Saturday, 11 June 2011

Felsham’s Green Men, Gargoyles and Grotesques

Font with mid 14th century base
The font in St Peter’s Church has a very curious feature: it is really two fonts. It would appear that the base of the octagonal font was the top part of another older mid-14th century font. This base has been cut down showing only the upper half of eight sunken panels which are carved with various figures. One of the figures, below an ogee arch, shows the top half of a head which is believed to be a “green man”. If so, this is an example of how a feature of pagan culture – the fertility symbol - survived into the Christian period.

"Green Man" on base of font

The Green Man on the font appears to have leaves for hair or is perhaps just peering out from dense foliage. His lower face may have originally shown a vigorous leafy beard and perhaps a mouth disgorging fresh shoots.
The gargoyles that peer down at us from high up on the church roof are perhaps a more familiar sight.  

Gargoyle on Church Roof

They are rather obscured by the large basins that are fixed to the top of the drainpipes.  Most people know that these frightening carved stone faces with a spout were designed to convey rainwater away from the side of the building to prevent erosion of the mortar and stonework.  Apparently, the word “gargoyle” derives from the French “gargouille” and the Latin “gargula” meaning “throat” or “gullet”.  Gurgling and gargling must have similar origins.  The Felsham gargoyles are carbuncled and heavy jawed with strange scaly ears and are reminiscent of pictures of the jaws of hell.  The frightening WENHASTON DOOM shows the damned being swallowed up by a vicious looking fish like monster.
The jaws of hell, The Wenhaston Doom
It has been said that the purpose of gargoyles was to frighten away demons and other evil spirits.

Church porch
Among the carvings on the entrance arch to the fine church porch there is another curious feature. 

Detail of carvings on porch archway
Among the carved crowns, shields and square-shaped roses, small grotesque faces can be seen.   

Tongue-poking grotesque on Church doorway
Like the green men faces on the font, their eyes stare blankly out at us.  The hair style is aggressively wild with strands standing up vertically as though in fright.  But, the most startling feature of the pugnacious face is the long tongue that provocatively pushes out from the broad wide mouth. What effect did the medieval sculpture intend with this startling malevolent image on a church doorway?  One answer can be found by studying the Luttrell Psalter, an illustrated manuscript commissioned by a rich Lincolnshire knight sometime between 1320 and 1340.  The Psalter includes depictions of strange figures and imaginary beasts called babwyns.  One big-eared babwyn sticks his tongue out in a way reminiscent of our Felsham grotesque:

These strange illustrations may well have been representations of medieval folk activities which included dressing up in weird garb similar perhaps to features associated with our more familiar morris dancing groups.
I have recently visited the Villa d'Este near Rome with its incredible water features.  This photo shows one of many biomorphic faces in the Garden of the Hundred Fountains with water gushing from its mouth.  A little reminiscent of our Felsham grotesque?

Fountain in Villa d'Este, Italy
Finally, it has been suggested that these grimacing gargoyles, tongue-poking beasties and melancholic green men with foliage spewing from their mouths could be caricatures of villagers who lived in Felsham in medieval times.

Dragon sculpture on porch

Illustrated Guide to St Peter's Church, Felsham, Suffolk
Nikolaus Pevsner: "The buildings of England - Suffolk"
A useful description of the church's north porch can be found at

Hairy face carving on base of font
The Felsham Green Man - a poem

I have seen it all. 
In the beginning I lived in the wild and sacred wood 
Hidden among oaken boles bearded with ivy I watched 
With knotted eyes of furrowed brown the browsing 
Snouts sweeping besom-like the musty floor of cracked acorns. 

I have seen it all. 
Then they took my free high heathen spirit open 
To the canopied over-arching sky of dappled green 
And enclosed me heavily in white stained stone 
Under a carved canopy of heaving hammer-beams. 

I have seen it all. 
But I am dumb, my gaping mouth stuffed and gorged 
With yellowing leaves of the Fall by dark figures who lift 
The silvered chalice above the cope to the crossed form 
Where the sun rises refracted through beaming glass. 

I have seen it all. 
The unlocking of the ashen lid to reveal the blesséd water 
And the thrice dipping of the pulsing infant fontanel 
And the thrice crossing at the chrisomed head, hands and soles 
And the devilish screams as the North Door slams shut. 

I have seen it all. 
The souls harassed by thoughts of unpurged purgatory 
Buying their heaven-ward hopes by willing the sheltering porch 
Of crusted grey flint and buttressed stone enlivened 
With gruesome grotesques and roses repeated in roundels.

I have seen it all. 
The stripping of the altars and the crash of statued-saints 
As the Suffolk iconoclast with forked rod aloft wreaks his revenge 
On suffering neighbours, now faceless and unknown, broken 
And dejected where the pursed lips and narrowed brows berate.

I have seen it all. 
But the tiled and trodden terra firma clogs my mouth and nose. 
I stare out uncertain, half-submerged, trapped in my font of unknowing 
What the shrouded future holds. The rivulet Rat is rising and threatens 
The larches limply branching as the charcoal ash buds stir and die.

Christopher Bornett

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