Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The angel roof, March

click photo to enlarge
The church of St Wendreda in March, Cambridgeshire, is known to church architecture enthusiasts for its magnificent angel roof. It is probably the best example in England and features 120 winged figures. The church guide book describes some of them as "half life size", a comparison that made me smile. Has anyone measured the size of an angel? Are they the same sort of height as humans? Is angel Gabriel bigger than the rest? So many questions! What can't be denied, however, is that the three tiers of angels, many holding musical instruments, make a marvellous sight peering down from the double hammerbeam roof. Truly a heavenly host!

March's angel roof was probably one of the last medieval examples to be erected. It seems to have been constructed between 1523 and 1526. Written records show that the roof and angels were made by the Rollsbury brothers of Bacton, near Stowmarket, Suffolk. They would have hired sub-contractors in the nearby viilages of Drinkstone and Ixworth to fashion the timbers and figures out of oak. Close examination of the angels reveals no trace of paint or gilding, so it seems that we see them today as they were intended to be seen. Over the years the angels and roof timbers have had to be maintained against the ravages of water ingress, death-watch beetle and rot. Much of the original woodwork remains, some patched, but where new wood was necessary it has been carved in faithful representation of the original. Sir John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate and lover of churches said, "St Wendreda's church is worth cycling 40 miles in a headwind to see." He was right.

This church has another unique attribute to set alongside its angels: the dedication to St Wendreda is the only one known. Wendreda (also known as Wyndred) was a Saxon princess, possibly a daughter of the seventh century King Anna of the East Angles, who had a palace at Exning in Suffolk. She was known for her healing powers and for helping others. After her parents' and brother's death Wendreda relocated to March and ministered to the people of the Fens. In 1343 her remains were returned to March. It is likely that the pilgrims who came to March in the hope of benefiting from the saint's healing powers, were part of the reason for the building of its remarkable roof.

I used a tripod for this photograph - wooden church roofs tend to be quite dark - and in this image I looked for a balance between a detail of a couple of angels, and a shot of the whole roof.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 40mm (80mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f4
Shutter Speed: 1/8
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On