Thursday, 19 June 2008

Kempley Church.

I am going to start an occasional series of posts on Historic English Churches, mainly medieval and mainly West of England. Let me know if you like the idea and I will continue. First off is Kempley in the County of Gloucestershire, ( but only just).

Situated North West of the City of Gloucester, on the border with Herefordshire, set among rolling countryside where in Spring there are masses of native wild daffodils, is the pink rendered and stone towered medieval church of St. Mary at Kempley. The village itself is a mile or more away to the Southwest and at the turn of the C19/20th. a new church was built in the village in the Arts and Crafts Style.

The medieval church is Early Norman and has a tunnel vaulted chancel almost entirely covered with wall paintings of approximately 1130A.D. They were completely whitewashed over at the Reformation and rediscovered in 1872. At that time they were covered with varnish to prevent their deterioration but soon began to darken until almost nothing could be seen of them. A brave person discovered in 1955 that only the varnish had discoloured and it could safely be removed to uncover the paintings in good condition underneath.

In the centre of the barrel vault of the chancel is the Logus or Christ in Majesty, seated upon a rainbow, his left hand holds an open book in which are written the monograms IHC and XPS. His right hand is in the process of benediction. He is surrounded by the sun, moon and stars, seven golden candlesticks, and the symbols of the four Evangelists, and in each corner is a winged Seraphim.

On the east wall of the chancel is a very fine figure of a bishop in Mass vestments, green Gothic chasuble, short plain miter and a very long maniple.

The twelve apostles are ranked on the north and south walls of the chancel

In the nave there are lots of other paintings of several dates in various stages of visibility, including a Wheel of Life which is apparently very unusual.

There are also images of the Three Mary's at the Empty Tomb, which is said to be a depiction of that event as enacted in the Medieval Miracle Plays, and several others incl. a group of men wearing extraordinary plumed hats. It is much more difficult to make sense of the paintings in the nave, partly because they are in a less good state of preservation and partly because, unlike the chancel, they do not form a complete, thought out , sequence but jostle together.
There is also quite a bit of nice glass, mostly dating from the late C19th., and thankfully not too dark or intrusive. I really like the East Window which is by Charles Kempe, depicting angels presenting the infant Christ with the instruments of the Passion, though I have heard it described as " in poor taste" and " unfortunate". There is also a lovely little window, in the nave, by the Wheel Of Life painting, with some very good painted glass with symbolic representations of the Virgin, eg, Hortus Conclusus, Font of Ivory, etc. dating from early in the C20th century.

Among other marvels is probably the oldest church roof timbers in England, ( hidden by a early C17th ceiling), and what is widely regarded as the oldest church door in the country, three planks cut from the same log, with the original ironwork.

The church has an extraordinary atmosphere whether you find it completely deserted or with a few tourists about. It is very well cared for, with fresh wild flowers on the altar, and well dusted, though I could not find any indication that any services take place. If you go to visit bring a picnic lunch, otherwise there are slim pickings about.


PeterHWright said...

Ah ! St. Mary's, Kempley. I remember it from years ago. It was rather a long walk from Kempley in pouring rain. The church is no longer used, is it ?

The chancel arch has magnificent Romanesque mouldings. The paintings in the barrel vaulted chancel are fresco, and the paintings in the nave are tempera which may be why they are less well preserved. It's not a good idea to varnish fresco. All varnishes discolour and darken, and can be very tricky to remove.

The oak timbers in the porch impressed me. I can't remember the age of the porch. I must read it up.

On my visit, I felt distinctly in need of a pint of ale, but of course there is no pub nearby. I did wonder at the church being in the middle of nowhere, so to speak.

A fascinating post ! Thank you.

Mac McLernon said...

Let me know if you like the idea and I will continue.

Yes I like... and yes, please continue. It's great to hear about historic churches from other parts of the country...

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent idea and I look forward greatly to more. As a Westcountryman myself but living in partibus infidelium (Switzerland) I can start to be quite homesick !

prophet said...

This is a great idea. I am very intereted in this topic. Thank you and God bless you!

Who owns this church? The diocese, the government? Private owners?

Roses and Jessamine said...

Yes, I like the idea of hearing about churches. Architecture is fine and beautiful. What was the effect of each church on its pastoral region?

Sharon said...

Please continue; we have nothing like this in Australia.

the hound said...

Thank you all for the comments. I've had mouse troubles so I'm a bit late in posting comments and responding. Electronic mouse this time so I can't blame Oliver. (My re-chargable battery does not recharge anymore!)

Peterhwright, Yes the porch is lovely too, ( C14th), and as the roof of the porch is open you can see how all the stone tiles are held in place merely with wooden pegs and their own weight. On my last visit there was a workman " painting" the ancient oak timbers of the porch, he saw the expression on my face as I approached and said "don't worry we treat it against woodworm every few years". We got talking and he told me that his company does a lot of work on medieval timbers. Some time ago they had to take all the huge stone tiles off the Library/scriptorium of Blackfriars Priory in Gloucester. The roof tiles weighed, I think he said, 84 tons, and when they were removed the 15th century timber roof structure began to spring apart before their eyes. They pinned it with metal clamps and when the tiles were put back on it took two years for the whole structure to settle sufficiently for the clamps to be removed.

St Mary's, Kempley, is now owned by English Heritage and maintained by a local group called Friends of Kempley Churches. Even though it is no longer used for services it still has a most extraordinary powerful atmosphere of prayer. I went there once with an elderly Anglican Lady and she turned to me and said " I would love to hear your Ancient Latin Mass in this place". The newer church built in 1903 and dedicated to St. Edward the Confessor is not bad either, in its way, and when I last saw it the altar frontal was embroidered with the words " Introibo ad Altare Dei".

Fr John Boyle said...

Utterly stunning, took my breath away!