent melodies, weaving around each other, sung by the clergy, which grew up in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as church music. Very marvellous church music at that.
And all of Europe reckoned English polyphony was especially extraordinary…
But England had a polyphonic style all its own. There was nothing remotely like it on the continent. In particular, English composers loved to ‘float’ voices high above all the others, creating effects that were truly haunting.
Corpus Christi Watershed: British Polyphony
Acoustic jars have been found in various churches, but no one is quite sure how they worked; are working on discovering their effects, so far there are a number of possibilities.
They might have the amplified the volume of the voices.
They might have created an echo effect, a richer more textured sound if you will.
They might have absorbed the resonance of certain frequencies.
And probably these are just the start.
What we can be reasonably sure of is that the clergy knew what their aims were in using the jars, and that they demonstrate just how much medieval churches were aural soundscapes, dreamily so.
Even out here deep in the enchanting boondocks of rural Devon.
The Luppitt font
There is something else totally, awesomely unexpected as well in this church, and I am not referring to the stunning fifteenth century tower arch.
It is that font, the Luppitt Font.
Fighting figures on the Luppitt font
The Luppitt Font was dug out of a churchyard bank in 1890 by the vicar, no surprise there as when fonts were changed it was important to bury the old one in consecrated ground; they were mighty sacred objects.
It is early Norman, axe carved (as opposed to mallet and chisel), and a gobsmackingly powerful piece of dynamic art.
Which no one understands at all. Not a clue.
Of course there are all manner of interpretations, all heartfelt, most well argued, but hardly a scintilla of hard evidence to back them up.
Like here, two figures going hammer and tongs, with a head in between and old beardie to the left wearing an awesome headdress… Or is he being devoured by a dragon from the top of the head downwards?
And are the two fighty fighty figures the same figure shown at different stages, cartoon style, as medieval illustrations sometimes did?
Or are they actually not fighting but hammering a nail into someone’s head?
And what is with those booties and where can I buy a pair? Admittedly this last question is mine, but what can I say? I am a man of fashion, though of what era is an open question… and of what quality is another…
An onocentaur and an amphisbaena?
Whilst going clockwise, what is with these? Is that a centaur on the left or an onocentaur, which has the body of an ass instead of a horse?
And is that two headed dragon not a two dragon but an amphisbaena, a kind of two headed reptile with one of the heads on its tail? And why is it connected to the next scene, by a halter around its neck and something between its legs?
The Tree of Life?
Which is here, and looks totally mundane but could this be the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden thus representing Eden itself?
And why do its tendrils continue on to the next scene?
This one to be exact.
A hunting scene? Nature red in tooth and claw? And top left is that a bird pecking at the back of the central critter? And is that a hare bottom right (those ears) about to be gobbled up by that central critter again, which might be a wolf? Or might not be.
Or this God’s creation having a jolly day out in the Backdown Hills, all hugger mugger together?
But wait, these is more, because at each corner there is a face.
Of which the two best preserved ones are these, Mr Toothy and Mr Beaky, both which bear similarities to Norman carvings found on doorways and capitals.
But here they are on a font, which is unusual. And whose meaning no one has a real clue about either, though plenty of ideas, worthwhile ideas too because informed speculation is such a grand voyage of discovery.
But there is at least one thing we can be sure of: Fonts were incredibly important, they were not just places for dunking little Billy in the Holy Water then sloping off down the pub (though to be fair, Luppitt does have a cracking pub right next to the church, open only three evenings a week, probably not Early Norman though).
The Sacrament of Baptism welcomes a child into the church and cleanses the little blighter of original sin (without getting into much later Protestant perspectives). It was so important that midwives were allowed to perform an emergency baptism if the baby was likely to die (still are allowed in some church denominations).
So these stunning carvings are very unlikely to have been the equivalent of stone wallpaper. They meant something. Not only each scene, but the meanings of the animals depicted. Probably maybe.
More importantly, I love it, the dynamic, powerful carving, a chasmic mystery of ancient awe.
But thoughts do turn to meanings, and riffing off various suggestions and insights collected since it was discovered I too understand it in a certain way.
Let us play.
The Luppitt font, an interpretation
The start is those heads, which according to a fair few scholars represent the headwaters of the four rivers that flow out of the Garden of Eden, the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates.
T Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams
There is a pun going on here too. In the Latin bible used back then the word for headwaters was ‘capita’, and the common word in Latin for heads was ‘capita’ (singular ‘caput’).
Though another possibility is that these beauties serve the same purpose as the grotesques from the tower, to ward off evil and other nasties, protecting the holy font and little Billy into the bargain being a goodly service.
The side carvings
Top left is potentially the Tree of Life, one of the central aspects of the Garden of Eden and often used to depict the same.
It even has that central stem starting in the bottom middle, and all the branches spring from there; there is also the fact that its tendrils twine into the two adjoining scenes, as the branches of a Tree of Life really should.
The rest of the carvings are even more open interpretation for us moderns. Do they form a narrative? Or are they standalone statements? Are the wildlife images of God’s creation, or are they nature red in tooth and claw?
As for the two folk having a barney, Cain and Abel I suspect, more importantly Cain killing Abel. The fighters are using normal tools, not wearing armour (seemingly) and their shields seem more baskety than shieldy as one might expect if they were soldiers. The head in between might be a dead Abel.
Admittedly this actual scene is an imagining of the barebones description in the Bible…
And Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.
With the bearded dude on the left being God, who sees everything, and whose size in the scene indicates his importance.
And while the first murder was not the Original Sin in Roman tradition, Adam and Eve had called dibs on that one, it was mighty close and it was the first murder. Maybe an image to remind good Christian folk what baptism meant in that day and age, how way above important it was.
The last carving is a doozy; it likely enough has something to do with the liminal world, the world on the borders between life and death, a very different state of being, like the grotesque we saw on the tower. Christianity itself is a very liminal religion, it reveals the deep entanglement of the spirit and the material, and offers a path across the borders to the Divine for us mortals.
Am I right?
Heaven to Betsy no, that would be no fun at all. Besides I am just a magic-headed church fanboy, not an academic doo dah to my name; but if I thought there was no potential truth in my witterings I would keep schtum.
Through a glass darkly
As always we look through a glass darkly to a thousand years gone, vaguely working out meanings in the middle of Devon’s beautiful landscape, wondering, imagining, feeling…
Never getting anywhere near to a hundred per cent confidence except over one thing… The wondrous beauty contained in just a single font, a single church, a single valley in our very special indeed Devon countryside…
Which is enough for me and many of us here.