- Set in a very pretty Dartmoor village
- A lovely granite church, with some great use of that stone
- Vaulted stone roof to the porch
- A most excellent 15th century rood screen
- With good, though damaged, saint paintings on the wainscoting
- A stunning altar back by Edward Fellowes Prynne
- Charming floral bench ends by the Pinwill sisters
- A powerful stained glass window by Frank Brangwyn
- Medieval stained glass saints
- All in all, a grand church in a gorgeous area of Dartmoor
Manaton Church of St. Winifred
Granite upon granite, stone upon stone, the moor’s very bones reshaped to a temple of God, aeons of history contained in its walls.
And here, high on Dartmoor, more history, fields were carved out of the wilderness long before, beyond the Iron Age even, likely still the same boundaries, now grazed by sheep and cattle.
And tin was dug, one of the biggest sources of tin for the rest of Europe back in the day, and a living was wrested from some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.
And of course the church, built and rebuilt a few times, this version from the fifteenth century with its beautiful tower stating a faith that God is here, up here in this parish close to heaven.
An arch of granite
And always the granite, tough, rough stone shaped by tough, rough men. This west door, four massive blocks dragged here by oxen and minimally carved; granite is Dartmoor and this church is granite, another outcropping in this sweet, ferocious landscape.
Nature is the artist here.
Manaton church porch
Entering through a fortress of a porch, blank-faced, grey granite again, two storied, this is grand welcome, fit for a castle lord.
The porch vaulting
With a stone vaulted roof too, now that is posh and mighty rare hereabouts, timber being the usual drug of choice for this work. But it looks the bee’s knees’, and matches the granite benches on each side.
The rood screen in Manaton church
The vaulting and some of the cornice, the top frieze, was beautifully restored by EH Sedding and the Pinwill sisters in 1893, below that the medieval comes out to play, detail upon detail and is this such a finely carved and coloured beauty.
Sedding and the Pinwills also restored using best practise, not trying to fit their work into the medieval but making it clear which was which. A goodly approach, a tad ahead of its time for the day.
Saints on the wainscoting
Drilling deeper we can see the medieval wainscoting with its foliage carving and saints standing in the archways. There has been damage and we will come to that.
Saints and sainting was a mighty complicated business in the Old Church, a bit like the football (soccer) leagues which, to be honest, I understand even less.
There were five main types of saint, plus the Virgin Mary who was the Queen of them all: angels, apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins (yup, sorry Devon, virginity is thing).
Sometimes their type was mentioned to avoid confusion; St Edward the Confessor was called so because there was another, earlier, St Edward who was a martyr, and two simple St Edwards is one too many.
There was a special mass for saints, the Common of the Saints, and each type had its own variation, plus more variations if the saint was double-barrelled: a virgin-martyr, or a confessor-not-a-bishop (yes, there were sub-types too!). When these masses were used then the specific saint’s name was just slipped into the right place.
Then the football league thing; Saints went up and down in importance. So think of the above as the lower leagues. The premiership, that is when you got your own mass, specially written for you (or dead you in the case of a saint).
And these premiership saints, with their masses on their feast days, could have a
“wholly double, simply double, semi-double, and simple”
Which was another level of complexity, all open to change, promotion and demotion.
The damaged faces
Now football might be more interesting or not, but back in the day there was not a lot to get complex about but they sure found a way with these darlings; I have barely scratched the surface.
But that is how pervasive they were, even up here in little old Manaton.
There were local and regional saints too, like St Sidwell in Devon, and fan boys tried to slip their favourite saints into the mix.
Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter 1420-5, fancied St Raphael and created a whole mass for that archangel, telling all of his churches to use it. That they might have done, but we do not find Raphael pictured on the local rood screens, so I guess the Bish lost out on that banana.
We did find up here is some deadly ace painting, really great quality with clear lines and wonderful shading even after all these years.
The faces though, oh my, deadly gouged out with a frightening hate, using a carpenter’s gouge apparently.
‘Reformation’ we all shout, which is likely true but many paintings in Devon are untouched and this seems so full of fury. I would be tempted to go with ‘mentally disturbed’, though the two are not mutually exclusive.
The delicate carving and colouring
Even the little apostles (on the left) carved around the main doorway have been defaced; something deeply felt is going on, bearing in mind that Protestantism didn’t take root here with passion post-Reformation in general, more a disenchantment with the church started growing.
But the absolute stunning delicacy on this massive construction is still here. The little arches above the apostle on the left, and the palm leaves, on the right, around the doors and windows, symbolising victory and holiness, just as they were used in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and knock me sideways but those tiny golden stencilled flowers on the red uprights so tickle my senses.
Enchanting does not begin to describe it.
