- A coastal church in the high wilds of outer north Devon
- Built from the beautiful silver-grey local stone
- A magnificent chancel arch mosaic by Selwyn Image
- Old 16th century bench ends
- Magnificent 19th and 20th century stained glass, some by Selwyn Image again
- A 14th century medieval tomb in the south transept with powerful old carvings
- The tomb might be assembled from the original chantry altar
- A lovely Baroque memorial in the nave
- A church full of history and shipwrecks, and folk living on the edge
Mortehoe Church of St Mary Magdalene
Off nearby Morte Point rock-razors skulk below the high waters casually slicing open ships’ bellies with the remorse of a shark, the second biggest tides in the world thunder in and out of the Bristol Channel and fog plays hide and seek with folks’ fates…
Wind and waves delivered the shipwrecked dead in a heartbreaking rhythm, a drumbeat of agony, bodies the value of just more flotsam and jetsam.
Eight wrecks in one day is the most that we know of.
Death smiles greedily here.
And the Mortehoe farmers and fishermen saved who they could and gracefully buried the rest next to this hunkered down church, a haven for the lonely flung onto this jagged shore so far from friends and family.
This they did. It was their duty, their love and their faith; as their bible said:
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
Their church was in their hearts.
Around Mortehoe Church
And the church in their hearts is a fine building; The nave shows signs of twelfth century work and the north tower built a hundred years later so.
Silver-grey Morte slate is the stone here, the colour of the salt-bleached wood washed up on the rocks below, the colour of the ship-wrecked corpses wandering the ocean for far too long, left as blanched offerings by the retreating tides.
A silver-grey beauty
Approaching that beautiful stonework, rhyming with the dead, are the ghosts of the drowned still here, clustering in loss? Never to see the green valleys of home again, never to smile with loved ones again?
Inside Mortehoe Church
Well, no, because this is a church, and the light of love burns deep and bright here, almost as powerfully as in the hearts of the local folk.
Conquistador gold from El Dorado, pirated jewels from Spanish galleons, treasure chests trawled from the deep… and how Mortehoe puts them all to shame! Ancient browns of medieval benchends, gleaming golds on a chancel arch, silver stone and soft white walls… pure bliss.
The glorious Selwyn Image mosaic
Up on the chancel arch an exaltation in golds and greens and pinks, glimmering magic, a mosaic of faith and Revelation.
At the very bottom on each side the Alpha and the Omega.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
Love them, again on each side, angels offering the orb and cross, Christ as the Saviour of the World, and a crown, Christ the King of Heaven.
Above those, two more angels holding a laurel and a palm branch, the symbols of victory and martyrdom, Christ’s triumph over death.
The Lamb of God
Crowning the scene is Christ as the Lamb, the Redeemer of Mankind
For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
The whole mosaic riffs off the Book of Revelation, where Christ is depicted as a lamb twenty-nine times; not a random choice, way back when John the Baptist himself called him ‘Lamb of God’ and this metaphor of sheep and shepherds mists through the gospels.
The Lamb thing in Revelation is all a bit too complex for my poor head, let alone to fit into a church article, but the main banana here is this image.
And it is a beauty; the artistry in this mosaic is stupendous. The shading and patterns so carefully created from the many thousands of tesserae (the small stones) all forming a single image of power and grace. No wonder Selwyn Image, the creator, is so famous, and not at all surprising that it was installed by workmen who had also worked on St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Here Christ is shown as a humble lamb, redeeming us through his blood (the grapes) and offering us eternal life through his own resurrection (the cross).
It is sunrise, a new dawn, a new age, and the whole is contained within that almond shaped Mandorla, a very traditional surround for Christ, going back to the fifth century.
And seen within the context of the whole mosaic, Christ is the ruler, saviour and judge coming back, though not in a grand ‘Alls your worlds belong to me’ kinda guy, but as a merciful, peaceful lamb.
The powerful sanctuary
The sanctuary is a delight, with that lovely Neo-Gothic carving, here almost like the cross section of a church with aisles either side and the nave in the middle.
And just as the mosaic is, to some extent, about the Kingdom of Heaven to come with Christ triumphant, here it is about God, here and now, in our midst.
Christ calming the storm
A storm scene, dear to the hearts of Mortehoe folk who knew only too well the virulent dangers of the sea and weather.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
Psalm 107, 23-24
A beautiful scene too, all those greens and blues, the colours of the sea, the fields and the sky which is exactly suited to this parish… breathtaking. Could be just off the coast here.
And here in Mark’s gospel the story is:
And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
Jesus stilling the storm, bringing calm to the raging seas and, more importantly, to the hearts’ raging worries, his companions, his flock, ours…
But there is more; in the Old Testament only God can command the waters, he creates them in Genesis, he parts the Red Sea in Exodus, he dries them up in Isaiah, he quiets them in Job… power over the oceans is a major attribute of God, only God can do this.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Psalm 107, 28-29
And so Christ reveals his Divinity, God in our midst, by calming the waters. The disciples knew this too.
