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

Tuesday 20 December 2016

A Cyclops corbel and Pre-Raphaelite stained glass: Middleton Cheney church, Northants

Last Wednesday was an unseasonably warm and sunny mid-December day: witness the blue sky in the photo above. I found myself in south Northamptonshire without any definite objective, and spotted a spire in the distance that looked worth investigating. It turned out to be Middleton Cheney, a name I thought I recognised from somewhere, but couldn't remember why.

As you can see, the 15th century spire, which is about 150' tall, is worth a serious indagation: as Pevsner puts it, 'the proportions are exceptionally good.' The most visually satisfying steeples are those in which the spire is the same height as the tower on which it stands, a rule Middleton Cheney follows to the letter. (Note that the spire begins at the base of the elegantly panelled parapet.)

Most of the rest of the church is earlier than the steeple, dating from c.1300, i.e. the period when Decorated Gothic was just beginning to flex its muscles and the style now called Geometrical was superseding Early English. As I opened the door and walked in, I looked around and suddenly realised why the name 'Middleton Cheney' was lodged in my mind: I was surrounded by not just one or two but a whole suite of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows. (Also, as I later remembered, a friend used to work in the town.)

But I'll return to the windows later. As so often happens when I'm looking at a church, it's the incidental details, perhaps often overlooked or dismissed as unworthy of serious attention, that interested me most. The nave corbels must date from the 15th century, when the clerestory was built, though I imagine they've been repainted since then. They're all recognisably by the same hand, sharing thick lips, symmetrical eyes and a nose like a ball of dough. The pictures below follow them clockwise, starting with that in the north west corner.


The first one is the most intriguing of the lot. With the naked eye it looks like a goofily-toothed but otherwise unexceptional head, but binoculars or a zoom lens reveal that what look like two eyes from the ground are just cheekbones, and that the figure is deficient in the eye division to the tune of one (as Peter Cook would have put it). He is a Cyclops, a unioptic Wallace sans Gromit.

This is very strange: I don't remember coming across representations of one-eyed humans (or animal-human hybrids) in a church, or medieval mythology, before. The Cyclops of course is from ancient Greek mythology; the builders of Middleton Cheney church probably didn't know much about classical mythology, and even if they did, why would they think a monster from it was suitable for a Christian building? The same applies to the Arimaspi and other one-eyed beings from myth and folklore around the world. Medieval bestiaries are full of tales of strange creatures which lived in distant lands, such as the blemmyae, men with no head as such but with eyes, mouth, etc in their chests. But I can't find any reference to one-eyed creatures in bestiaries.

If you ask Doctor Google about corbels carved as Cyclops, two results do come up, both in French churches.

Photo: copyright Martin M. Miles
This one is in the church of St Pierre in Thaon, Normandy; it seems to be an external corbel and dates from the early 12th century. It's a monstrous animal, unlike Middleton Cheney's example, which is definitely human.

The other is from Iguerande, Saone-et-Loire. I found it on a fascinating website called Beyond the Pale, which seems to be a page within the brilliantly-titled website Satan in the Groin, in which Anthony Weir collects exhibitionist carvings in medieval churches (a subject I've written about before: see here and here). This carving is a capital rather than a corbel, and is 11th century. It shows a one-eyed human figure playing the pan pipes, and is usually interpreted as proclaiming the unnaturalness, and thus the evil, of secular music. Beyond the Pale puts it nicely: the unnatural playing the unacceptable.

Neither of these examples help us very much with Middleton Cheney's Cyclops, however. They're several centuries earlier, and differ in significant details. They don't help us explain why there's a one-eyed corbel in the church, and I fear we'll never find an explanation. It could well have been a whim of the sculptor's, but even whims have roots and reasons, however frivolous and obscure.

The next corbel, as is quite common, pretends to hold the roof up with his arms (a sort of jokey vernacular version of the classical caryatid). It's not easy to see from the ground that he has his tongue lolling out; perhaps this was simply intended humorously.

Two heads in one corbel: the head on the right has, like the Cyclops, prominent teeth.

This one sticks his tongue out (rather than letting it flop).

As does this one.

At the north east corner of the nave.

The south east corner.

This figure might be female.

He looks frightened, as if he's holding on for dear life.

Another possibly female figure.

The south west corner.

There's also a good set of label stops and other carvings. (Some people use the term 'corbel' for any carved projection from a wall, but a corbel must support, or at least be intended to support, something. A label stop, or head stop, is a carving that terminates a moulding over an arch. The word comes from the Latin 'labellum', a lip, the moulding being like a lip.) They all date (except one) from the early 14th century, and so are at least a hundred years older than the corbels.

On the north side of the nave, from west to east:

A woman wearing a headdress.

A Green Man, a figure associated with fertility derived from pagan origins and often found in churches. Often they're much 'greener' than this, having more foliage. (Or just possibly he has a bridle in his mouth; he certainly looks disgruntled.)

