Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire


The A38 between Gloucester and Bristol was once a major artery to the southwest, though nowadays the M5, running roughly parallel, takes most of the heavy traffic. I remember when I was a boy that my parents and I would sit in traffic jams on the A38, and when the car got moving again we’d pass through dusty villages, places called odd things like Cambridge and Berkeley Road, that seemed to want to be somewhere else. Moreton Valence was one that got away down lanes to one side of the main road, and its church feels remote, a world away from the bustle that anyway has gone now.

We came here to look at the outside of the church and in particular the wondrous tympanum above the door that now shelters beneath a partly timber-framed porch. It’s Norman, and vigorously carved in low relief, although the relief was probably deeper when it was made in the 12th century – there are signs of wear during the centuries before the porch was built in the late Middle Ages, and this, the main entrance to the church, unusually faces north. The reason for the odd orientation is across the churchyard fence. An ancient moat, filled with duckweed, marks the site of what must have been the medieval manor house. A north door was the quickest way in for the local lord.

And what he and the rest of the congregation saw as they entered was this carving: an angel, presumably the Archangel Michael, spearing a dragon. The carver portrayed Michael with long hair, neatly carved feathered wings, and a nimbus. The sculptor made good use of the semicircular shape of the stone, portraying Michael leaning dramatically towards the beast, so that both his head and his wing almost touch the edge of the tympanum: it’s a pose that suggests power and effort, as he shoves his spear or lance dragonwards. The beast, too, is carefully carved. A beady eye, one fang, and a curvaceous ear are all visible, though difficult to capture in a photograph without extra lighting. Like the angel, the dragon is effectively positioned, but – in keeping with its defensive stance – the creature is twisted awkwardly with the body pointing forwards and the head turned back. Again, the frame is neatly filled.

The sculpture of Norman tympana is quite diverse. Even within the confines of this blog, I’ve posted tympana featuring such subjects as the Harrowing of Hell, the Coronation of the Virgin, Christ in Majesty, and miscellaneous monsters. The other dragon-slayer I’ve seen in a Norman carving, at Ruardean, is on horseback, and as such has been seen as a knight and so identified as St George. The Ruardean figure is in much deeper relief than this one at Moreton Valence, and it’s a shame the stone here has worn so much – the wings, Michael’s garment, the nimbus, and other details suggest carving of some detail and quality. But I’m grateful for what’s left.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Even with a porch over it, the carving has been on an outside wall, in this climate, since the 12th century. Survival in any condition is surely the remarkable thing here!

Joe Treasure said...

Much to enjoy in this. I'm interested that the convenience of the lord of the manor could dictate the orientation of the church. Facing eastward must have been viewed as a convention rather than a requirement. And it suggests something about the relative power of secular and religious authorities in this location.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Maybe I have used my words imprecisely here. The church is oriented east-west, in the usual way, but what's unusual is that the only door into the nave is in the north wall. Normally in a parish church, if there's only one door it's in the south wall (or occasionally the west well).

Joe Treasure said...

No, Phil, not your imprecision, my careless reading. Thanks for clarifying.