Most of these photos were taken in the last few months and there is a heavy bias towards the Marshland churches, especially the magnificent Walpole St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary the Virgin, whose set of bench ends is second to none in Norfolk, although I find the latter’s atmosphere lacking compared to my favourite churches, perhaps because it is no longer used. Some of the carving is crude, some has been damaged by the ravages of time or perhaps the iconoclasm of the Reformation, and some is excellent. Most of all these photos provide an insight to the medieval world and imagination.
I have enjoyed Norfolk churches for years, often stumbling on them on bike rides. Many sit lonely in fields, their villages having moved their focus over the centuries. Some are simple and humble, a few are grand and spectacular, but many reveal secrets forgotten or barely known except to a few experts, or individuals who help maintain them and keep them open.
This exhibition has given me the chance to combine two of my passions – photography and churches. The county has 659 medieval churches with a wealth of history on offer. My focus here is mainly on some of the medieval wood and stone carving, most of it 500 years old or more. I have chosen to represent this work in black and white. It enhances the detail and texture in a graphic and often atmospheric way, revealing the skill and imagination of anonymous craftsmen who present their world to us. There are mythical beasts, green men, wodehouses, animals and the faces of the people themselves – frozen in time, like photographs. Sometimes the carving is highly skilled; sometimes it is crude, basic and yet oddly powerful.
I have included a few colour photos – it’s hard to imagine stained glass without colour – but there was no space for the many rood screens or wall paintings and more general shots of interiors and exteriors. It was hard to make a choice. It was often difficult to take some of the photos in natural light. But just as photography ‘freezes a moment in time’, the carving and stonemasonry of the medieval period are also frozen moments from long ago.
All of these photos are of objects that predate the Reformation. They survived the extraordinary iconoclasm of the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), when stained glass was smashed, wall paintings were whitewashed, rood screens had their faces scratched out, pew ends were vandalised and images were stripped. It is surprising that so much survived.
One of the joys of visiting a church is seeing up to a thousand years of history in one building. There are additions made to churches through the centuries – round towers, perhaps topped centuries later by an octagon, Norman arches, different styles of window, medieval tombs, eighteenth century knights portrayed as Roman senators, Victorian stained glass, twenty first century furniture. Some have children’s play areas, and books for sale and remain centres of the community. More often than not these buildings are open. Some now have a kettle and coffee or tea bags and invite you sit down and drink and reflect. Others may be reached along a track in a field and yet are free and open for what may only be a rare and solitary visitor. Some churches are locked, but usually there is a number to call and that often leads to an interesting conversation with the key holder. Long may these churches, which are both examples of ancient folk art and still places of worship, remain so welcoming.
I have not visited them in any systematic way and can only admire the single mindedness and love shown by my guides to the churches I have visited: Simon Knott’s excellent Norfolk churches website: http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/mainpage.htm with his huge knowledge and finely written personal accounts and Mortlock and Roberts with their detailed, unembellished and thorough outlines. My thanks too to all the people, who have kept these buildings open.
Most of these photos will be in an exhibition at St Peter Hungate Museum of Medieval Art (http://www.hungate.org.uk/). The exhibition will 0pen September 3rd 2016 and end October 30th. The museum is open on Saturdays from 10-4 and Sundays 2-4. all the prints will be for sale. I will post details of the prices nearer the time.