Wednesday, July 9, 2008

North Cerney, Gloucestershire


The sun is a great visual friend to buildings. Under the warming influence of its rays old red bricks shimmer, windows become a patchwork of glittering reflections, and stone seems to change colour before our eyes. Along the limestone belt that stretches from Dorset to Lincolnshire, for example, stone that looks grey against a cloudy sky can warm up in the sunshine to the ‘honey-coloured’ appearance beloved of the guidebook writers, while the darker lias walls of parts of northern Oxfordshire and southern Northamptonshire turn a rich toffee shade, an architectural feast, indeed.

With the sunlight also come shadows. The crisp shadow lines made in the sun by the protruding bits of a building – stringcourses, pilasters, mouldings – define architectural shapes and rhythms. Shadows also reveal details that are easy to miss on a dull day. Recently I was out with a friend exploring his village church and churchyard. As we came out of the porch and glanced to our left a shaft of light illuminated an 18th-century gravestone. Suddenly its worn inscription, which had been virtually invisible before, was legible again. My friend quickly wrote down its words, capturing the outline of a life before the sun, and the dates, disappeared again.

At least on a gravestone we expect an inscription and know where to look. But the sun can also illuminate the unexpected. This creature is incised with a shallow line on an outside wall of the church at North Cerney, which lies between Cirencester and Cheltenham. It’s a beast called a manticore. Such animals are mentioned in the writings of Classical authors such as the Greek Ctesias and the Roman Pliny, and they are also described in medieval bestiaries. Manticores are meant to have the body of a lion and the head and shoulders of a man – although this example has feet that look like hoofs and a tail that bears a passing resemblance to that of a beaver. There is another at North Cerney, which has a more leopard-like body.

No-one knows why these beasts should be there. Monsters, it is true, are often depicted on the outsides of medieval churches. But they usually appear as small carved corbels not as shallow reliefs taking up more than a linear metre of wall. The best guess is that they are masons’ graffiti carved in the late-16th century, but we can’t know for sure. The sun, which can illuminate hidden lives and reveal fabulous carvings, can also raise unanswerable questions.

3 comments:

Thud said...

To catch a glimpse of our ancestors beliefs and superstitions in a brief moment of light is about as close to magic as we get today.

Neil said...

This is fabulous, in every sense of the word.

Peter Ashley said...

There are many photographers, even the truly great ones like Edwin Smith) who reckoned it didn't matter if the sun shone or not. Well, if you're shooting in black and white, have a melancholic frame of mind and do your own printing in the airing cupboard then perhaps it doesn't matter. But, as Morecambe & Wise sang "Give me sunshine..."