Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Saxon architecture

click photo to enlarge
There are 238 churches in England with traces or substantial parts that are of Anglo-Saxon, that is to say pre-Conquest, origin. The Saxons were fine sculptors and illustrators who gave primacy to the line above all else. They were a people who built mainly in wood and for this reason none of their houses have survived. Many of their churches were made of wood too, and of these only one example remains, at Greensted, near Ongar, in Essex. However, they did build churches in stone. Some, such as that at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, is as it was first built. Most of the others have been enlarged during the Norman or the Gothic periods.

The church at Barton upon Humber, Lincolnshire, was originally a small Saxon building of the late 900s. It consisted of three parts: a western porticus/baptistery, a 22 feet by 22feet (exterior measurements) tower that served as a nave, and a chancel 15 feet long. This was extended in the mid-eleventh century and the twelfth century, but this later work was taken down when a larger extension was built in the thirteenth, mid-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What is surprising, but not unique, is the fact that the original Saxon work was allowed to remain. Perhaps it was because the tower continued to serve its purpose and the cost and difficulty of replacing it couldn't be countenanced.

A visitor to the church today is struck by the bright, airy space of the Gothic nave, aisles and chancel compared with the diminutive, badly lit spaces of the Saxon structure. The quality of workmanship and the contrast between the amount and style of decoration is also marked: the Saxon looks positively crude next to the Gothic. And yet, this crudity has an elemental sturdiness that is quite appealing. Capitals are not elaborately carved and decorated with faces and leaves as in the Gothic nave, rather they are simple, heavy blocks. The arches - above we see the one linking the tower with the porticus/baptistery - are narrow due to the semi-circular head and the understandable caution the Saxon builders exercised when spanning spaces in this way. But decoration of a sort there is. Those outer strips that frame the arch using alternating long and short strips of stone (often called, appropriately enough, "long and short work") are decorative with no structural purpose. It has been conjectured that these strips (they are visible on the outside of the tower too) hark back to the Saxons' wooden constructions.

This building is now in the care of English Heritage and it is their lighting that drew me into taking the photograph. Its brightness is necessary to allow visitors to safely negotiate the dimly lit spaces. However, it is sufficiently subdued that it both gives something of the effect there must have been when the Saxon church was lit by candles or tallow lamps, and also offers the photographer an attractive, contrasty, atmospheric composition.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 12.5mm (34mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f2.8
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation:  0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On