Though to be fair there is an absolute scorcher in the sanctuary that gives it a fine run for its money; a gorgeous Victorian altar back (reredos) by Edward Fellowes Prynne, a mighty talented semi-Pre-Raphaelite painter and brother of the architect who renovated this church in 1890, George Fellowes Prynne.
The gorgeous Edward Fellowes Prynne altar back
Twelve apostles, eight angels, the Annunciation, Nativity and Crucifixion painted in a golden haze of delicacy and love topped with some gorgeous, intricate carving.
What more does a lad or lassie want?
An enchanting Annunciation
Well, a closer look at this Annunciation for one, a good long look too, deeply breathing in the beauty and magic.
Me, I love this sweet Victorian art, and I appreciate it might not be to everybody’s taste, but if I can skirt triteness for a moment, it is easy to love what we love, the real beauty is in learning to love what we yet do not.
But these, how can we not adore? Breathless Renaissance colouring at the heart of this aged, weather-bitten rock-faced temple on the edge of the feral moor, the delicate luminous and the granite-rough singing together in a state of grace. The difference is so shocking, yet so perfect.
By itself, this takes my breath away. In its place, here in the church, it captures my heart forever.
And how can it not? For the Pre-Raphaelites
At their best, they have to be admired for capturing expressions and moods that, as here, connect us mystically with God and the human condition
And does not Gabriel’s face just do this for us here? Looking at Mary, the future Mother of God, and telling her she is being invited to sacrifice… What? Her identity? Her future? Her happiness?
‘A Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you; hence the offspring will be called holy also a Son of God.’
Gabriel knows what is coming down the track if she signs up to the deal.
The Virgin Mary
Mary does not, yet still she surrenders to the Divine
And Mary said ‘See: the Slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said’
All this and more in the faces here, I venture, gorgeously beautifully so, so deeply movingly so
The Frank Brangwyn stained glass window
Yet here, in the fifth coldest winter in the early twentieth century on Christmas Eve, in this wild parish next to the frozen, wind-wracked wastes of Dartmoor, the chilled church was full of the fug of folk here for Midnight Mass and the unveiling of this striking window by the Bishop of Exeter.
And if their reaction was anything like mine, confusion and silence might have reigned. It is one of the most striking windows I have seen in Devon, and so does not give a pirouette or two about prettiness.
It also a deep window, as my son Cassady so accurately pointed out; there are five or so separate planes of depth here, drawing us in.
This is not an easy window, but it is a magnificent one. The faces do not come from the Ideal Face Exhibition that seems to be source of so much nineteenth and twentieth century stained glass. And it is so much the better for it.
There is a story too, it is dedicated to Esmund Hunt, dead at 19, in 1928, and Esmund had Downs Syndrome. That is the lad in the centre.
Esmund adored music; he had a pianola (a self-playing piano) with over 250 rolls of music that he would sit at and work away with the pedals to keep it going.
Behind Esmund is St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and looking closely at her face… oh my sweet heart, is it not full of tenderness and care. I venture she was the patron saint of Esmund, staying by his side all his life, helping him find a path to cope with a very difficult world.
And look at her hand; a good artist can always be assessed by their ability to illustrate hands, and this artist was very good indeed; Sir Frank Brangwyn to be exact, thought by many to be too radical, and by others to be too establishment, and by me to be just tickety-boo.
Full of personalities this window, I find it intensely refreshing. I wish there were far more.
A country scene
And surrounding everybody are local flowers and wildlife, pretty as pretty does, and this little scene sweetly sketched.
The colours are intense, the flowers just on the beautiful side of threatening, the whole… well the whole is about life and death and the power of beauty and that we are all Children of God. Everybody. Not just the socially acceptable. Everybody.
Of course other folks will have other interpretations, but always there is St Cecilia up there caring for Esmund and you and me.
And great art equals great interpretations, many of them.
James and John and change and beauty
Watching over all the delicacy and the rugged in this wonder are some medieval saints, quite possibly placed here when the church was erected in the 1400s though looking as if they have been around for a few thousand years and have another few thousand in them.
Saint James on the left with his pilgrim staff, ready to go wayfaring for God and change a few hearts, and St John, the mystic Jesus lad who wrote his Gospel to give souls the chance to change.
A fine choice these too. If this church is about anything, it is, to some extent, about coping with change and difference, and developing love, just as these two lads did evangelising the world.
The person who changed those paintings (did they feel so threatened by them?), Mary changing her life, Christ changing the world, Frank Brangwyn’s window changing our perceptions of beauty…
And the craftsmen and artists changing granite and oak, paint and stained glass, to grow this sacredness into a space for all, of the faith or not, to put a little bit of beauty and change into their souls whenever they visit.
A fine church, Manaton, a very fine church indeed.