This label stop is different from all the others in that it dates from 1865. It is a portrait of the great designer, poet, novelist and socialist William Morris, whose firm decorated the church. (This sentence seems to suggest that he was a 'great' poet and novelist, which neither I nor, probably, anyone else thinks is true. He was indisputably a great designer, however, his writings are by no means worthless, and his political endeavours, if in the end of marginal influence on events, inspirational, so altogether he thoroughly deserves being called a great man.)

On the south side, west to east:

This sort of face is known as a mouth-puller. He puts his fingers in his mouth and uses them to gurn. Such figures are reasonably common in churches, but their meaning is as mysterious as that of the Cyclops. Perhaps they were just meant to be amusing.

A bird with a curly (almost reptilian) tail.

A muzzled bear, probably depicting one used for the 'sport' of bear-baiting, which was very popular in Tudor times and must have occurred earlier too.

The western respond of the south arcade terminates in this dejected-looking head.

The equivalent on the north. A strangely crude carving compared to the others. (Apologies for the poor quality photo.)

Label stops in the south aisle, west to east:

A damaged animal.

A queen.

A king, looking weighed down by affairs of state.

North aisle, west to east:

An angular head.

A rather feline head.

A fiendishly grinning monster or creature. Apparently, semi-precious stones are set in its eyes which catch the light in the dark; whether this is an original feature or a later addition I don't know.

The chancel was heavily restored by Scott, and there are only two head carvings to see:

A cheerful lady.

A rather featureless man.

As well as the heads inside the church, there are numerous carvings outside, only a small selection of which appear below. Most of them are on the north and south of the aisles, under the stringcourse. You could at a stretch call them collectively a corbel table, but they're tiny and are purely decorative rather than functional. They're all badly weathered, many of them unrecognisably so. Here are some of the better preserved ones.


A rainwater spout in the form of a shouting creature.

Another similar one.

On the left seems to be a weathered ballflower decoration, typical of the Decorated style, but what is the object on the right?

A label stop with a lopsidedly grinning lady.

Corbel of a bearded man in the porch.

And now, at last, on to the stained glass, the reason for the church's fame. And so it should be, as it is one of the largest assemblages of windows by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, the company founded in 1861, and Morris & Co (as the firm became in 1875). Not all the windows are equally successful, but the best (especially the west and east windows) are marvellous and worth travelling many miles to see.

The vicar at the time of the church's restoration, by George (later Sir George) Gilbert Scott in 1865, was the Rev W C Buckley, who was a friend of Edward Burne-Jones, who was in turn a friend of and collaborator with William Morris. Thus, over a period of nearly 30 years, eight Morris windows were installed in the church.

Perhaps it would make more sense to discuss the windows chronologically, but I'm going to list them topographically, starting at the west and going clockwise.

The west window, by Burne-Jones, 1870, starts our sequence on a high.

The story told by this window starts in the six lights above the three main lights; they show the Creation. Burne-Jones has chosen an original and wonderfully simple visual shorthand for the theme: an angel holds a globe in each light, showing the six days. (I wish I'd tried to take some more detailed photos of the globes.) Notice how the angels, with tongues of fire on their foreheads, and hence probably Seraphim, from the previous days populate the background of the subsequent scenes. The last scene has six angels in the background, and a seated angel playing the zither in the foreground.

I think that these lights are the weakest part of the window, being overwhelmingly outgunned by the colours above and below them and a little static in design. (Burne-Jones designed a far more dramatic and powerful sequence of creation windows for Waltham Abbey, Essex, in 1861.)

At the top of the window we see Adam and Eve (created, of course, on the sixth day) flanked by musical Cherubim. (The cartoon for Adam and Eve is in the V & A and can be seen here.) I like their lithe bodies and contrapposto poses (and rich backgrounds, which Morris may have contributed to).

The three main lights are what makes this window great. They show the three Jewish youths, Shahrach, Meschach and Abednego, who were thrown into a blazing furnace by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, for refusing to worship his golden idol. However, God came to their rescue and they escaped without a mark. The stylised flames snake and slink around their bound bodies, yet they remain inviolate in their gorgeously coloured robes. This is one of Burne-Jones' most intense windows.

The easternmost north window in the north aisle dates from 1880 and depicts the prophets Samuel and Elijah.

Samuel is by Burne-Jones.

Elijah is by Morris (or possibly Rosetti); he is shown being fed by ravens during a famine (that he himself had decreed). There are some beautiful colours in this window.

The east window of the north aisle also dates from 1880, though some of its elements were designed years earlier. (It was common, in the Middle Ages and the 19th century, for stained glass designs to be repeated in various locations.) 

Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) is by Burne-Jones, and Mary by Ford Madox Brown.

Saint Anne (the mother of Mary) is by Madox Brown. The shields at the bottom are probably by Philip Webb, and relate to the Horton family who commissioned the window.

The Annunciation at the top is by Morris and is one of my favourite scenes in all the windows; it outshines many of the others. Morris has created a perfect little garden in which Mary learns that she is to be the mother of Jesus. I especially like the trees and the leading of the sky.

