- Delightful granite exterior
- A mighty elegant tower
- Grand roof bosses
- Enchantingly glorious renaissance carving
- Fine 20th century altar back
- 16th century painted apostles
- Very nice stained glass
Peter Tavy church and the Lord of Hosts
Thou shalt be visited of the Lord of Hosts, with thunder and great noise and storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire
Which is not the kind of entry in a parish register that you really want to see, but here they wrote it, on November 21, 1893, when this babe’s magnificent tower was blasted by lightning, the north side losing 25 foot, the north west side cracked from top to bottom, stones exploding into the fields and churchyard, windows breaking, their iron bars bursting outwards, the roof holed and the church left asunder like a shipwreck thrown onto jagged rocks.
But back then this was not just a pretty little rural village with an outstanding granite Dartmoor church, this was mining country, the adjoining village had the biggest copper mine in the world at one point, arsenic (very good for killing boll weevils in American cotton crops) and tin also goodly crops. It was an industrial centre.
So now, well repaired, it is a very fine church indeed, granite on granite, just tickety-boo for Dartmoor, with those enormous tower pinnacles from the fifteenth century being a very West Devon thing. Each parish seems to have suffered from sever pinnacle envy, and tried making theirs bigger than next door’s.
And whilst the present charmer dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there was a church since at least Norman times, with the first named priest from 1185.
Meanwhile in the south transept it does have this querida, a beautiful granite window from that era, somewhat restored but all there in spirit.
The thing with granite is that it is the hardest building stone out, and impossible to cut in detail with medieval hand tools, and yet outlined here in the granite tracery, this window contains the truth of all Gothic tracery: foliage and plants. See how the uprights on either side of the middle one rise up to support seed pods, and how the middle upright soars a tad higher branching out twice, with another seedpod bursting forth… or is this one a flowerhead?
The essential simplicity demanded by granite has created a lovely organic look to fill in with our imaginations. Wonderful artistry.
The priest’s door
Here on the south of the chancel with its mixed stonework there is an original fifteenth century window on the left and a somewhat reconstructed on the right, with the original priest’s doorway in between.
I could gaze a this for a loooong time, and to be fair, I did… the texture and colours alone are worth a goodly time.
Inside Peter Tavy church
It has a well looked after interior too, even refurbished at the end of the 1600s which is quite unusual in these parts. The 1673 rector reckoned the church was
“neither wind nor water tight, and many woeful defrayments in and about it for want of money”
Bearing in mind that this is Dartmoor of course, where dampness and leaks are more of a feature than a bug, with the heavy weather barrelling in across the Atlantic to hit this massive plateau and unloading rain upon rain upon rain.
Roof bosses galore
Looking up, there are some cracking medieval roof bosses in the chancel, really very nice, more recently coloured and extremely well done.
The choice of colours is probably wrong, blue was a very expensive pigment back then so would have been unlikely to have been used so high up, but the style is spot on, highlighting different areas not only with colour but also shading as well to take advantage of the three dimensional carving.
A ‘Green Man’ here, though not green and not necessarily a man, and as the term only started to be used for this style of the carving in the 1930s we can be sure that the name leads us way up the garden path and deep into the cabbage patch.
Here, in the chancel, this is a holy figure, its symmetry demonstrating this in particular, and the foliage less foliage than rays emanating from the Divine presence.
Along with those four acorn type things which could just as easily be bishops’ mitres, very churchy that.
And what is surrounding this charmer…?
Why, plants and flowers, the wonders of creation that surround this church as well, just outside the doors, a reminder that God is always with us and made all wonders.
Which, to be fair, seems a banging decorative scheme to have in a chancel, it being the holy sacred place that it so very bigly was, where most only the clergy were allowed in and where God the Divine actually and very truly was present through the Eucharist.
As well as being ace carving of course, really very nice indeed.
More excellent granite
Meanwhile, back in the south transept, this beautiful entrance to the rood stairs sits comfortably, looking as good as it knows it does. Folk took the rood stairs to get to the rood loft, the structure on top of what we now call rood screens.
Up folk went to light candles and incense, and care for the carved crucifixion scene which dominated the nave, Jesus on the cross with Mary and John on either side, very much a product of late Medieval theology and its emphasis on the Incarnation (God being physically present in a human body) and the Sacrifice that Christ made for our sins (theologically speaking).
But this is not what medieval folk would have seen. The granite surrounds are built proud of the wall, and inside the entrance we can see remnants of old plaster. Both of these indicate that the walls of this building would have been covered in plaster coming up to the edge of the door surroundings; Smart dudes, they wanted to leave that lovely granite well visible.
Superb Renaissance carving in Peter Tavy church
Still in the south transept, one of the most glorious bits of Renaissance carving in Devon begs your attention.
A varied life, in 1852 it was:
A tower screen with heraldic grotesques and other good carving, constructed from the remains of a manorial pew of Tudor date (Drake and Cole were local families)which was demolished some year since.
C Worthy, Devonshire Parishes, 1852
So it started life as very specially carved pew set, maybe placed in the south transept, maybe up near the chancel, then it was taken down in the nineteenth century and made into a tower screen (note the keyhole and cutting for a door), and then it was once again disassembled and placed in the south transept.
