Sunday, April 13, 2014

Huish Episcopi, Somerset

Foiled again

The quatrefoil. A shape in the form of a simple stylized four-leaf clover, flattened. It’s everywhere: Gothic churches, public buildings, doorways, fabric patterns. It appears over hundreds of years, in many different cultures, in diverse contexts. It can be part of window tracery, a frame for a sculpture, a decorative motif on a wall. It’s on modern jewellery and on Louis Vuitton bags too.

It’s often made out of stone, but it’s harder to carve than a simple square or a circle or a diamond. So it’s most often used on highly ornate, high status buildings. It probably originated in Islamic art but it’s most familiar in Gothic tracery and ornament. So you’ll find it on the great French cathedrals, and on the Doge’s Palace in Venice. And on English medieval churches and Gothic revival buildings of all kinds. One of the first blog posts I ever did was about a 19th-century building in Manchester that’s in the Venetian Gothic style and has quatrefoils all over it. Now here’s an example from a medieval church at Huish Episcopi, Somerset.

My photograph shows quatrefoils used as a decorative motif on the tower of the church. I could no doubt have chosen other towers in this region of stunning towers that use this pattern, but Huish Episcopi is one of the most ornate and beautiful of all the great Somerset church towers and quatrefoils are used lavishly on it – in the horizontals bands that mark the storeys, in a vertical arrangement in the window-like openings that allow the sound of the bells to carry, in the glorious ornate openwork parapet right at the top.

One key reason why the quatrefoil succeeds as a design motif is that it manages to combine the idea of a natural form (it looks like leaves or a flower) with a very precise, reproducible geometry. In other words it’s an abstract pattern that makes us think of nature. In Gothic, the geometry of such patterns is ramified, so that there can be shapes with many different numbers of ‘foils’: trefoils with three lobes, cinquefoils with five, sexfoils with six, and so on. Medieval Christian master masons no doubt saw symbolism in these numbers. If trefoils suggest the Holy Trinity, quatrefoils perhaps remind us of the four Evangelists.

A carver at Huish Episcopi also had another idea: that the quatrefoil could accommodate the shape of Christ on the Cross. As so often in medieval architecture, high seriousness and visual facility are united.

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There’s more about the quatrefoil in an episode of the marvellous 99% Invisible, the tiny but constantly entertaining and informative radio show about design. Presenter-producers Roman Mars and Avery Trufelman discuss the quatrefoil here.

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