A report on our event in Cirencester Church on 7th March, when Dr Steven Blake presented his talk on Gloucestershire’s Medieval Churches.
Cirencester Parish Church, founded around 1120, made a perfect backcloth for Dr Blake’s talk. As members of the Civic Society and visitors entered the church, eyes swept the huge space, over to the magnificent organ and on up to the fan vaulting. One couldn’t help wondering, as the warm all-round glow of underfloor heating greeted us on an icy evening, what the clothier financiers and churchgoers originally in charge of this fine medieval town church would think. Dr Blake drew gasps from his 21st century audience when he added that maintaining this magical building now costs £8,500 a day!
We settled quickly with a comforting glass of wine, as our speaker’s first slide sprang up – a church near the west bank of the Severn 12th century Staunton Church, one of many less familiar churches that would appear, crystal clear on the church’s large screen. Next came Pauntley and Ruardean – the latter with its wonderful Tympanum carving of St George and the Dragon on the south door. Another tympanum, this time showing the tree of life, at Dymock, and many more wonderful sculptures in the area were, Dr Blake, noted, ample proof of a Cotswold school of sculpture, most probably with Dymock at its centre.
This idea of an an artistic centre in the Cotswolds seemed increasingly likely as we moved on to marvel at nearby 12th century Kempley Church with its 13th century tower, and its stunning 12th and 14th century wall paintings. Dr Blake then moved on to the glorious churches of the Cotswold high plateau and river vales. Outstanding for Dr Blake was Elkstone Church’s Norman corbel table with its carved heads, centaur and griffin and its font carved with virtues and vices. All treasures indeed.
These glorious depictions of scenes from the bible, represent, as Dr Blake called them, the poor man’s Bible for largely illiterate people. Even today, how better illustrate the ideas, say behind Christopher Marlowe’s play ”Doctor Faustus”, than to show students an illustration from Fairford Church’s medieval windows of a hideous Demon with evil glowing eyes, torn, twisted teeth and bloody gums, with terrified people falling into hell! All these rich images reveal a rich feast of largely anonymous artists’ work, offered most notably to the glory of God.
Dr Blake moved us on to wonderful visions of churches and their striking towers, all points of navigation in the landscape. Owlpen Church and Manor appeared in a painterly image of buildings encased in striking stretches of carved topiary green. Very similar was Lasborough Manor and St. Mary’s Church, also surrounded on every side by green woodlands.
After questions had been invited and answered, Tim Mars chose to make a dignified ascent heavenward to give his vote of thanks from the medieval pulpit, very fittingly a rare and finely-worked wine glass design, to much humorous applause.
We left carrying Dr Blake’s list of favourite medieval churches. Many of us, no doubt, already set on visiting one or two of those tucked away, as yet, undiscovered treasures.
And we all agreed that our Chairwoman Juliet Shipman had excelled herself in organising the event.