Saturday, January 1, 2011

Isle Abbots, Somerset

God and the details

This is another of the wonderful late-medieval Somerset towers, a cousin of the one I recently described at Huish Episcopi, and it is one of my favourites. It’s tucked away at one end of a village among winding, high-hedged lanes, from which the visitor can occasionally glimpse its openwork parapet and pinnacles above the trees. Closer to, the tower reveals itself as an exemplar of the 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic style – a kind of architecture unique to England, characterized by a strong emphasis on verticals. The windows and bell openings, with their strong uprights, are typical of Perpendicular Gothic, as is the door, with its slightly flattened arch.

The glorious thing about this tower – apart from its fine proportions and its village setting – is that so much of its decoration is intact. Towers like this were often adorned with statues of saints, but these were mostly removed by Protestant iconoclasts of the 17th century, who saw such works of art not as the icons of piety that they originally were but as ‘graven images’ that were apt to distract the faithful from the word of God. As a result, empty niches are all that usually remain to remind us how beautifully decorated late-medieval churches were, and how these churches, with their statues, stained glass, and wall paintings depicting Biblical scenes, saints, bishops, and so on, were intended to symbolize the entire community of the faithful.

But at Isle Abbots the iconoclasts only reached the lower statues. Maybe they didn’t bring a long enough ladder. Maybe the locals did not take kindly to their church being defaced. Who knows? Whatever the reason, on the upper levels of the tower such figures as St Catherine (above) remain. She is shown with two of her symbols, the wheel, on which her persecutors tried to kill her, and the sword, by which she finally died. Although the stone is worn, one can also make out the saint’s cascading tresses and the drapery of her clothes. The surrounding carving – the supporting angel and the ornate canopy above the saint’s head – survive too, to remind us that for medieval masons as for later architects, God was indeed in the details.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your blog and for making one want to travel the length and breadth of England and see first-hand its architectural beauties.
Best wishes for the New Year!
François-Marc Chaballier (Paris)

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Thank you, and happy New Year!