Monday, 24 September 2012

Bawdy and Weird

Our village church wasn’t what you might call child friendly, at least it wasn’t back in the 1950’s.  I used to wake up on Sunday morning dreading the trek down to the church where for an hour or more I had to keep quiet and inactive and  knew I’d be so excruciatingly bored.  The service was only an hour or so but it seemed like days.   But then there was such a huge rush of relief when the final blessing was given and it was all over for another week!  Then my grandfather would go off to the pub for a pint with his friends and I’d go home with my grandmother to the lovely smells of the Sunday roast which had to be on the table at 1.00pm sharp.  Woe betide my grandfather if he wasn’t there on the dot.

But there were some things in the church to divert the young mind, things that no doubt were put there with just that purpose.  Like the carving under the roof of a man sticking out his tongue, and a matching head on the other side with several teeth missing.  Later, to my great amusement, I discovered in the frieze above the transept window outside there was a little man with his trousers round his ankles, peering through his legs, mooning at the world at large.  At the time I suppose I must have wondered why such non-religious things could be in the church but I didn’t think too hard about it.  Now perhaps I do try to get into the medieval mind a bit more but I still wonder how such things were permitted.  Of course we have to put them more into the context of a church filled with gaudy paintings of saints, gruesome depictions of the crucifixion and graphic representations of the final judgement.  So perhaps masons were allowed to leave their mark by carving self portraits or caricatures of local people.  And they must have had fun carving all the devils and monsters for the outside, meant perhaps as warnings to the parishioners not to stray off the path of righteousness, or maybe to scare off other evil spirits. 

Here in the East Midlands we have a wealth of odd carvings and funny faces.  We’ve already featured some of these in previous blogs but in this piece I want to celebrate the art and wit of the masons who’ve left us such a legacy that still delights and scares today.  Two Nottinghamshire churches deserve special mention, Averham and Laxton, both of which still have many fascinating carvings, also Kelby in Lincolnshire.  There must be many more that we haven’t visited yet so these are only a small sample, a work in progress.

To Averham first, the tower covered in well preserved monster faces.  Also many fine corbel heads within the church.  Then on to Laxton with a glorious cornucopia of animals, bug eyed monsters and, as we’ll see later, one distinctly bawdy.
Averham (Notts)
Averham (Notts)

Bug eyed monster at Laxton
Friendly pig at Laxton

More monsters at Laxton
 Kelby has a tower covered in heads and grimacing faces.  Those medieval masons had an amazing imagination!

Grimacing monster at Kelby
Heads on Kelby tower

And now a few carvings and monsters from other churches:

Frieze at Heckington (Lincs)

Frieze at Brant Broughton (Lincs)
Ancaster (Lincs)
Hawton (Notts)

North Muskham (Notts)
Hougham (Lincs)

Leasingham (Lincs)
Norton Disney (Lincs)

The other categories I mentioned above include bawdy and weird.  Firstly the bawdy and to Braunston in Rutland where you can see an ancient earth mother carving which could be over 1,000 years old.  It must have upset an incumbent priest at some time in history as it was turned over face down and used as a step into the church for several centuries before being rediscovered in the 1920’s.  Some people have classified it as a sheela na gig, a type of female figure exposing her genitalia, perhaps as a warning against lust, though many other theories exist.  Sheela na gigs occur all over the country, and especially in Ireland, but many were allegedly destroyed in the nineteenth century by outraged restorers.  Here’s one surviving example we found at Etton (near Peterborough), high up on the tower.

Earth mother at 
Brauston in Rutland
Sheela na gig at Etton (near Peterborough)

Now the rather explicit monster at Laxton (Notts), again displaying his all to the world at large.  It certainly raises the question as to how it could have been permitted but it has survived and we can only marvel at its audacity and enjoy it for what it is, and it is certainly different!

Finally in the saucy department, how about this lovely mermaid from All Saints Church in Stamford, a nautical theme in a place miles from the sea and a lovely survival in excellent condition?
Showing his all at Laxton!
Mermaid at All Saints, Stamford

And now onto the really weird category.  Firstly the head of an astonished man with a lizard crawling up his face from Wymondham church in Leicestershire.  What was the story?  One of the masons perhaps had fallen asleep outside only to be woken up by the lizard and then recorded by his fellow masons for posterity?
Lizard man at Wymondham (Leics)

Here’s another strange head, locally nicknamed Toothy, from Norwell in Notts.  (Yes I know we’ve shown him before but he’s worth another look…)  Anyway is he an exaggerated depiction of a local man or something much stranger?
"Toothy" at Norwell (Notts)
Strange beast at Little Casterton (Rutland)

And what sort of creature is this little chap we found in Little Casterton in Rutland, certainly lizard like from this angle?

Next here are a couple of pictures of a bench end carving from Westborough (Lincs) which depict a devil licking the backs of naked men apparently at prayer.  No doubt huge symbolism, but of what exactly?
Side view, Westborough bench end

Devil's tongue? Westborough (Lincs)

And finally a very strange carving from the tower at Ewerby, near Sleaford.  It looks like a monk (or nun) at prayer being attacked (or raped?)  It could perhaps be a warning for the devout to resist temptation by the devil, but another strange feature is that it projects horizontally from the tower.  Weird, really weird!

Attack at Ewerby (Lincs)
 To enlarge photographs just click on them.

No comments:

Post a Comment