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The Incredible Spiritual Sculptures of Herefordshire and Worcestershire

The Church of Mary and St David in the Herefordshire village of Kilpeck is known the world over for its almost mind-blowing decorative carvings. The main doorway into the church is its most iconic feature, a showcase of Romanesque sculpture. But what is Romanesque, and why is it at its best in Herefordshire?

The name itself simply means “Roman style”, and as the name suggests it was an architectural movement inspired directly by the buildings of the old Roman Empire. Simple, squared off buildings with round arches for windows, doorways and interior vaulting, huge in scale but lacking the sprawling buttresses and turrets of the later Gothic style. Churches are the most predominant of building types that still demonstrate the Romanesque style today but while castles and houses were built this way too, the religious centres used it to its greatest extent.

As far as Britain went the Romanesque style began in earnest with the Norman Conquest – although Anglo-Saxon builders were fully aware of it – but around 70 years after the Battle of Hastings something rather special began to take shape around the Welsh borderlands. This was the time of The Anarchy, a fifteen year long civil war that pitted barons loyal to Henry I's daughter Matilda against those who fought for her cousin Stephen, while other barons still remained independent. Lords and their holdings could rise and fall from year to year, but in the shire of Hereford some families held onto their lands through thick and thin, including the de la Mare dynasty.

The area around Kilpeck village had been granted to William de la Mare by William of Normandy himself and the Norman baron wasted no time in building a typical motte and bailey castle on the edge of the village. His son Hugh FitzWilliam, a “forest lord” who became known as Hugh of Kilpeck, rebuilt the castle around 1140 with thick stone then went on to rebuild the local church too, replacing the existing Anglo-Saxon structure which itself may have stood on a site of earlier pre-Christian significance. Its dedication to St David was supplemented with Mary to whom the little castle chapel had been dedicated to, which brings us back to the Herefordshire School of masons.

Both the lords and some of the builders who worked for them had made pilgrimages to various destinations such as Rome and Santiago de Compostela and had seen the great religious houses of Europe during their travels. They also saw the Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and even Celtic art that still remained around them – most of which is lost to us today. A group of masons and sculptors from the Herefordshire area were no exception to this and they began to be employed by lords such as Oliver de Merlemond of Shobdon and Hugh de Kilpeck. What they created was unique, a blend of the Romanesque stonework they had seen abroad and the insular sculptures that were still around them – albeit in fractured states.

The church at Kilpeck was and still is a tour-de-force of the Herefordshire School style, a showcase for everything that they did. The main doorway is probably the best-known feature, its pillars and arch a writhing, pulsing mass of fantastic beasts, symbols and mythical beings. The doorways on Romanesque churches almost always consisted of an arch, a decorative tympanum, and two pillars, symbolising the Temple of Solomon. JRR Tolkien was influenced by this idea and drew Durin's Door, the “elves only” entrance to Moria, in this exact style in The Lord of the Rings. At Kilpeck they went one better, making the pillars sculptures in themselves.

On the left we see armed warriors clad in helms and baggy clothing, reminiscent of the Byzantine style, while great serpents writhe downwards behind them. A pair of wyverns roar out above them, then two differently styled arches span the tympanum which boasts an image of a tree of life. Some have speculated that this has something to do with the pagan Norse Yggdrassil but this isn't the case here, this is an entirely Christian symbol with many meanings in itself. The tree of knowledge and life in the Garden of Eden, the Kabballah of Jewish tradition, and also the Anglo-Saxon “rood”, the tree that became Christ's cross. The tree also simply represents Christianity itself, the growth of faith as one's life progresses. Pagan religion in England had been dead for four centuries by the time the work at Kilpeck has been carried out so it is unlikely that there was any heathen intent here – although folk customs and traditional practises that retained elements of those earlier pagan dogmas did still continue.

The arches are in two separate spans and may have actually been sculpted by two masons. The lower crescent is a gallery of bizarre faces and figures, animal, human and...others. Birds, fishes, wolves leer out next to angels and gaping, open-mouthed faces that spew forth snakes and other items, which brings us to one of the most iconic aspects of the Herefordshire School body of work – the Green Man. Here we have a fierce, barely human face that disgorges the same fruit as the tympanum tree from its gaping maw, and it is positioned at eye level for an average person. Nobody really called these particular figures Green Men, that was a term adopted during the 1930s by Julia Somerset, the Lady Raglan, to describe them. Having said that we have examples of the Green Man used as a pub name long before the 20th century so this isn't completely clear cut...a discussion for another article perhaps.

Below the “Green Man” we have something else, two serpents which at first glance appear to be almost a mirror image of the pair on the opposite pillar. Look a little closer though, and there is something else happening here. The higher snake is actually shedding its skin, perhaps a graphic representation of the conversion to Christianity of the earlier folk of England? Or symbolic of one's sins being shed as one enters the church?

