An elephant in Moulton

Moulton Elephant

It never occurred to me that elephants would feature in a project about village churches, but they keep turning up. This one lies on a carpet in the children’s area of Moulton Church, waiting for some small person to sit on him. There seems nothing incongruous about him in this graceful medieval building: both serve to express the human need for love.

Some of the older residents of Moulton remember how severe church services once were: it was forbidden even to turn around in the pew. Times have changed. Mary Brice spoke to me about the festival of animals she organised in the church a couple of years ago, which included a service to bless and give thanks for local people’s pets: dogs, birds, cats and other creatures took place with their owners, while the then vicar’s cockerel paced the ancient floor.

I think the medieval people who made Moulton would have felt entirely comfortable with the presence of animals, living and stuffed, in their church. People lived more closely with animals then than most of us do today, even taking them to court in certain circumstances.

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.

Flatter

tom-eckersely-Lincolnshire-poster

 

When Tom Eckersley made this design for British Railways in 1961, the great age of the railway poster was almost gone. For fifty years at least, some of the best artists of their day had been commissioned by the railway companies, London Transport, motoring organisations and others to produce work that perfectly combined form and function. The commercial interests of the commissioner was restrained by the cultural interests of the artist.

This poster simplifies Lincolnshire to fields, trees, sheep, church and sky. Above all, it reinforces the idea of flatness, though it makes it beautiful. And it does it with witty nods to current trends in painting: Piet Mondrian’s abstract grids and the flatness sought by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. But even in this modernity, the ancient church remains the focal point, holding everything together.

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God’s Acre

Luck be a lady

Ladybirds have a special place in our hearts, reflected in their many names, and their place in popular culture. Children are captivated by their dots and red shells, and the ease of getting close to them. They are gentle, inoffensive, nurturing creatures, as suggested by the old rhyme:

Ladybird, ladybird fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone…

Ladybirds are associated with good fortune in many European cultures. A Polish children’s verse ends:

Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba

Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

In France, they’re known as ‘la bête à Bon Dieu’ – God’s creature, in English, although it doesn’t sound as pretty. There is a legend that a ladybird saved an innocent man’s life by landing repeatedly on his neck and so obstructing the executioner.

Life among the graves

This ladybird, minding its business in Moulton churchyard, is a reminder of the life that is nurtured when churchyards are not trimmed and manicured like municipal gardens. Costs and changing attitudes have helped us see long grass in churchyards not as lack of care but as a different kind of care. After all, until quite recently, it was common for sheep to graze in churchyards, which was quite appropriate since their wool had often paid for the beauty of the building.

Cherishing Churchyards Week 2014

Caring for God’s Acre is a small charity dedicated to the conservation of churchyards and burial grounds, both for their importance to people and to nature. Their website is full of valuable information and resources about conservation, and they support volunteer-led conservation projects across the UK. Between 7th and 15th June, they are holding Cherishing Churchyards Week, encouraging more people to get involved in looking after their churchyards not least to make them good homes for ladybirds, among the many other creatures in need of sanctuary in the modern world.

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An elephant in Gosberton

The steeple of St Peter and St Paul’s in Gosberton reaches 160 feet into the Lincolnshire sky. Stone spires are a special feature of churches in the East Midlands, and Gosberton’s is one of the loveliest. Each angle of the octagon is decorated with little crockets, while four exceedingly thin – and structurally useless – flying buttresses connect it with the tower corners. The whole elegant construction dates from about 1300.

Gosbert Elephant Gargoyle (AA 1963)

But the most surprising thing about this spire is the elephant carved on the east side of the tower. This drawing, which I found in the 1963 AA Book of the Road, is very evocative, though there’s a modern photograph in this recent story about the church repairs in the Spalding Guardian. The elephant is a gargoyle, a sculptured stone spout used in the Middle Ages to throw rain water away from the building, and its trunk is made of lead that needs to be renewed.

Whoever carved the elephant, probably a jobbing mason who would follow the work from site to site, was very unlikely to have seen an elephant so the accuracy of the representation is remarkable. This image, from a 15th century herbal held in the British Library, is characteristic how medieval artists imagined the strange creatures travellers told stories about. Perhaps the Gosberton sculptor had encountered a real elephant in his journeyman life.

Elephant from a herbal (Italy, c.1440) British Library