- Beautifully simple, yet so unexpectedly full of wonders upon wonders
- Very naughty carved pillar capitals!
- Beautiful traditional Devon oak altar back, really high quality
- Truly marvellous Medieval and 17th century stained glass
- Part of old rood screen with original colouring and paintings of saints
- Franco-Flemish Last Supper carving, late 17th century
- Great font and font cover
- The space itself is wonderful; spare, calm, peaceful, just hits the spot
Entering Offwell church
Sometimes we walk into a little old Devon church and think, ’Oh, this is nice’… white walls, good pews, stone floor, the stained glass with its party colours. Easy to like this, for a wander and sit-down.
Then nice hits the astonishing button and rockets our brains from nought to a hundred in milliseconds…
So let us go for the low hanging fruit first, because bare bums and churches do not usually meet in the same sentence… Not something I have ever felt is missing from my wanderings, yet here we are, in our face, on one of the pillar capitals near the chancel no less, a sacred place.
Some say these are kids playing, some say robed monks, some (moi included) have not the foggiest. Even in a secular position they would be confusing enough, but right bang in the middle of the sacred… ?
Entertaining as well as unsettling, a lot of work has gone into them; they haven’t just been dashed off as a playful jolly, and their faces really do not look like kids playing. They are heavily invested in their tussle.
The best suggestion I have read is that the might reflect a local legend or a local event (maybe one of near legendary status?).
Then again, most commentators assume these are all male. If these show females, or male and females, then suddenly we might have a mighty strong warning about physical lusts.
Still, they do make me giggle.
The Chancel and chapel
The sanctuary is a charm, tidied up and renewed by our friendly Victorians with a pretty contrast between the colours of the plaster and stone along with the tiles and window. Those boards too, the lettering would have gleamed a hundred and forty years ago.
Brilliant Devon carvings in the chapel
Then, suddenly, proper Devon saunters on the scene, spectacularly so.
This shows the full range of traditional Devon carving motifs from the sixteenth century, the patterning, the flowers, the figures, every intricate inch jammed full of masterly artistry. It is gorgeous.
Probably carved in Exeter around 1600, it certainly reflects Renaissance (the decoration) and Flemish (the figures) influence, but the whole… Devon through and through.
The piece was likely part of the altar back (reredos) of the main altar; now it lives in the north chapel.
A fine angel
After that comes this angel trumpeting her eighteenth century charms from the top of the pulpit, a traditional placing from that period, drawing attention to the word of God that went forth from that place into everybody’s ears, or at least woke them up.
Angels were traditionally androgynous, neither male nor female, but truly this one seems to have failed to get that memo.
About as androgynous as Michelangelo’s David, as one Instagram commenter so reasonably put.
Glorious Medieval stained glass
And then there is this, this indescribably heart-full compassionate Christ, blood flowing from his Crown of Thorns, caring for us all; tenderness, humility, compassion and more engulfing his face.
This is the heart of Christian love, the God who understands what it means to be human because he has personally experienced the very worst of our capabilities and it all does not matter because there really is a God, a Divine, a Spiritual world that is beyond the reach of earthly pains and sins, and who replies to our worst with compassion, with forgiveness, with love as the torture slowly trickles down his face.
A man to copy, a divine to find in our hearts.
It is genius, this tiny fragment of medieval glass high up (take binoculars or a good zoom) in the chapel east window. A masterpiece. The heart of the path of Christ so simple and powerful in a few square inches.
But we do not know the artist, born into a society where there was no real future unless you came from the right family or fought your way to the top. Power was well protected and the devil take the hindmost.
So this too is for all the artists, the scientists, the creators, the lovers of beauty, of family, of a quiet healthy life, of truth, who have been so squashed and cut down by poverty, wars, the needy arrogances of power, of money, of status, political and social, racism, sexism, trauma… We have lost so much, still are, and this is but an example of what could have been, and could be.
The creator of this had talent and soul to power a thousand lives, and all that remains of her is this jewel worth more than all the bling in the universe.
And yet we still have it. It has survived. Still touching hearts and souls. Still there for us. Still intoxicating our days as we allow…
The old disciple
In other windows more medieval glass, fragments of age and power, like this the old man. I wonder if the artist thought, ‘well, give it 500 years and it’s going to look just right’ ? Wouldn’t that be marvellous? Because age has done him good, and character just overflows.
A true ancient, brimming over with years, an apostle at the end of his earthly existence, bursting with stories of the sights he saw in his youth and the man he shadowed intensely, who he lived with under the olive trees in the hot sun of his bonniness.
