Watch out for the gargoyles!...

…And the corbels, columns, and even the odd green man. Yes, I’m talking about the weird and wonderful carvings that you can find in historic churches up and down the land. As Development Officer for The Churches Conservation Trust, I’ve visited many of the historic churches we look after. But I am a long way from visiting all of the 344 in our care, ranging from the dinky Anglo Saxon to the imposing Victorian. I have, however, seen a wonderful array of stone and wooden carvings that adorn these buildings.

© Heritage Open Days - Green Man

What’s a gargoyle?

The name gargoyle is supposed to come from the old French word for throat, ‘gargouille’. They were designed to throw rainwater clear of the building in the early days before drainpipes were used and are often carved into grotesque faces with the water coming from their mouths. There are many theories as to why gargoyles are so ugly. The most common belief is that they were to ward off evil spirits or to act as a contrast to the beauty within the church or even that the stone masons were trying to get their own back for not being paid well for their work! However, the term gargoyle has come to mean any grotesque stone carving on the outside of a church.

Spotlight on St Peter, Northampton

I am very lucky to be based at the wonderful Norman Church of St Peter in the centre of Northampton. My job has a wide-ranging remit, which includes looking after some of our rural churches in the region. I had a good look at the outside of the church and although I can’t see any gargoyles, I counted 62 carved stones, or corbels, some of which are grotesque to say the least. They are quite difficult to see and only have a decorative function as far as I can tell, but it has sparked some debate amongst my volunteers as to what they are supposed to depict. Some are quite obvious, with the grimacing faces of humans and snarling bears and pigs. Some have even been interpreted as fertility symbols – I’ll say no more, but you get the picture! But my favourite has to be the corbel that looks like three faces in one (think of the cover of the 1989 Queen album, ‘The Miracle’ and you’ll see what I mean). I was very intrigued by this and have since seen representations of this symbol in books on church architecture, which say that it’s quite a rare image and three was once seen as a magical number.

The interior of the church does not disappoint, with beautiful stone carvings at the top of the pillars that line the inside. These carvings were once brightly painted, as the walls would have been. However, they were hidden from view for a few hundred years when the Puritans decided to paint layers of whitewash over them. It was only in the early 19th century that a local lady painstakingly scraped away at the carvings to reveal the treasures underneath. It took her 11 years to do, but it was well worth it and part of the reason they are so well preserved is the fact that they were covered up.

The stories in the images

When giving tours of the church, my volunteers and I carefully point out the different images both inside and out. One of the images on the top of a pillar in the north aisle shows a man coming out of the mouth of a monster. Well, I say coming out, but he could just as easily be going in. It’s the ‘glass half full or half empty’ philosophy. One theory, from a volunteer, is that it depicts the day of judgement and it’s actually a sea monster’s mouth that he is coming from. Or it could be a straightforward ‘doom’ picture showing the poor soul going into the jaws of hell. I know which version I’d prefer if I were a medieval member of the congregation! Another lovely image is that of a butterfly, which is supposed to represent the resurrection. We also have stylised images of the green man, which is a pagan symbol depicting rebirth and new life, and even ‘green’ animals. One of our star features is a Norman tomb slab with the face of the green man on it and also dragons, a dog and a lion. We think it could be part of a medieval shrine to a local saint, Ragener, who was an Anglo Saxon prince. But that’s another story…

There is a great website, which documents the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland (CRSBI) and includes images of all our carvings.

So, how can you use images and symbols to tell people about your historic church in an engaging way?

  • Ask what they see. Sometimes it’s like making pictures out of clouds. We all see different things and you may even get a new perspective on something. It involves the visitor more and creates a dialogue between them and the guide.
  • Tell a good yarn. You can get your facts right and tell an interesting story. I’ve had debates with historians about the different interpretations of some of our carvings and we have come to the conclusion that we’re never going to know for sure. However, don’t be afraid of telling these stories, as they bring the building to life. Just make sure you say ‘we think…’ or ‘one theory is…’ and then let people make up their own minds.
  • Involve your volunteers. People volunteer because they are interested. So use their interest and invite them to do some research and share it with other volunteers. I have a couple of files in the vestry where I ask volunteers to share details. We now have a Facebook page where people can comment and swap information, which can then be added to guided tours and talks.
  • Make it relevant to today through stories or images that people know, e.g. the Queen album cover.
  • Don’t use architectural jargon, e.g. ‘tympanum’, ‘narthex’, ‘rood’. The regular church visitor may know what these words mean, but most people would rather you said ‘lintel’, ‘porch’ or ‘screen’. You can then explain why they are special or different. Churches are filled with unusual and grand sounding features, so don’t assume people know. Even the simpler ones like ‘nave’ and ‘chancel’ can be unfamiliar to people.

The debate about what the images in St Peter depict will go on and on and that’s what I love about it. Those Normans didn’t leave a guidebook as to what these mysterious faces were supposed to be! Any ideas? Answers on a postcard please!

St Peter’s Church, Northampton, will host a series of guided tours over Heritage Open Days. Why don't you check out the wonderful carvings for yourself!