Around the eaves of the church roof we see a gallery of sculpted corbels, around 87 still here from an original count of 99. Their appearances span a wide range of subject matter, from gruesome monsters to distinguished human faces, and activities ranging from hunting to wrestling. They are in sections, with one such section appearing to serve as warnings against what were considered vices and sins in 1150. A drunken man tumbles down in a tangle of limbs, an impassioned player of a stringed instrument, two men engaging in a romantic tryst, and a cartoonish pig munching on a small human. Recent study of these corbels has, however, shone new light on these stone reminders of biblical piety. They probably portray common scenes at the monthly market and fair held here in Kilpeck and, far from condemning the common folk for letting it go a little they may actually be celebrating it.

The average serf would not have heard the music of a skilled instrumentalist during the daily drudgery of their working lives, so to see and hear a band of such artists at a market would have been a joyous thing. The lithe-limbed “drunk” is thought to be an acrobat or contortionist displaying his physical prowess, and the smooching men? Wrestlers, locked in a physical struggle using techniques which are, incredibly, still to be seen during martial arts matches today. The gluttonous pig merely shows the kinds of things on sale at an average market...probably roasted over a spit.

One other corbel merits a closer look here, as it is the one that draws the most attention from tourists, scholars and passers-by alike. The “Sheela-na-Gig”. A bizarre alien-like head atop a squat figure that stretches its exaggerated female genitals wide open, what she means here is not known. The name for these creations doesn't help either, being a folkloric and very localised term for one or two examples in remoter parts of Ireland. It's possible that she serves as a warning against the sins of the flesh, the expression of female sexuality and general lasciviousness. She may also represent birth and motherhood, perhaps an aspect of Mary. In any case, even if the Sheela-na-gig did once have some meaning within the pagan world, in 1150 that function would have existed in folklore only with no knowledge of its truth understood by those involved. She remains an enigma along with the green man, perhaps a counterpart to his masculine energy.

Inside the church we have another Romanesque arch, this one serving as the chancel arch but no less striking in its appearance. Here we have depictions of various saints in 15 inch high figures, the whole arrangement thought to have been directly inspired by work at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela then through the arch to the sanctuary or apse where a very rare example of rib vaulting is apparent. Four strange heads terminate each rib of the ceiling, thought to represent the mouths of the biblical Four Rivers of Paradise. A massive but wholly unadorned font is near the church door but perhaps more curiously we have here a curious example of a “stoup” for hand-washing. It looks very much like a pregnant woman, if cartoonish in execution, with two snake heads slithering down towards her feet. Whatever this meant to the Herefordshire School sculptors of 1140 is anyone's guess!

The church at Kilpeck is rightly considered to be the jewel in the crown of Herefordshire style Romanesque sculpture but while it is definitely a part of that corpus it stands slightly outside of it too, a work of art in its own right. It has been conjectured that Hugh de Kilpeck may have brought a holy relic back with him from the Second Crusade to take pride of place inside his newly built church, and I'd be inclined to support this hypotheses. There were other richly decorated Romanesque churches in Herefordshire but Kilpeck has an aura of its own, it is an enigma whose meaning can only be understood right where it stands. So what of these other sites where the work of the Herefordshire School can still be found today?

At Shobdon in Herefordshire we have another bizarre arrangement. The Church of St John is an 18th century reconstruction described variously as “a sickly wedding cake” and “a blueberry gateau” but the building it replaced was first built for Oliver de Merlemond – a veteran of the Santiago pilgrimage – around 1150 by one “Knight Bernard” of the Herefordshire School. When the new church went up the Romanesque carvings were taken and set into a folly by Sir John Bateman at the top of a nearby hill. Shobdon Arches – as the structure is now known – is well worth the uphill hike to get an idea of what else the sculptors of that time were up to and to see the similarities with other sites such as at Kilpeck. Unfortunately much of the detail of the sculptures has been lost to the elements but sketches made at the time of the construction of the Arches are on hand to assist in getting the full vision here.

At Eardisley we have a magnificent Herefordshire School font, richly decorated with the story of the Harrowing of Hell but featuring two warriors locked in a duel. They resemble the same such fellows at Kilpeck but here they are in action, lunging and dodging with sword and spear. The mission of Jesus to rescue Adam from the depths of hell needs little explanation here but the fighting men have made their way into the annals of Herefordshire folklore. The Baskervilles were once the most powerful family in the area, leaving a legacy of history and somewhat sinister traditions behind them, prompting Henry II to declare that “If there were only one Baskerville left in Christendom, that would suffice to corrupt the whole of mankind...”! Sir Ralph de Baskerville, probably using the long-lost Eardisley castle as a base, fought a duel against Lord Drogo of the neighbouring Clifford castle over a land ownership dispute. Sir Ralph prevailed, slaying his adversary, but was then required to buy an indulgence from the Pope to restore his sanctity. It is thought that the font at Eardisley was carved to commemorate the duel and perhaps the redemption of the Norman knight's soul, and if true this would mark it out as unique in the world.

