Tuesday, June 14, 2011
In the high and holy place
It’s the 1670s. The English Civil Wars have come and gone and the Stuart monarchy has been restored. In London, the great fire of 1666 has left its trail of damage, but the capital is being rebuilt. Wren’s new city churches are showing people how a kind of plain classical style can be adapted to church design. People are used to simple interiors, a minimum of imagery, and texts on the wall. If there is ceiling decoration, for example, it’s plasterwork not a million miles away from the kind of thing found in country houses of the period.
But English architecture can always produce something against the grain, something that throws away the rulebook. In the unlikely setting of the Shropshire countryside near Ludlow is a startling example. St Mary the Virgin, Bromfield, is a medieval parish church, once a Benedictine priory, originally built in the mid-12th century with later additions from the 13th and 16th centuries. There’s a solid-looking stone tower at the northwest corner, a nave, an aisle, a chancel – nothing unusual-sounding about all that.
What is unusual is the chancel ceiling, a celestial phantasmagoria of angels and clouds, each angel with a scroll bearing a Biblical quotation. This heavenly host was painted in about 1672 by Thomas Francis of Aston-by-Sutton, Cheshire. It combines the period’s taste for texts with a kind of angelic imagery that’s like little else. The angels are a varied bunch, some apparently naked, others draped in rural homespun. The scrolls bearing the texts curl this way and that across the sky.
At the centre, amongst the English country angels, the fluffy clouds, and the eccentrically scrolling texts, is a bit of Latin. It’s a diagrammatic explanation of one of Christianity’s greatest puzzles: the Trinity. If you follow the diagram, which is often known as the Shield of the Trinity, you will read, around the edge, that the Son is not the Father, who is not the Holy Spirit. But if you read inwards towards the centre you will discover that each of these is God. The whole ceiling is a remarkable combination of English and Latin, angels and clouds, folk art and exegesis. It’s mixed up but wonderfully surprising. And its charm is unique.