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.

- - - - -

Please click on the image to see more detail in the carving.


bazza said...

I do like a nice doorway. We are blessed in England with this type of sight and I enjoy the way that you bring attention to the less 'top-notch' stuff!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Jenny Woolf said...

I went to the Rollright stones once, and they're the only place where my camera malfunctioned :) which rather backs up the claims that are made about the place having odd magnetic fields.

I never knew about the church. We usually call in churches when on our bikes although I don't find it awfully interesting cycling country round there. But that doorway is worth a detour if we are ever in the area in the car. Do you think the fish is there because of the fish being an early Christian symbol? Admittedly it doesn't look the same as ichthys but I daresay these things got adapted as they spread.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Thanks very much. I'm going to do a mini-series of three of these doorways stand by for the other two soon!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jenny: The Rollright Stones are interesting. I have friends who always say they feel unpleasantly odd when visiting the stones, a feeling they don't get at other prehistoric sites (Avebury, for example).

The church is well worth a visit by car. There is much more there than the doorway, but I have stuck to my habit of showing just one photograph in my post, so that people can discover the rest for themselves!