The two north windows in the chancel were the last to be installed, and were a memorial to the Rev Buckley. Apparently he left instructions about which scenes should be included, but rather forgetfully left no money to pay for them even though he must have been wealthy (he allegedly owned over 100,000 books, many of them rare and valuable). However, presumably he'd already lavished plenty of money on the church. The windows are by Burne-Jones, and versions of some of the scenes can be found in other churches elsewhere.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph sleeping, with an angel about to solicitously cover them with a blanket.

The Adoration of the Magi. Charmingly, the infant Jesus is fast asleep.

Jesus in his family's carpenter's shop. An angel provides musical accompaniment on a zither.

Jesus disputes with the doctors in the Temple.

John the Baptist baptises Jesus, watched by some very handsome angels.

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus and the three figures in the background all have the same face, a recognisably Burne-Jonesish face which crops up again and again in his designs. Which reminds me of a clerihew I once wrote:

Edward Burne-Jones
Painted only clones.
It must be a doddle
Having only one model.

The Last Supper. The tight focus on just four figures, with Judas at the front looking despondent and two disciples urgently trying to get an answer to the question 'Lord, is it I?'  who's the traitor from a weary looking Jesus, makes this one of the most powerful scenes.

The Deposition.

The east window was installed in 1865, and is among the earliest windows made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. It is an extremely crowded design - the result of being the work of several different hands - yet it's totally successful. From a distance the colours ravish the eye, and up close the details can be appreciated. It conveys a sense of the whole of humanity being unified in a common purpose. I'm not religious, (and if I were being cynical I'd point out that religions haven't done a very good job yet, after several thousand years, of uniting humanity*), but nevertheless I find this an uplifting idea. It's a wonderful window.

At the top is a quatrefoil of the Adoration of the Lamb, by Burne-Jones. The kings surrounding the Lamb (representing Jesus) all have different cloaks and crowns, though this is very difficult to make out without binoculars.

The censing angels with flowing blonde hair are by Webb.

The four evangelists, on a background of golden flowers, are also by Webb. This is St Matthew.

St Mark, with a Seraph by Webb top right.

St Luke.

St John.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel (a rare subject for stained glass) are by Simeon Solomon, who didn't work in this medium often. Their flags are by Webb. (The last one is another poor quality photo.) 

Adam and Noah, by Madox Brown. The model ark carried by Noah looks like a thatched house. Is Adam holding a piece of fruit to eat as a snack as he delves?

David and Isaiah, by Solomon. David's robe is especially splendid.

St Peter, by Morris (it looks as if it could be a self-portrait) and St Paul, by Madox Brown.

St Austin and St Catherine, the latter a typical Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner', by Morris.

Abraham and Moses, by Solomon. Moses is shown, as tradition dictates, with rays of light emitting from his head.

Eve and Mary, by Morris.

Mary Magdalene, by Morris, and a very haughtily aristocratic St John, by Madox Brown. Who could possibly resist that oh-so-suave moustache?

St Agnes, by Morris, and St Alban by Burne-Jones. In the eight panels above the backgrounds are by Morris and the borders by Webb.

The south window in the chancel dates from 1868-70, and takes as its theme sacrifice and forgiveness.

At the top are shields showing the Instruments of the Passion, by Webb.

On the left is a panel showing Abel and Cain offering sacrifices to God, by Madox Brown. (God's typically temperamental refusal of the latter's offering lead to the first murder.)

This panel, also by Madox Brown, shows Melchizedek offering bread and wine to Abraham, who's just returned from a military victory. Another rare subject for stained glass.

The shields at the bottom are connected with Brasenose College, Oxford, of which the Rev Ralph Churton, to whose memory the window is dedicated, was a Fellow.

The final Morris window is above the chancel arch, a dove representing the Holy Spirit, by Webb from 1870. A simple, bold design is appropriate for such a window placed high up. I always think that deep blue and yellow is one of the best colour combinations you can have.

The final two windows aren't by Morris, though the backgrounds at least are obviously inspired by him, but were made by the firm James Powell & Sons. This one is from 1888, and shows St Luke and St James. It was designed by J W Brown, who had in fact earlier been employed by Morris.

The second one, the more interesting of the two, also by Brown for Powell's, is from 1891 and shows St Andrew and John the Baptist.

As well as making the stained glass, Morris designed the decoration for the nave and chancel ceilings. He chose a repeated pattern of starfish-like six-petalled red flowers. This is very attractive, but sadly the ceilings are in poor state of repair; I've photographed only the best-preserved sections. This isn't just normal wear and tear, but because three times in recent years the lead from the roofs has been stolen. This naturally places an intolerable financial burden on a small parish, with many other calls on its funds. At least one of the aisles is currently waterproofed only by plastic sheeting. 

Nevertheless, the church remains open and extremely welcoming. I was offered a drink and a tour. (I know it's open most weekday mornings from 11 till 1, and it might well be open at other times too.) It's taken me over a hundred photos to describe it, and there's even more worth seeing.  I recommend a visit. 

* Thomas Hardy says it best, as usual:

Christmas, 1924

'Peace upon earth!' was said; we sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.