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

Monday 13 April 2020

St Ippolyts church, Herts - a congregation of corbels


St Ippolyts church is probably the most dramatically situated Hertfordshire church. (Though the photo above, taken from less than halfway down the hill, doesn't in any way come close to doing it justice. When the lockdown's over, and there's a blue sky, I shall return and try to do a better job.) A couple of miles south of Hitchin on the road to Codicote a steep green hill rises to the east, and at the top the church proudly perches. 

I don't usually mention the dedication of the churches I write about, but I can hardly avoid doing so here. The village is called St Ippolyts, and the church is dedicated to the same saint  (usually spelt Hippolytus), a 3rd century theologian and martyr. There's only one other church in the country dedicated to him, St Hippolyte in Ryme Intrinseca, Dorset. (The Wikipedia entry on the village of St Ippolyts gives more than two dozen variations on the spelling.) Tradition has it that he was martyred by being dragged by wild horses; this is probably because of his name ('hippos' is Greek for 'horse'), which is also presumably why he's often thought of as the patron saint of horses. In recent years the practice of bringing horses to the church to be blessed has been revived (or perhaps invented).

The church is mostly 14th century, but retains evidence of an earlier building. Above the south arcade are the remains of a late 11th century window; the arches of the arcade have been cut through the older wall. In the chancel there are twin arches under which are a credence shelf (on the left, where the unconsecrated bread and wine would be placed before the Mass), and piscina (on the right, for washing and draining the chalice after the Mass). They're from the 13th century; why the arch on the left is slightly taller than the one on the right I can't explain. Opposite them is a double aumbry (for storing the sacred vessels), plain but perhaps of the same date. 

The chancel arch is 15th century, and the spike (spirelet) on the tower is apparently dated 1636, which is surprisingly late. How many other Hertfordshire spikes are post-medieval? (But perhaps the 1636 date refers to a releading rather than a new construction.) The church was restored, using many of the old materials, in 1887-8 by the Diocesan architect to the see of St Albans, Joseph Clarke (c.1820-88). The east window, with its mouchettes arranged in fan-like fashion, for example is due to him. (According to the statutory listing the window tracery is based on that once found in the nearby ruined Minsden chapel, in a wood on the hill behind what's now the Rusty Gun pub further along the Codicote road. See the photo of the chancel below, and compare the tracery with that in the watercolour of Minsden in c.1830. The chapel has been derelict since the 17th century, and although accessible until recently it was I believe fenced off from the public a year or two ago as it's now deemed dangerous to enter.)

Minsden chapel, c.1830
The architecture of the church may be rather humdrum, but nevertheless there's plenty to enjoy inside. 

Under the tower is a screen that probably started life as a rood screen at the entrance to the chancel. Only a few bits and pieces of it - notably the tracery at the top of the doorway - are original 15th century, while the rest is a Victorian reconstruction, but it's a handsome feature with its painted crockets and shields.



In a recess in the wall of the south aisle is a 14th century effigy of a priest. It's been battered over the centuries; the face has been almost erased, and it looks as if someone has tried to crudely scratch in some facial features. The result almost inevitably reminds me of the infamous case of the botched 'restoration' of a fresco in a Spanish church:

Before 'restoration' and after 

My favourite stained glass in the church is the east window, confidently attributed to the firm Clayton and Bell, probably designed by Alfred Bell himself and painted by his apprentice and assistant Thomas John Grylls. It's an early work, dating from 1860, the company having been founded in 1855. Later in the century Clayton and Bell's work could be fussy and bland, but this window shows how good they could be at their best. The carefully balanced blocks of strong colours - particularly red - and the powerful linear design work both as a beautiful abstract design and as a narrative. Note the stately simplicity of the backgrounds. The main section of the window shows a twelve year old Christ disputing with the doctors (theologians) in the Temple. On the right Mary and Joseph are amazed at their son's precocity.

Dorcas scene, by Shrigley and Hunt, 1929

Christ appearing at the sepulchre to the three Maries; Noli me tangere, by Lavers, Barraud and Westlake, 1880.
I've included these two windows not because I think them particularly good - I don't, though neither do I think them particularly bad - but in order to compare them to Clayton and Bell's. The Shrigley and Hunt one treats the glass as if it were a canvas. with much modelling in the faces and intricate detail in the backgrounds. There's nothing automatically wrong with this, of course, but Clayton and Bell's two-dimensional style is in my opinion far more effective.  The Lavers, Barraud and Westlake one is much closer to Clayton and Bell in date and style, but the design is fussy and crowded and seems to me to lack dignity and presence in comparison; the colours aren't as brilliant either.