“Man did I say? This was no man… ”
And his listeners once more gather around in awe, finding the Divine again and again in his stories as they step onwards with faith along the Christian Way…
The font and a determined eagle
Talking about character, how about this old font, going every which way but straight? I would venture earthquake damage but that dog does not hunt in these woods, so if faith can move mountains maybe it gave this darling a wallop in its time?
Now the font cover, that is a different beast…
An appealing brown-hued seventeenth century work topped by this fluffy-feathered winsomeness, an eagle seemingly about to leap into flight. From the neck down it looks as cuddly as a child’s toy from the neck up… not so much; a gleam in its eye, its eye on a mission, and heaven help anyone in its way. An excellent piece.
Fascinating Flemish stained glass
Meanwhile back to some more stained glass, Flemish this time (17th century) showing an unusual scene: The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter. In the background is the daughter, with flies around her showing death, and in the foreground the mourners, including a very sad dog.
It is a very homely miracle this, where Jairus begs Jesus to come to his house to cure his daughter and on the way there messengers come to tell of her death.
Still they trot on to find this scene, mourners mourning as they do, with that dog getting well into the mood too.
It’s marvellously alive scene, pregnant with the observer’s knowledge that Jesus is going to raise the little girl to life, all while telling the family to keep schtum, and making sure the kid gets something to eat.
Homely, as I said.
The Road to Emmaus and Supper at Emmaus
The thing with Flemish stained glass is that it paints such a delicious slice of life in its roundels. Folk in contemporary dress with faces that could be met in the local taverns.
These two scenes take place soon after Christ’s resurrection, as Luke tells the story. On the right two heavy-hearted disciples meet the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, conversing with him but not recognising him. On the left they have invited him to stay with them, and over supper they flash into recognition as he breaks bread (that contemporary glass of wine is a lovely touch).
I love the way these scenes are shown as so much part of normal 1600s life; no grand reveal, no choirs of angels, just two dudes and a God dude chewing the cud and then that sudden jolt of recognition…
Astute observance too; I mean, who is geared up to recognise a resurrected dude? No one, that is who. Just not really on the agenda. If a dude friend dies, most of us do not haze around expecting to gas the jazz ’til hickory dawn with dead dude friend a jiffy later.
But these were disciples, likely at the Last Supper a few days before, where Jesus had blessed and broken bread and then passed it around for all.
And now? Why, in Emmaus…
“And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.
And their eyes were opened, and they knew him… “
Luke 24: 30-31
The same thing happened; maybe it was the way Christ held the bread, maybe the way that he passed it, maybe the whole action made the connection come roaring into their hearts, in any way its an acute observation, a little action opening a torrent of realisation.
Of course the breaking of the bread is full metal Eucharist too, and there is a more profound meaning in the recognition taking place at that exact moment, but one step at a time…
Going down the nave and popping into the pulpit gives a delightful view of the pews, originally box pews installed in 1798 and then substantially altered to allow for free seating for all and, just as importantly, free from social status (or as near as was possible back then) in 1853.
Always those old-oak browns… Mmmmh…
A pitch perfect rood screen remnant
And then we meet the tower screen, though really it is a part of a most excellent fifteenth century rood screen from the now gone Church of St Mary Major, Exeter, moved here in 1970.
Faded paintings of saints, great tracery and wainscoting, seemingly original colours, it is a grand piece and we are lucky to have it preserved and cared for here. Thank you, Offwell parishioners.
The frieze at the top is not original to the screen, but fits perfectly. Again, those colours are a delight, the lettering being the only new thing, added in the twentieth century; the original lettering would very likely have been similar.
A splendid seventeenth century Last Supper
Pop through the screen door into the tower and there is a 1935 lectern, and incorporated in the lectern is this bobby-dazzler. It really is one of the best pieces in the church (well, after the face of Christ, and the Devon carving, but third best is mighty fine in this treasure house).
The Last Supper, second half of the seventeenth century and Shaw Edwards calls it:
‘… Franco-Flemish. The wonderful framing effect provided by the angels with the flowing and Baroque style ornamentation appears typically French. However the figures both in terms of the hair and the features could well be argued to be Flemish’.
Now at the end of it all, Flemish or French is not the point, it is the thrill of the details that hit the spot, the details that Shaw points out and the more that come into view here.
We can almost hear the hubbub of the disciples chattering away amongst themselves, turning to each other or having a word in a ear. And then there’s the table laid with bread and fishes, the stocky disciples, bodies built from manual labour, fisherman’s bodies, peasant lads, the ignored and the lowly, just the kind of folk a traditional Jewish Rabbi would not choose to follow him.
Could well have been carved in Devon too, there being many a foreign craftsman around at this time.