Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Some Kent Churches: Scraps of Stone at Bridge

Approximately three miles south-east of Canterbury, lying right on the straight line of the old Roman road from Canterbury to Dover, is a village with the plain and unpromising name of Bridge.  As the name suggests, the place owes its existence to a thoroughfare; it's a crossing-place over the Nailbourne river, and the village basically consists of one road:

Despite its name, it's an attractive place - the road is populated by nice solid Kentish houses and pubs (I counted three within a short distance of each other, presumably left over from their service to all those Canterbury pilgrims).  The church is right on the road, and from that perspective looks like this:

But from a better perspective round the other side, it looks like this:

As you can see, from the outside it's all Victorian flint, not promising of much in the way of medieval delights.  It was heavily restored in 1859 - 'disastrously over-restored', says this authority.  But Arthur Mee promised me it contained 'medieval sculpture', and that's what I came to see.  In any case, any church which keeps an open door (and even a friendly sign saying 'come inside') is worth a visit, if only out of gratitude for such a welcoming spirit. This particular open door is a twelfth-century one:

With this friendly face, who survived the flinting:

Unexpected fragments of medieval stonework pretty much characterise Bridge.  This is what it looks like inside:

But this is where Arthur Mee led me, up to the chancel:

You see that semi-circular thing stranded in the middle of a wall on the left?  That's what we've come to see.

It's a tympanum, or the remains of one.  Its origin is a mystery; what door it topped, and where it stood and what happened to it, seem to be unknown.  But whatever strange history led it to its current abandoned position, it's remarkably well-preserved.  I'm more used to seeing things like this weathered by the elements, but this - the lower part, at least - is as clear as if it had been carved yesterday.  There are even traces of paint, always a vivid reminder that these objects looked very different in their original state.

It's probably fifteenth or early sixteenth century, to judge from the style and lettering (which is mostly indecipherable).  The top part depicts Christ in glory, with five scenes from the Book of Genesis below.  As you can see, the top is badly damaged - I assume deliberately - though you can make out the essentials of the scene: Christ in the centre, apparently on a cloud, between two figures, probably Mary and John, with angels around carrying scrolls. If you get close you can see the angels' wing quite distinctly:

But this is only a hint at what it might once have been, and it's the little scenes below which are really interesting.  They show the story of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel.  First on the left we see the expulsion from Eden, as they are driven out by an angel with a sword:

The text above them reads 'justicia dei', the justice of God.

Then Adam and Eve with the serpent (rather oddly placed after the expulsion):

Note the traces of bright blue paint by Eve's right shoulder and behind the serpent - there are also smudges of green on the leaves of the tree.  I like the delicate waves of Eve's hair.

The next three scenes depict the story of Cain and Abel.  First we see them offering their different sacrifices to God - Cain offers sheaves, and Abel a ram. In the central scene Abel is on the left and Cain on the right (they're labelled, 'Caym' and 'Abel').  The idea of the contrasting sacrifices is reinforced by the similar composition of the two scenes, and perhaps Abel's kneeling posture indicates his greater humility, intended to explain why his sacrifice was more pleasing to God.

For comparison, you might want to look at some manuscript illustrations of the scene in Harley 4381, Royal 17 E VII, and Royal 19 D II.

I particularly like the tongues of fire consuming the sacrifice on the altar - is it my imagination, or can you see a tinge of red paint remaining at the top of the flames?  There was certainly a blue sky, and I think you can tell that Cain was in red and Abel in green.

Finally, of course, Cain kills Abel:

Note how the curve of the frame follows the bending body of the murderer; it's always worth paying attention to how an object like this fits into its physical context.

I was surprised by both the quality of this tympanum and its location at Bridge. There's some very impressive carving just down the road at Patrixbourne, which was the subject of one of my earliest posts here, four years ago - that's Norman, but perhaps it inspired some anonymous artist or patron to this work 300 years later.

There are various other fascinating bits of carving nearby, such as this effigy of a vicar of Patrixbourne who died in 1512:

For some reason, it's cut in half, and his legs are separated from his head by some odd magic trick.  I don't know how it got this way (no, really, don't ask me, I have no idea), but the split is tastefully covered by a chair:

Above him is this, spattered by light from the east window:

The inscription which the pointing hand wants you to read is 'levavi oculos meos in montes', 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills...'

On the other wall of the chancel, two more memorials:

Yes, that's a skull with worms crawling into it.  Lovely.  And a finger pointing at it, just so you don't miss it!

These are some of the surprises of Bridge.  It also has unusual double columns in the nave:

And interesting bits of stone wherever you look:

The stained glass was particularly bright, and cast colours all through the church:

Surprises everywhere.

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