Thursday, April 8, 2010

Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire

Masters of iron and stone

Curving and recurving across the door of St Mary’s church at Eaton Bray is some of the most remarkable ironwork from the Middle Ages, a series of intricate scrolls that date from the middle of the 13th century. Structurally, they help to bind together the timbers of the door; they are also like a signpost telling visitors that they are in for something special here.

When you open the door you find the nave and aisles separated by two beautiful arcades. The one in the picture is the more ornate of the two. It is of a similar date to the ironwork on the door and shows the kind of workmanship you’d expect to find in a cathedral rather than a medium-sized parish church in a Bedforshire village. There’s great refinement here. The arches are made up of deeply cut roll mouldings – eleven rolls in all around each arch. Each pier is given extra richness with the addition of eight slender shafts– and there’s an extra trick, in that some of the shafts, such as those around the pier in the foreground, are just slightly detached from their pier, to give additional shadow and depth. Each pier is topped with a capital carved with stylized foliage in a design known as ‘stiff leaf’, a motif that represented high sophistication in around 1240 when this row of arches was built.

English parish churches have an endless capacity to surprise and give pleasure, but often the pleasure comes from homespun, vernacular design. Here it’s more sophisticated work in the style that has been known since the 19th century as Early English Gothic. The breathtaking quality is perhaps to do with the fact that the church had been given to the Augustine abbey of Merton in Surrey the previous century. The unknown mason they employed produced a design of power and grace that still stands out, more than 700 years on.


Peter Ashley said...

This is one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about English churches. That we have all these incredibly rich items of decoration from, wait for it, the Middle Ages on our doorsteps.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Parish churches are always full of surprises, it seems.