Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 4 August 2015

A Tree of Jesse in Barkway church, Herts

Barkway strings itself along what's now the B1368, which, as its nomenclature suggests, is no English equivalent of Route 66,  but was once the main road linking London and Cambridge. Now it's just a moderately big village, with a pub, a garage at each end, and an infants'  school, (no village shop, though), but until the mid 19th century it was a prosperous coaching town. However, when the railways came the coaches stopped coming, and it became a backwater on a back road. Its fortunes have changed again in recent decades, and while it will presumably never again be an important commercial centre, it is now prosperous once more at least in the sense that most of the people who live there are reasonably well off, and it's become what estate agents like to call 'highly sought after'.*

This prosperity, old and new, is reflected in the buildings of the village. Barkway is essentially a one street settlement, and the street is a long one - about three quarters of a mile. It's worth walking the entire length of the village to see the more or less unbroken sequences of enjoyable houses on the west and east sides of the road. Many of these houses were once shops or pubs or other premises in which various businesses were conducted, and range in date from the 15th to the 21st centuries. 

The church (St Mary Magdalene) is a little to the west of the road, and as one first approaches it looks a bit disappointing. The exterior was extensively restored and rebuilt in the 19th century, but the interior banishes doubts. Plenty of interest survives. There are a number of worthwhile 18th century monuments (including a not altogether satisfactory one by Rysbrack), and there's an unusually large and lively collection of carved corbels and label stops** in the nave and aisles - I count 56, most of which seem to be 15th century.

The best thing in the church is the stained glass in the east window of the south aisle. Hertfordshire isn't at all notable for its medieval stained glass, (luckily, its collection of good Victorian stained glass partly compensates for this deficiency), and this window must be the largest expanse in the county. True, it's a collection of fragments rather than a complete original window, but I'm not going to complain about that.
East window, south aisle, Barkway church, Herts

There are three main lights, plus six smaller tracery lights above, all filled with late medieval glass (no doubt some of it restored). The central main light contains a Tree of Jesse, depicting the legendary ancestry of Christ. Usually Jesse himself (the father of King David) is shown at the bottom with a tree or vine springing from him, with his descendants depicted as if they were fruits, with Christ at the top - a literal family tree. The Barkway example is incomplete and not in situ (I've no idea where it originally came from) and both Jesse himself and Christ are missing, but four fairly complete figures of kings survive, with the head of another overseeing proceedings at the top.

Top of the central light
These figures are 14th century; silver staining (then a new technique) has been used to paint the crowns and other details yellow-gold. I like the dignified, bearded, patriarchal faces of the kings with their distinctive long hair styles, neatly curled. Two of them brandish swords.

St ?Sitha

The two other main lights are jumbled and very fragmentary, but a close inspection will be rewarded.  The glass here seems to be a century or so later than that of the central light. In the middle of the left light is a complete female figure carrying a book and keys; she is perhaps St Sitha, the patron saint of maidservants, who appeal to her when they've lost keys. Above her is a delightful medley of bits and pieces, including, at the very top, the head of an intense (and now rather spectral) young man, possibly a donor figure, and below him the head of a beautiful young woman with downcast eyes. Below her there's a fragment of landscape, with trees and a river, and, a little further down, a hand holding a bundle of sticks.

Top of the left light

In the middle of the right light, there's a figure depicting St Roch (pronounced 'rock') pointing to his plague spot. The historical Roch probably died in the 1370s and was revered for, among other things, tending to victims of the plague; medieval people appealed to him for protection against disease. His cult became popular in the 1470s, and perhaps this gives us a date for this fragment. Just above him and to his right is a very graceful (if somewhat haughty) female figure with long hair flowing down her back; she's wearing a crown and holding a book. She seems to have something like a rolled up newspaper under her arm. She might be identifiable as St Petronilla, who, in some versions of her legend, was the daughter of St Peter. She was so beautiful that her father had to lock her in a tower to protect her from men, but despite this precaution a pagan king fell passionately in love with her; she responded by going on hunger strike and consequently dying of starvation. The artist depicts her so alluringly that the king's reaction to seeing her is entirely credible.

St Roch and St ?Petronilla

At the bottom of the right light is a man who might be St John. (I make this identification because both Pevsner and Painton Cowen, in his 'A Guide to Stained Glass in Britain', mention St John, and by a process of elimination he seems to be the only male that they could be referring to; but I'm not completely convinced and I could be wrong.) Whoever he is, he provides the brightest colours in the whole window with his (presumably fashionable) vivid blue coat, and even more vivid ruby red cap (with a shell-like halo perched awkwardly on top). He could almost have walked out of an Italian Renaissance painting (though the vagaries of time and damage to the glass have left him with strange vestigial legs on which he'd have some difficulty in moving very far; no wonder he's holding a staff). He seems to be giving alms to a beggar (or is it a monk?), depicted at a much smaller scale than that of the saint, as was the artistic convention before perspective gained currency. Altogether, despite his disabilities,  he certainly cuts a dashing figure.

St ?John

The pleasures of this window aren't exhausted yet. In the tracery lights six entirely loveable 15th century angels make music to accompany the various activities on which they look down. The first plays a harp or psaltery, the second beats out a no doubt infectious rhythm on little drums like bongoes; the third also plays the harp.

Musician angels
The fourth, who has especially gorgeous wings, strums an instrument like a cittern or lute. The fifth is too damaged to make out (could the castellated object in front of him/her - angels being, or so I understand, asexual - be a small organ?*** The fourth has a similar object). The last blows a wind instrument (a shawm?). Together they're producing a heavenly concord.

More musician angels

With treasures such as these waiting to be discovered during an indagation, I'm perfectly content to get my kicks on the B1368.

* As recently as 1975, according to Pevsner, No. 2 High Street was derelict. It's hard to imagine any houses in Barkway, and certainly none of architectural note, being allowed to remain derelict for long now before being snapped up to be turned into des. res.

** Labellum is Latin for little lip. A label, also called a dripstone or hoodmould, is a moulding that projects like a lip from the body of the wall above a window, door, or arch. Labels often terminate in decorative carvings, called label stops.

*** We might ask why, if angels are asexual, they need even a small organ.

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