Saturday, August 3, 2019

Torbryan, Devon

Community of saints

There may be a few loyal readers of this blog who remember a post I did back in 2013 about the beautiful Devon church of Torbryan. On that occasion I reported the recent theft of two panels from the church’s late-15th century painted screen. This was a damaging crime in several ways. The screen is precious because few medieval screens have survived with their painted images intact, and even fewer have paintings of the quality of those at Torbryan. In addition, the thieves vandalised the screen not only by removing two of the panels but also by badly damaging another panel in the process of the removal. It was a cause for celebration, therefore, when the police recovered the stolen panels in 2015, enabling the Churches Conservation Trust, who care for the building, to have them reinstalled, and to restore the damaged panel too.

All this was very much in our minds when the Resident Wise Woman and I visited Torbryan a couple of weeks ago, so that I could introduce her to this wonderful church and have a close look at the restored paintings. The visit was one of the highlights of our recent short trip to Devon, given us the time and opportunity to marvel at each image. They’re an impressive collection. Not all the saints can be identified, but a number have attributes that help put names to the images. St Peter has his keys, St Luke his ox, St Matthew his angel, St Andrew his saltire cross. St James the Great, apostle and pilgrim, holds a staff; St Catherine of Siena, who bore the stigmata, wears a crown of thorns; St Dorothy carries the roses and apples that figure in the story of her execution; St Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, has pincers and a tooth. And so on. The stolen and retrieved panels, which are in the northernmost section of the screen, have images of St Margaret holding a cross and an unusual saint, Victor of Marseilles. Victor was an officer in the Roman army* and holds a windmill, which is both charming and nice reference for anyone who wants to know what a late-medieval post mill looks like.
It’s good to see them back in place, and they remind us of the may ways in which such paintings have value above their monetary worth. They're historical evidence (of how the saints were seen and what they symbolised and for such details as that windmill). They depict saints who were revered – and who should command at least respect for what they endured for their sake of their beliefs. They are vigorously drawn, appealing, and cherishable works of art.

And above all, they’re part of a whole. Painted panels of saints might be nice things to have on one's wall at home, but they work best when they are where they were meant to be. Here, they form part of a screen of which the design (beautiful tracery, elegant proportions) and carving is transparently effective and right. They are members of a whole community of saints, of which the thirty-odd in the screen are representative and shining examples. And they are part of a wider context, that of the whole church, which in the Middle Ages would have been further adorned with wall paintings and stained glass (gone now), to make a complete and glowing world – a cosmos even – in which the flesh and blood worshippers, the people of Torbryan, once formed the vital, animated part.

Of course, much of that decorative community – the frescoes, the stained glass, other three-dimensional images – was taken away after the Reformation. Even the screen has lost its upper part and its crowning Rood. The painted saints are yet more precious because they are still right there, still in their original setting. They are windows into this lost world.

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* St Victor, who served in the Roman army in Marseilles in the 3rd century, denounced the worship of idols, and was tortured and martyred for his beliefs. After Victor refused to make an offering to Jupiter, kicking over the god's statue, the emperor sentenced him to be put to death by being ground beneath a millstone, hence the windmill.

Top picture St Luke, St Matthew, St Andrew, possibly St Philip

Second picture St Victor of Marseilles

Bottom picture St James the Less, possibly St Thomas, St Simon the Zealot, possibly St Matthias  

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