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
And so this window is a bang on choice to go above the altar of this ocean parish. God is here, in this church, in the Eucharist, in the seas around, where the Mortehoe fisherfolk and the passing sailors so very needed her.
Golden bench ends
Whilst here, sixteenth century fresh-as-a-daisy bench ends are quite a thing, though God is not so apparent.
On the left is probably the head of John the Baptist, who had it chopped off by Herod on the request of Salome when he loved her dancing. Sheesh, and they say rock groups have ridiculously self-indulgent riders in their contracts!
In the middle Posh Big Ears. Advice to listen more than speak? To a posh young lad? Brilliant troll if it is, though more likely it refers to everybody which is fair enough.
On the right a Renaissance beauty, no idea of any meaning but is it not so cute?
Meanings and charms
Here some real proper gothicry, loopy and twirly and just so self-confident in the designs. Really very nice.
Oh, and on the left Instruments of the Passion, Judas’s thirty pieces of silver and maybe the ointment for anointing Christ’s body in the tomb.
The tomb in the south transept
Now the south transept in all its glory, with a tomb chilling in the middle. There is a story here, a fascinating story.
The transept itself is from the early 1300s. The arches are from later, sixteenth or even early seventeenth century, quite possibly put in when they sliced the right hand corner off (thank you, Michael Bullen). Stay with me here, it starts to get really good.
On the top stone of the tomb is a very faint outline of a priest, fully blinged up, holding a chalice like priests do. Around the sides of this stone (or was, it used to be clearer) an inscription interpreted as ‘Sir William de Tracey may God have mercy on his soul’.
As an aside, priests back in the day were addressed as ‘sir’. It does not indicate nobility, just the done thing, though this one was related to various big knobs in the area.
And there was a priest here with that name who died in 1322.
The tomb’s carvings
There is also this marvellous crucifixion scene at one end of the tomb, looking as it has quite a history. The weathering is very different, and maybe the top bits spent some time in the rain outside.
Now it gets even more interesting. The first reference we have to this church in from 1308 when the then rector, Sir William de Tracey (the same dude as above) founded a chantry chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalen and St Catherine. Chantry chapels were places to pray for the donor’s soul, his family’s and the parishioners’, with a dedicated altar and all, and a regular Mass which the donation paid for. They were often in transepts.
So far so good, but there is a problem. Priests celebrating mass in a chantry chapel, or anywhere in truth, really, really objected to playing leapfrog around the place, bouncing off the walls to avoid a tomb right in the middle when they should be taking things all so seriously.
This tomb is in the wrong place.
There is another problem; the sides of the tomb are put together all hippity-hoppety, bits and pieces stuck together. And this is a good thing.
Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene
These sugars on the side of the tomb, St Catherine holding her wheel on the left and St Mary Magdalene holding her jar of ointment on the right, these are the main clue. The two saints the chantry chapel were dedicated to.
Cool or what?
So, crucifixion scene, Mary and Catherine, arcading (not shown), just the kind of carvings that would make up, say for example, an altar or altar back in a chantry dedicated to Cath and Mary from the 1300s.
My very cautious bet is that this tomb is a marriage, created from various sources, including the old altar and the old memorial stone for the Rev (which might have been in the floor and/or to one side of the chapel), put together long after the Reformation, quite likely after some of the altar stones had been stored outside.
Major bits of an early 1300s chantry altar? Boy that is a blast. A speculative blast for sure, but still…
Stained glass archangels by Selwyn Image
Back to bliss with these phenomenal Archangels, Michael and Uriel, by Selwyn Image again, along with Raphael and Gabriel in the adjoining window.
He uses leading in his windows very dramatically, thick black lines enclosing angular spaces that contrast with the strong colours and their shading. Selwyn himself said this was to achieve a ‘richness and brilliance of effect’; Job well done, I venture.
Jumping back two hundred years is this darling piece, a monument to Mary Newell who died in 1700 along with her husband whose name was added later, as we can see by the change in the inscription style.
It is a classic form of Devon Baroque with the emphasis on the inscription which is as much about the personal qualities of the deceased as her family connections.
What is more the inscription is framed by a gorgeous theatrical drapery, pulled back to reveal the epitaph, seemingly by the putti gambolling in the folds and grasping the ropes that restrain the drapes, with a handsome scallop shell on top (possibly signifying eternal life) and a winged cherub below.
The original colour still has flashes of its old flamboyance, when, all dressed in red and gold, the sculpture danced off the wall straight into the heads of the congregation.
A county carving… but what a county… and what a carving!
A church now at peace
Outside life is tamer now, lighthouses keep the coastline safe, well-signed walks wander over Morte Point, a village no longer defined by ceaseless work and the death of strangers…
Inside, this wonder, built between the green hills and the roiling sea, is still a benediction for the thousands of dead washed up on this coast, a radiant space for the living to murmur to the divine, to remember their forebears, a place of peace and recovery and love…
Mortehoe has a mighty fine church.