Friday, July 27, 2012

Kilpeck's remarkable doorway

click photo to enlarge
The other day, in connection with the Anglo-Saxon (Romanesque) church at Barton upon Humber, Lincolnshire, I was talking about architectural exemplars; those buildings that best exemplify the characteristics of a style or period. When it comes to the style that follows the Anglo-Saxon in English architecture, that is the Norman (also Romanesque), the church of St Mary & St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire is one of the most quoted in architectural textbooks. More particularly, its elaborate south doorway of c.1150 is held up as one that best displays the achievement of post-Conquest architecture.

Yet, when I first saw this doorway I felt sure that an over-enthusiastic Victorian restorer must have had the carving re-tooled, that is to say have a sculptor go over it with his chisels to make it look more like it would have done when first completed. But I was wrong. It seems that the red sandstone was particularly well chosen and has simply survived the centuries much better than most stone. So what does it show? In the tympanum above the door is a stylized Tree of Life with grapes to left and right. It sits on a lintel with a band of horizontal chevron moulding that looks like it has been re-used from elsewhere. The outer order of the arch has medallion like shapes with birds, fish and dragons, joined by carved bands with eyes. The inner order has characteristic beakheads, but also angels and dragons, some devouring themselves. The columns and capitals that flank the doorway are even more remarkable. They have elongated figures (as do the church's chancel arch columns), long dragons, heads and much writhing foliage. The Viking origin of much of this is very clear, and of course the Normans were descended from Scandinavians that settled in France.

Beautiful though the doorway is, one has to question the extent to which it is an exemplar of Norman architecture. There are other doorways and arches of this period that show similar carving: Pevsner cites Shobden's re-sited arches, and he might have mentioned certain cross columns. However, Kilpeck isn't typical so much as a pinnacle of the style, a flowering that is admirable but also exceeds the quality and departs from the characteristics more usually seen.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 28mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/25 sec
ISO: 160
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On