Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shorthampton, Oxfordshire


Survivors

When it comes to parish churches, small is often both beautiful and interesting. Small churches in isolated locations sometimes survive with ancient features intact better than churches in towns and villages on the beaten track, where wealth, piety, and fashion often led to frequent restorations and renovations. Shorthampton in western Oxfordshire, set on a quiet lane not far from Charlbury, is a mixture of Norman, Gothic, and Georgian. But its main interest, apart from the quiet churchyard view views across undulating hills and farmland, lies in its wall paintings.

Because so many images in English churches were destroyed in the 17th century, English wall paintings are mostly fragmentary. What were once entire cycles of images, showing, say, the story of the Passion, are now reduced to a few scraps; a large Last Judgement may be recognisable only by a small group of devils; a feathered wing may be all that’s left of an angelic host. As a result, what survives has a quality of serendipity, and often, divorced form its context, of surprise. At Shorthampton we are treated to a dragon’s wing (presumably all that is left of a painting of St George), a Last Judgement so faded as to be virtually indecipherable, and images showing a bishop (above) and of various saints, not all identifiable but remarkably including St Zita, patron of domestic servants and a far from common subject.


And then there is this unusual subject, the Miracle of the Clay Birds. This is the story of how the infant Jesus modelled some birds out of clay and then brought them to life. If it’s unfamiliar, that’s because the story is told in one of the apocryphal gospels, that of St Thomas. At Shorthampton, although the painting is faded, the Virgin, the infant Jesus, and another child – perhaps John the Baptist – are clearly visible, along with one of the birds.

It is indeed surprising that in this tiny, isolated church, up a lane with just a few farms for company, this obscure story should be portrayed. But miracles fascinated the medieval artists, and miraculous episodes from apocryphal narratives by James, Thomas and the ‘pseudo-Matthew’ (all gospels that satisfied an understandable craving for information about the infancy of Jesus) appear in various churches. No doubt many such images have been lost. It’s a small miracle in itself that in this Oxfordshire church such a painting has survived.

6 comments:

bazza said...

These photographs remind me of visiting Pompei but there the paintings tended to be, shall we say, more secular in subject matter! I suppose paintings and stained glass in churches were bringing bible stories to the many illiterates in the congregation. Your photos fire one's imagination.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, the Bible of the Poor is the usual term for this. Although just to be perverse, the two pictures I illustrate in this post are not strictly from the Bible – one being from an apocryphal gospel and one of some unidentified churchman.

Neil said...

Somehow the fragmentary and faded quality suits these pictures, and they seem to me more moving in this battered and timeworn state than if they had survived fresh and whole. The apocryphal infancy gospels supplied material for English folksongs such as the Cherry Tree Carol; it would be interesting to know how many church wall paintings also drew inspiration from them. Thomas depicts Jesus as a naughty and wilful boy, quite unlike the Victorian "gentle Jesus meek and mild". Immediately after he has transformed the clay birds into live sparrows, he is angered by another boy who splashes away the puddle Jesus has made, and causes him to "wither like a tree". When another boy runs past him and bumps into his shoulder, Jesus causes him to fall down dead on the spot. And when the parents go to Joseph to complain, Jesus strikes them blind...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: Paintings of subjects from the infancy Gospels are quite rare and are limited, as far as I know, to the more benign actions of the young Jesus.

JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England. said...

Shorthampton is quite a special place and not the easiest to find. I love it. The box pews too are another feature of interest.

I had planned to write about the church on my blog but you have pipped me to the post!

Johnson

Philip Wilkinson said...

Johnson: Yes, you're right about the box pews. They add to the feeling of another era – and also to the spatial character of the interior, which is quite unusual because the nave was widened at some stage. It's a fascinating place.