Tuesday, 10 April 2012
The Wonders of Westhall
Last week I saw some of the most extraordinary medieval art I have ever been lucky enough to see, in a remote church in a tiny village in rural Suffolk. The church is St Andrew's, Westhall, and it is seriously amazing. I learned of the existence of Westhall solely thanks to this invaluable website; the glowing (and entirely deserved) report of the church there made me very eager to see it. The combination of this excitement and having a shiny new camera led me to go a bit mad with the photos, and I promise I won't post every one I took at this wonderful church - but since it has about ten distinct amazing features this is rather a mammoth post nonetheless. I hope you'll think it's worth it.
So, where do we start? Let's start at the beginning, in other words the oldest part of the church. You can see from the photo at the top that the tower is separate to the main body of the church, and that's because it was built over the original porch and doorway. Thus, preserving the Norman porch very nicely from the elements:
Bell ropes provide evidence that this really is the tower, with a window into what was once the Norman nave:
The carved heads around the door were my favourite bit:
Those Normans and their moustaches! (Compare this little chap at Patrixbourne in Kent). You can walk through this door and into the original nave of the church:
As you can see, it was a beautifully sunny day. Light was streaming in:
"Are those medieval wall-paintings?" you may be asking yourself and yes, indeed they are - but they rank only at number three on the list of 'amazing things in this church', so we'll come back to them in a minute. First we have to look at the font.
This font is very special. It features scenes depicting the seven sacraments, and is thus a type of medieval font found almost solely in East Anglia; but this one is special because the colour is so well-preserved. I feel like I'm always saying in this blog 'imagine how bright this medieval thing would have been when it was new!' and in the case of the Westhall font you don't have to imagine: the colour is right there.
Let's go through the scenes one by one. First the Sacrament of Baptism, unmistakable:
I think today we would call depicting a font on a font 'meta'. Do you think that's a mini-seven sacraments font, with its own mini baptism scene, and within that another, and so on?
But to be more serious: click to enlarge, and take a close look at the golden spot in the crook of the arm of the woman on the left, and the red of the fold where she's holding up her dress. The colours are just extraordinary.
We come next to the sacrament of Confirmation:
I wasn't quite sure what exactly was depicted here until I saw this comparable scene from fifteenth-century stained glass; now I conclude the woman in the centre is holding an infant. The bishop is somewhat indistinct but there's a tantalising glimpse of a pattern on his vestment, just where the garment folds above his foot. The sweep of his golden cope is beautiful - and I do like the flowing brown locks of the man on the right. It's not just the colour which is special - the carving here is incredibly skilful and fluid.
Now for something even more wonderful - the sacrament of penance:
You can see the penitent kneeling before a seated priest (wearing a stole); an angel with splendid gold wings has his hand upon the penitent's shoulder, and a devil is sneaking away in shame. The devil is my favourite part:
Those horns! I wonder what colour he was when freshly painted - black, by the looks of his legs. Medieval devils are usually black, as far as I know.
Then there's the sacrament of marriage:
I assume the lady is on the left and the gentleman on the right, but it's surprisingly difficult to tell! I think you can see, though, how their hands would have been joined in front of the priest. The pattern on the priest's vestments is so clear!
The book in the priest's hand is the giveaway here. The artist really went to town on the clothes in this one; the flowers and other botanical designs are intricate and elaborate. The best medieval vestments were gorgeous (in both senses of the word), and must have provided a welcome opportunity for artists like this one to adorn their scenes.
The sacrament of the Eucharist, depicting the elevation of the Host (this may be familiar as the front cover of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars):
I think this is the one I found most touching, simply because the gestures are so instantly recognisable and familiar - including the altar server holding up the priest's chasuble. (Though I notice now that Duffy says the raised hands of the attendants are only a conventional gesture of piety, so perhaps I'm wrong about that).
And finally for extreme unction, with the dying person lying on the left side of the picture:
But that's not quite all: octagonal fonts need an eighth scene, and so here's the Baptism of Christ, damaged but still recognisably watery:
As if that wasn't enough, there's a bonus - in between the scenes are exquisite figures like this one:
That's plaster of Paris. It's 600 years old. How can it be so clear, so delicate?
I like how the artist, not content with elaborate vestments and clothes, colourful hair, expressive postures, and hints at architecture and furnishings, felt the scenes would be further enhanced by twinkling starry skies.
OK, after all that excitement, we can look at the medieval wall paintings. I posted the pretty sprouting consecration cross here; otherwise we have, in increasing order of interest, an attractive but strangely empty architectural surround:
A surround for what, you ask? I don't know.
St Christopher, holding a staff in one hand and Christ in the other:
He's huge, as St Christophers tend to be:
In the upper left is this vivid figure who does not, despite what you might expect, have anything to do with the little horned devil on the font, but is actually Moses, who often has horns in medieval depictions:
(The fact that he's being handed the tablets of stone might also have given his identity away!)
What else? Well, there's this nice depiction of the Trinity way up on the chancel roof:
Or two members of the Trinity, at least; it shows God the Father with Christ, crucified, between his knees.
What else? Oh yes. The screen.
This is the remains of a painted rood-screen from c.1500, with female saints on one side and male saints on the other. The male saints are the most colourful but the female saints are more skilfully executed. From left to right, there's St James and St Leonard:
St Michael in some excellent gold armour:
St Clement, holding an anchor:
I like St Clement because he's the patron saint of seafarers and therefore of Vikings (not a joke: he's one of the most popular dedications for churches founded by Scandinavians abroad. Did you ever wonder how St Clement Danes got its name?)
There's an unusual depiction of the Transfiguration, Christ flanked by Moses (with no horns this time) and Elijah:
The Transfiguration was a new entry in the church calendar at the end of the fifteenth century, so this was very up-to-date.
The colour in the details of the screen is lovely:
The other side, as I said, is more delicately painted. Sadly the only Anglo-Saxon saint present, St Etheldreda, has been cut in half some time in the past half millennium (though you can see she has been given a crown, as befits her royal status). But the other ladies are beautiful; this is St Margaret of Antioch:
And this is St Catherine of Alexandria:
These three, more faded, are St Sitha (Zita), St Agnes (click to enlarge and study the little lamb!), and St Bridget:
St Dorothy, with her basket of flowers:
And St Apollonia, patron saint of toothache, holding a tooth. This was particularly relevant to one of our party that day - and frankly the saint looks rather like she has the toothache herself:
A longer view of St Catherine, so you can see her sword:
And of St Margaret, so you can see the dragon:
She and St Michael make a formidable pair!
So those are some of the wonders of Westhall. I don't think I've ever seen a church which gave such a vivid impression of the high quality of medieval religious art, its imagination and diversity and sheer skill; this was the worthy end to which both lay and church resources of money and material and talent were all dedicated, and the result endures with remarkable power, even when battered and faded by time. Five hundred years have not done much to spoil the beauties of Westhall; its colours glow in the memory.