Friday, 15 October 2010

Ickleton, Cambridgeshire

St Mary Magdalene is without a shadow of doubt magnificent even setting aside the extraordinary medieval wall paintings. The church sits in a walled graveyard in the heart of the village and is quite exceptionally beautiful. I have driven past it many times over the years but only visited it in June and was bowled over.

Undeniably its chief draw are the paintings but with surviving poppy-heads, curious corbels, a rather fine rood screen, an exodus screen and many other delights there's something for everyone here.

The north chancel wall frescos depict the Passion and  date to the 12th century whilst the Doom on the chancel arch is 14th century.

In the case of the Doom, it is not really the technique or style of the painting which is of special interest but the subject matter. Doom paintings illustrate the Day of Judgement as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter XXV. This theme was painted more frequently on the walls of churches than any other during the Middle Ages and about eighty examples are still to be seen in this country today. Doom paintings generally occupy the most arresting position in the church, over the chancel arch, where they may be seen and contemplated by all.

The elements which go to make up this composition usually vary little from one version to another. In the central position there is always Christ and Judge, seated on the rainbow, displaying wounds of the cross. On the left kneels the Virgin Mary and on the right either St. John the Evangelist or St. John the Baptist. There are usually figures of angels (sometimes blowing the Last Trump) grouped round about. Below this, there may be a scene with figures emerging from their graves as in the General Resurrection. And beneath that, there is often a section showing the Saved being separated from the Damned with the former being led off to Heaven and the latter prodded into the Jaws of Hell.

Unfortunately, the lower parts of the Doom at Ickleton are very much damaged; one or two figures rising from their graves can be made out just below Christ’s feet and there are two small crowned figures below that, on the right hand side, which are all that remain of the Damned.

The most unusual element of this painting, however, is that of the Virgin who appears with bare breasts. Argument has raged as to whether this is not a representation of Mary Magdalene which would seem appropriate as the church is dedicated to her. However, this dedication is of fairly recent date; during the Middle Ages the church was in fact dedicated to the Virgin.

There is another and more conclusive argument, however, for this being a figure of the Virgin. Baring the breast in the fourteenth century was a gesture of supplication. In representations of the Last Judgement the role of the Virgin and St. John is one of intercession for the souls of mankind. A Flemish critic of iconography wrote in 1574 that “Many painters show Mary and John the Baptist kneeling beside our Lord at the Last Judgement   But we may not think at that day the Virgin Mary will kneel for us before the Judge, baring her breast to intercede for sinners".

This suggests that although the Ickleton Virgin seems at present to be the only example of this type (at least in the sphere of wall painting) there were originally many other paintings with this particular feature. Perhaps this image has been especially prone to destruction because later generations have found it unacceptable.

To see how rare the Frescos are I searched through the 180 odd churches I've visited so far and have found two that have almost comparable pictures - Great Shelford (which I actually think is better) (Doom) and Little Easton (Passion) - but no other church to date, except Copford, which I failed to photograph since it was pre-church interest, comes anywhere near the sheer visceral excitement of the combination of a Passion and Doom scene in one church.

ST MARY. As a parish church interior of the Early Norman decades Ickleton has few equals in the country. It is far too little known. It has its Early Norman arcades and clerestory complete, and arcades which rest on elephant-grey Roman monolith columns and stone pillars copying their handsomely tapering columnar shape. The capitals are of cushion type, but flatter than usual, and that also contributes to the curiously C6 Doric impression the columns give. The arches are entirely unmoulded and have ample traces of plain geometrical patterns in paint. Above are small exposed clerestory windows. The W doorway also is complete with one order of columns and the door jamb itself made semicircular. The window above is Perp and renewed. The W arch of the Norman crossing survives too, at least up to the tops of the responds. They are of two sturdy semicircular shafts with block capitals. The E arch of the crossing has one shaft only. The capitals are altered here to the style of the crossing arches, i.e. c. 1300; the arches are triple-chamfered. The bell-openings agree with c. 1300. The crossing tower is continued into a broached lead spire. It is the chief accent of the church from outside. The church is built of flint and pebble rubble. The N transept has disappeared. The S transept has no feature to date it, except perhaps the arch from the crossing which is triple-chamfered and probably early C14. That is also the date of the rebuilding of the S aisle, see the aisle windows, the S doorway, the S porch with its handsome vault of diagonal and ridge-ribs with big bosses, and the arch from the S aisle into the transept. The arch itself is depressed and starts with a vertical piece on each side. The chancel was rebuilt in 1882, but there is enough evidence to call it Perp, in windows as well as the N doorway (inside) and the broad arch next to it which led into a former chapel. The interesting Sedilia, in one with the window above, are of 1882. Dedication dates for the church exist for 1351 and 1452. - BENCHES. Only two of the poppy-heads survive. The bench-ends themselves are bordered with fleuron friezes. One of the poppy-heads had a St Michael weighing souls on one side, an angel with two Tudor roses on the other.

Given that Arthur's record was written 40 years before the fire that resulted in the revelation of the frescos he makes for interesting reading and, I think, supports the idea that the church is interesting in itself:

ICKLETON. The thread of continuity which runs through England’s life from age to age is here in its full strength; here are our witnesses for thousands of years. Here the ancient Britons brought their Icknield Way across the Cam. Here are great monoliths fashioned by the Romans. Here the Normans built a nunnery of which something is left. Here are arrow slits which surely must be Saxon, painting on the wall which is surely medieval, 14th century arches, 15th century screen work: so the tale of the centuries runs on.

It is fitting that in this old place the wall round the churchyard should be coped with ancient stones carved by medieval masons; we noticed on one of them a crocodile, on another a fox, on others odd figures worn by wind and rain. The church stands by the green, and has a central tower begun by the Normans and finished in the 14th century, when the little heads were put at the corners. In its spire is a cot for the Sanctus bell. We open a door heavy with ironwork 600 years old to come into a nave four times longer than it is wide, planned by the Saxons. The Normans built the arches resting on massive capitals and set here four round pillars as remarkable as anything we have come upon in a village church. They are monoliths brought here by the Romans, probably for a Roman building discovered near the village last century, and taken from the ruin when the Normans came to pierce the Saxon walls and add the narrow aisles to the church. Between the top of the arcades and the clerestory windows are narrow windows like arrow slits which look like Saxon, and on two of their deep splays are ancient paintings of saints and a king. There are traces of more old painting on the arches themselves. The 600-year-old arches of the tower rest on Norman columns, and the Norman west doorway remains. The chancel has Norman fragments of masonry and medieval stone seats for the priests, as well as the old piscina. The chancel screen is 15th century and has been painted afresh in medieval fashion; so has the traceried ceiling of the tower. There are many fine old benches with flowery ends, the few remaining ones that keep their poppy-heads having two cockerels beak to beak, a two-headed dragon on a bed of roses, an angel and a demon weighing a soul, St Luke’s bull, and St Mark’s lion.

The east window has the Crucifixion scene with charming pictures on each side: Mary with her precious ointment, and Mary and Martha in a little ship with their brother Lazarus; Etheldreda with Ely Cathedral and small pictures of her escape from a pursuing husband cut off by the tide, and again of her dream that while she slept her staff grew into a tree. In the west window Christ is standing on the world with the four Gospel streams flowing from his feet, and round Him are Bible figures; the window is a memorial to one of our great civil servants, Sir Wyndham Herbert, who died in 1905. His father, Algernon Herbert the antiquarian, is remembered in another window, and there is a marble relief in memory of another member of the family who was a war correspondent and fell on the march to the relief of Khartoum.

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