Quite a journey, though now its journey is deep into our hearts carrying magical wonder and stunning entrancement.
It is, to say it again, one of the most bodacious Renaissanceries I’ve come across, the carver wielding their chisel like a paint brush, their confidence sweeping me off my feet yet the sheer joy of their art getting me right back up and dancing my worship.
The humour too, gotta have the humour. And the hats, gotta have hats.
The tradition of the carving
As here too, a truly deeply dope hat.
Arguably inspired by the trading of ideas between the carvers of Devon, possibly enhanced by pattern books or local plasterwork, these are no mere copies, they are marvellously sophisticated, dynamic abandon keeping in their designated lanes.
And this Renaissance work is not a break with the gothic carving, at least not here in glorious Devon, it is a blossoming, a creative path that still dives deep into the contemplation of transformations, the powers of nature, and the borderlands of humans and the Divine, just as we see in older carving around this county.
Renaissance sprites and their meanings
Because what we see and what the sixteenth century folk saw is so different; they saw a reality that they had lived with for many centuries, the natural spirits (pneuma) animating the different qualities of the world, not just the growth but also, and more importantly, the functions.
So the pneuma of the vine had in its repertoire the power to get folks banjoed, not in a metaphorical sense but in a deeply real sense.
As we can see above, this leaf sprite….
But these spirits, or powers, could also control parts of us.
The powers twixt heaven and earth
Because Benedetto Varchi writing in the sixteenth century explained these ‘larve’ (mask, ghost, or phantasm in Italian, equivalent to pneuma) and their function in us folk…
… are faces or forms, which here signify new and various suspicions that constantly generate further unrest…
Inventing the Renaissance Putto, Charles Dempsey
So they were the creators, the essence of emotions of all shades.
And whilst this Renaissance style was different it also depicted the same world as the demons and Green Men that appear on so much Gothic carving in Devon, a world of spirit and elemental-power-inspired desires and temptations.
Funny word that, inspire, because it literally meant:
When inspire first came into use in the 14th century it had a meaning it still carries in English today: “to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural influence or action.” It’s this use that we see in phrases like “scripture inspired by God,” where the idea is that God shaped the scripture in an active and explicit way.
The meaning is a metaphorical extension of the word’s Latin root: inspirare means “to breathe or blow into.” The metaphor is a powerful one, with the very breath of a divine or supernatural force asserted as being at work.
So looking at those carvings just above, we can glimpse a totally different world view, where surrounding the humans are all these phantasmagoric powers, neither dead nor alive, betwixt heaven and hell. The state of mankind if you will, a liminal space, between the Divine and the naughty.
With, of course, salvation through Christ and the church.
Not forgetting the gorgeous carving as in this leafy head, surely a goodly well-wisdomed natural spirit.
And just in case we start screaming superstition, there was a perfectly rational internal logic about this, in a world where Freud had not yet got his cocaine-hazed Mommy troubles and modern rationalism was not taking ‘look how cool I am’ selfies.
The simple chancel
Looking back at the chancel now, a clean space with its medieval bosses and carved woodwork from the early twentieth century, it is a delight full change, especially one aspect that really does give the previous Renaissance play a run for its money in a minor key.
Superb carving on the altar back
Here it is, this superb detailing on the altar back(reredos), just terrific, as near to real life as any I have seen.
Likely created by the Herbert Read workshop around 1926, though that is somewhat speculative as the other woodwork is by him but this is not referred to. The style fits the date though.
Apostles from the old rood screen
Meanwhile, back down the end of the nave are these glorious remnants of the old rood screen; they were part of the wainscoting, the bottom panelling, and there are eight of them, all nearly surely apostles, with the other four now lost.
Here are Saint Thomas, James the Minor and Andrew…
Thomas with a spear representing the wound in Christ’s side that he insisted on touching to believe in a real risen Christ.
James with a fulling club because he was beaten to death with one for daring to preach the gospel.
Fulling clubs were used to beat wool cloth to clean it (with the aid of urine or fuller’s earth) and to thicken and waterproof it… though like all tools then they could be repurposed to violence.
Then Andrew with that X-shaped cross because he was crucified on one like that before becoming Scottish (which, to be fair, seems a mighty fine reward for getting martyred, the patron saint of Scotland is a good place to be).
Here is Tommy all dressed up as a young sixteenth century gent, and the ghost of the spear head can be seen clearly, beautifully painted as are the rest, though somewhat restored.
Lush stained glass
There is some delightful stained glass here too, this one from 1900 is gently colourful showing the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene; I love the stylisation, and the subdued glimmering it has.
Feed my sheep
While this one from 1961 is lovely, almost prefiguring the strong use of primary colours that was to become so prevalent in sixties culture, and shows Jesus telling Peter to feed his sheep. Something the locals here could well understand.
Such a marvellous church
A marvellous Dartmoor church this, full of gentle wonder and charming light, with granite and wood and local stone shimmering together.
Worth returning to again and again… Great art on our doorstep, and I do mean great art. That intensely carved ex-screen (ex-pews to be exact) for example, that is truly a work of genius and worth visiting more and more.
I know I do, and each time I stand in front of it for many a very long pause, its beauty and power grows delightfully.
All this in such wonderful church. Life is good in Peter Tavy.