Another font depicting the Harrowing of Hell can be found at Castle Froome in South Herefordshire, this one supported on bizarre sculptures that represent mankind crushed by his sin. As at virtually every other church worked on by the Herefordshire School a castle overlooked the site during its construction.

At Leominster Priory we see some amazing work by the HS, both on the impressive Romanesque doorway and inside the church too. Writhing snakes are depicted next to sickel wielding serfs among wheat and barley, while inside we have a braid-haired green man underneath a mounted warrior, this whole interior group having a Scandinavian air about it.

In Worcestershire the work of the School continued, most notable at the village churches of Rock and Holt. The former boasts an incredible chancel arch laden with imagery typical of the Herefordshire style. We have a double “green man”, its two faces tangled together by billowing tendrils, a muzzled bear, a centaur and other strange faces and objects incuding a male exhibitionist, or “He-la-na-gig”! As mentioned previously it is tempting to identify some of these images as pagan in meaning so perhaps a little tangent might be followed here.

Images such as the stag, the “green man”, the Sheela-na-gig, the snake and the various bearded, helmeted faces we see in the work of the Herefordshire School do have an earthy, heathen feel about them. They lack the bright paint they once sported and are often in rural locations overlooked by trees and hills, giving them a “folksy” aspect. There is no doubt here that the sculptors were working within a strictly Christian context, overseen both by their wealthy patrons and the church authorities of the day, and any attempt to “slip in” something unholy would not have been looked kindly upon by either a bishop or a baron. However, there are symbols that resonate within followers of many different religions and in my opinion this might go a little way in explaining some of these strange images.

The snake is pretty much vilified through the whole corpus of Christian teachings but does have a role to play in healing too. The caduceus is the staff with two serpents entwined about it, while the staff of Asclepius, ancient Greek god of medicine, features one, with both serving as the insignia of dozens of modern-day medical organisations. Classical mythology, even astrology and the zodiac, often found its way into Christian theology and so this may explain its presence on later religious buildings. When Moses lifted his staffs aloft it healed the Hebrew people, before they turned to snakes as he put them on the ground so the serpent in Christian art may mean “the healing of all God's people”.

The stag is closely related to the snake in early Christian writings as it was believed to hunt serpents, sucking them out of their lairs in a symbolic act of the eradication of sin. “As the hart pants after springs of water, so my soul pants after thee O God” says King David in Psalms 42. This passage also placed the stag as a symbol of the constant love of a Christian for their God, and when hunted – especially white stags - represented the eternal quest for an understanding of God's mysteries. The stag had great meaning in Celtic mythology too, appearing as a warning against breaking a taboo.

So in practise once can see how such images had meaning to everyone, perennial symbols that spoke to the subconscious and, judging by the opinions of modern pagans, continue to do so today. They may not be exclusively pagan or Christian symbols in a strict sense but they perform that function when viewed by adherents to either religion. Rather than “stealing” or “appropriating” such imagery it would be more accurate to say that Christian writers and artists simply used the appropriate symbol for whatever message they were trying to convey at the time.

Returning to the sculptures at Worcestershire we also see at Rock a perfect juxtaposition of Romanesque and later Gothic architecture, the rounded, pillared windows of the former contrasting with the pointed arches of the latter. Across at Holt we have a hidden gem of a country church, as in most cases a castle casts its shadow over it, once a Norman tower owned by Walter de Beauchamp who appears to have financed an ornate Romanesque church for his family built by, you guessed it, the men of the Herefordshire School of masons. Here we have a row of strange, bat-like faces gnashing their teeth under the chancel arch while the massive font actually sports four “green men”, grotesque as they are.

I know that I have missed one or two churches of interest in this article but hopefully I have conveyed the flavour of the unique Romanesque style in Herefordshire and Worcestershire and how it really stands out as something special. It is perhaps appropriate that most of the work of the Herefordshire School of masons is along the Marches, the often hazy borderlands between Wales and England. A liminal space, neither one thing nor the other, an uncanny valley where anything might happen. All you have to do now is head out to see some of these places for yourselves, and perhaps discover one of the missed locations.

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May 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I really enjoy all the photos and information and look forward to reading the next posting. I can’t get around much anymore so my thirst for more history is definitely satisfied by Hugh’s work. A heartfelt Thank You!

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