Monday 26 September 2022

Kilpeck Church: A Romanesque Masterpiece

This year so far has been one entirely unlike any other in my life to date, as I finally became a home owner at the ripe age of 31. This systemic shift in circumstances means that life has changed in immeasurable ways in the last 6 months, and time has to be taken for things like renovating my Victorian cottage, and keeping my jungle of a garden under reasonable control (and not always succeeding entirely). But exploration and adventure are still my lifeblood, they’re just a little less frequent than in recent years.

One little adventure I was lucky enough to make time for this summer saw me travel to a land unknown to me, Herefordshire, for the first time. And while I was there I made sure to soak up as many sights as I could cram into a short trip.

One place I’ve always wanted to visit in the region is the church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck. Anyone whose ever thumbed through a book on grotesques of England, or holds any interest in church architecture at all will doubtlessly have heard of Kilpeck and it’s many treasures. 
Over recent years I’ve had the name ‘Kilpeck’ haunt me repeatedly, in books researching tombs and memorials, in literature on green men, and most recently in online lockdown lectures given by the Churches Conservation Trust, particularly on ‘naughty bits’ on churches - namely the Sheela Na Gig. I decided this year it was finally time to visit this rich resource in the world of ecclesiastical carving and see just what all the fanfare was about for myself. 

After an initial false start from the satnav who actually took me to another church a stones throw away, I finally found the quaint, unassuming church just down the lane. 

Records date a church being on this site as far back as 650AD at least. Though conjecture suggests that the lie of the land, waterways and the unusual alignment of the building hint at a pre-christian past for this obviously important place. 
Much of the church we see today dates to around 1140, and ties in closely with the nearby Kilpeck Castle and its landed gentry. Thankfully unlike many ancient churches, Kilpeck has remained reasonably unspoiled by Victorian restoration, with many early features surviving, and in better condition than most.

The church itself is on no grandiose scale, or exceptionally exuberant, but the details and decoration here are absolutely everything. On approach to the building, unusual corbels line the walls, with animals and men peering down with menacing glee. 
The huge beasts which flank the south-west face were really rather breathtaking. In all the hundreds of churches I've visited across the country I've never encountered anything like them. Colossal gaping mouths with great curling tongues erupting from a cornerstone of celtic interlacing. It can be easily imagined that these giant leviathans incited fear, and awe in all those who saw them.

The real jewel in the crown at Kilpeck is the South door, which is the main entrance into the church itself. This incredible archway is without a doubt the most detailed, and imaginative Romanesque doorway I've ever seen. Previous fine examples Ive been lucky enough to visit (Tutbury and Melbourne being some of the most impressive) generally feature a more repetitive pattern of beasts and celtic knotwork, however the lack of symmetry at Kilpeck, and its many, rather overwhelming different elements have a very different effect.

The senses are somewhat overwhelmed by the huge number of different beasts and creatures on every single inch of stone. Sinuous, writhing monsters edge the archway, with their gaping mouths devouring decorated knots connecting a whole host of beasts and birds, finished either side with a fierce Hellmouth like head.
Below these are a huge range of curious creatures, some devouring themselves, some devouring eachother, others with great serpents erupting from their mouths. It truly is a frenzied scene of fascination and sinister strangeness! The lone angel in among all this chaos seems almost out of place in the scheme, but is likely there to remind the viewer to choose salvation over sin and temptation (generally the most accepted idea of what these carvings represent, though we will never truly know).

The motifs continue down the columns either side of the door, with serpents intertwined snaking down towards the ground, surrounded by organic looking knotwork, more birds and beasts, and the unusual addition of figures. These figures are often considered to be warriors, but like so many other elements of this incredible carving its true meaning will be forever a mystery (which I rather like).

One of my absolute favourite parts of the entire church is this fantastic Green Man. His bulging eyes stare out to the path while vines flow vigorously from his mouth. He has such a wonderful feeling of folk horror I could have studied him all day. Stylistically he seems closest to the central pediment, which has a slightly more folk art feel than many other parts of the doorway. This distinction between different styles suggest multiple masons worked on the entrance way, each bringing their own unique style and interpretation to their carvings.

There are a great many wonderful corbels to be seen around the entire exterior of the church. Sadly the whole of the rear side of the church was covered with scaffold, meaning almost half of these men and beasts were impossible to view on this occasion, however, Kilpecks arguably most famous resident was thankfully on full view in all her glory. The Sheela-na-gig of Kilpeck is one of the most famous still in existence. I always feel a wry smile creep on my face when I see the image of a woman gleefully opening her vulva on the exterior of a church. The whole concept just feels so surreal and bizarre it never ceases to make me smile. 
There are many theories about the meaning of the Sheela-na-gig. The last remnants of a pagan fertility deity, Mother earth, a protection against evil (that one makes me smile most of all), a warning against sins of the flesh. The latter seems logically most likely given the mindset at the time of its creation. Female sexuality was hugely repressed during this period, and the idea of this image representing female lust as hideous and corrupting certainly falls in line with the chruches ideology of the time.

Kilpeck church is an absolutely fascinating insight into early Welsh church building, but also into the folklore, mythology and mindset of the time. This tantalising glimpse into a strange past gives us some small idea of the world these border people were living in at the time full of fantastical creatures, superstition and magic. The sense of mystery and wonder created by places like Kilpeck and their craftsmen, always make me ponder on the minds of these master masons. Their rude little in jokes, their cheeky little additions, their creative expression, and smile.

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