Sunday, January 11, 2015
Great Rollright, Oxfordshire
The fascinating church at Great Rollright, not far from Chipping Norton in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, has many notable features and I’ll more than likely return to it, but for now, I wanted to share the wonderful late-12th century doorway. This is a rustic example of Romanesque carving: it has many of the typical features of this style – chevron ornament, beakheads, a carved tympanum (the semicircular panel above the door) – but all of these done in a very vigorous and simple way that shows the hand of a local carver. This is not the work of a top-notch sculptor, then, like the great doorway at Malmesbury Abbey or the outstanding work of the Herefordshire school, but still arresting.
The beakheads are crudely done. They’re recognisable, just, as heads with beaks, although some seem to lack eyes of other facial features (and a couple on the far right seem to break with the conventions completely) so one has to wonder if the carver knew exactly what he was doing. And yet their simple shapes and strong linear carving have a strong character. For beakheads and chevrons done with more sophistication, look at the doorways at Elkstone or, especially, Kilpeck.
The tympanum bridges the gap between completely abstract, patterned carving and the figurative work that the Normans often placed above their church entrances. Along the bottom there are roundels, some flower-like, some that seem to incorporate a star pattern, others looking a bit like round shields with a central boss. Above are cross patterns and an enigma – a carving that seems to show a large fish, a human head, and a figure wrapped in a decorated shroud. I wondered when I first saw them if the head and fish were meant to represent Jonah and the whale – but why the shrouded corpse?
If this doorway poses more questions than it answers, it’s still an eloquent reminder that all over the country, from Yorkshire to Sussex, there was an explosion of sculpture in the late-12th century, work that survives in large quantities, in both towns and remote villages, and can still give us much pleasure.
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Please click on the image to see more detail in the carving.