In the south window of the chancel is a window by William Miller (1803-82), whose work doesn't appear elsewhere in the county. It's from 1862; at the bottom are figures representing Hope and Faith, while at the top on the right is 'suffer little children', and on the left the raising of Jairus' daughter. The figures are, as so often in Victorian stained glass, sentimental, but I like the backgrounds and colours. Victorian glass is often dismissed as looking like hard-boiled sweets, and I imagine that those who'd use that phrase would level it at this window. To which my reply would be: what's so wrong with looking like hard-boiled sweets?

The east window of the south aisle is by Hugh Easton (1906-65); it depicts, on the left, St George killing the dragon, and, on the right, St Christopher, and dates from 1949. I've never found it easy to warm to Easton's work. His Aryan figures make me uncomfortable. And surely any artist depicting St George would relish the chance to show off his skills in conjuring up a devilishly dangerous dragon, but what does Easton do? Hides most of it behind a horse. And what is visible is mere dragon-by-numbers. When I said I don't find it easy to warm to his work I was being polite; I mean I really don't like him. How he got so many high-profile commissions (Westminster Abbey, Durham Cathedral, et al) in the mid-century beats me.

Brass, 1594
Cartouche in 17th century style, 1941

There are some crosses graffitied on the central pier of the south arcade, together with a small section of Early English dogtooth decoration (further proof that the church was altered in the 13th century).

The lectern, which commemorates a death in 1940, has a vigorous carving of a horse, reminding us of the church's dedication to St Hippolytus.


I've saved my favourite aspect of the church to the end. This is the wonderful series of 14th century carvings of heads which people the nave and aisles, a charismatic congregation observing the comings and goings in the church and, perhaps, participating in the services and other proceedings. The larger ones are corbels, the smaller label stops. (The difference is that a corbel supports something structural, such as a roof beam or, as here, the inner moulding of an arch. When carved as heads they may be referred to as corbel-heads. A label stop, on the other hand, terminates a lip or string course over an arch, door or window, and is purely decorative, serving no structural purpose. Sometimes they're called head-stops.) I'm very fond of corbels and label stops, as they were presumably (though not certainly - we don't know for sure) left to the whim of the masons who carved them, and consequently they're often much more individual and less stereotypical than the sculpture in more prominent positions in the church can be.* (Also they generally escaped the attentions of later iconoclasts, and survive in large numbers, unlike much medieval figure carving which was smashed because deemed idolatrous.) Corbels are usually high up in the roof, and you need binoculars or a telephoto lens to see them properly, but St Ippolyts' are all at head height, so you meet them intimately, eyeball to eyeball.

Most of the corbels are by the same hand; they have long, thick hair swept back as if they're standing facing a strong breeze, making them look very dashing. It's hard to tell if some of them are meant to be male or female. One, I'd guess by a different hand, is of a blank-faced mitred bishop, helpfully labelled 'Episcop' (how many of those who originally saw it would be both able to read and unable to recognise a mitre?). Another has hair that stands straight up and a shocked expression as if he's witnessed something horrifying. This one is crudely carved; the others aren't particularly sophisticated, but they have much character. 

One is wearing what's sometimes said to be a scold's bridle, which I think is unlikely, because there doesn't seem to be any evidence of their existence before the 16th century, and anyway surely their whole point is to impede the mouth and tongue, whereas this one takes the form of a strap across the nose. Another sticks his tongue out; he's said to represent gluttony.

One of the corbels - the second close-up photo above - is carved in a smoother style and in a different, paler stone, and must be from the Victorian restoration. The sculptor did a fine job, utilising the same hair style without merely copying it, and creating a hauntingly enigmatic (?female) face.

The label stops - some of them may be 19th century too - have less impact, but they're worth a look. One is a tonsured monk, one looks like Shakespeare, one woman has downcast eyes and a serious expression as if she's suffering a deep inner hurt (though perhaps she's praying), one (a man?) has long hair with a single fetching curl at the tips. It's a pleasure to spend time in their company.

St Ippolyts church has always been open when I've visited.

* For example, I've written about fine series of corbels and label stops in Herts churches in WestonGreat Hormead, and Benington.

Etching of St Ippolyts by F L Griggs, 1927. Griggs was born in Hitchin in 1876. He was a superb etcher, and also illustrated many of the Highways and Byways series of books. If you have a spare £1500 you can buy a signed original impression of this picture.
Watercolours by Buckler from the 1830s displayed in the church (actually I think they're photos of the originals, which are in the County Record Office):

Watercolour of the interior, late 19th/early 20th century?:

1 comment:

  1. These images bring back fond memories of the church and Hertfordshire. I'm a Hitchin native, where I taught for 10 years and was also a curator of Stevenage Museum prior to moving to Australia in 1982. I have some photos, but I'm now writing a potential book on Small Things, and would love to include your images of the graffiti crosses when I write about pilgrim badges.
    Unfortunately the box system won't let me leave a URL, but please contact me: Peter Taylor - www writing-for-children dot com
    Peter at writing-for-children dot com
    Thank you.