Saturday, December 20, 2008

The oldest parts of a church

click photo to enlarge
Over the years, knowing my interest in ecclesiastical architecture, many people have asked me which part of a church is usually the oldest. It's a question with several answers. In most instances it's the chancel, the nave arcades, the font, the tower or fragments of sculpture that provide the most ancient material. But there are always (and many) exceptions.

The chancel is often the oldest part because that is where the builders of a church often started - with the place that holds the high altar. However, most of England's churches were enlarged as the country's population grew. So, chancels were sometimes renewed, aisles added, and the height of the nave increased. When this happened the nave arcades of the earlier building were often kept and the extensions were built around them. In some parts of England, particularly the north-west, where a lack of wealth had meant medieval parish churches were often small and poorly constructed, the tower is often the oldest remaining part. This is because when the Industrial Revolution that flourished there in the nineteenth century produced its enormous riches, wealthy individuals and congregations frequently replaced all except the tower with new work. Very often the church font carried on being used through all these upheavals, and in many buildings it is the oldest part. Sometimes, however, it was replaced and the original became a receptacle for flowers in someone's garden! In the village where I live fragments of Saxon carving, presumably from the building that pre-dates the present Norman structure are the oldest evidence to be seen. So, the answer the question has a number of answers.

Today's photograph shows the interior of the church of St John the Baptist at Barnack, Cambridgeshire. Beyond the pierced wooden screen is the chancel that was built around 1300, replacing the original Saxon structure. The columns of the nave arcade on the left have capitals with crockets and volutes of the late 1100s, whilst those on the right are in the fully-fledged stiff-leaf style of twenty or thirty years later. The fine font also looks thirteenth century, though some have suggested the deep bowl may be earlier. However these are not the oldest parts in this building: the strong Saxon tower dates from about 1020, and a sculpture and pieces of carved stone may be of a similar age. So, Barnack church fits the pattern I outlined above, with the oldest elements being those that are usually the oldest in most churches. The one idiosyncracy here is the unique south porch with its steeply pitched stone roof that dates from about 1200. Frequently these porches are later medieval, Georgian or even Victorian additions.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/5
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: -1.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off (Tripod used)