Sunday, 18 October 2015

Walsingham II The Church of St Mary

Walsingham's parish church stands a little aloof from the village it serves.  From the road the tower is perfect, but seen in conjunction with the body of the church it is too small. Still, it is a beautiful building, possessing both a south porch and a rarer west porch.  The window tracery is a bit mannered, the little arches being straight and not curved.   To step into the church into it's great white, pristine space is to step not back into the ancient past but something more recent, for in July 1961 the church was gutted by fire.  By all accounts the pre-fire church possessed a remarkable atmosphere.
St Mary's was rebuilt by Laurence King who was then favoured by the sort of Anglo-Catholics who in the past would have patronised Martin Travers and the Society of Ss Peter and Paul.  There is plenty of work by King at the Anglican Shrine.  His work slips between Modernism and the Gothic Revival and the Back-to-Baroque of MartinTravers depending on context.  Often all three get jumbled up together.  He has too that Travers trick of rubbing ochre on to statues to prematurely age them.  It can be seen on the statue of St Catherine of Alexandria below, where it also adds a third dimension to what is essentially a graphic image. I suppose the rebuilt St Mary's is one of his jumbles.  The church was rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire, and then furnished with Gothic Revival furniture from elsewhere and new furnishings of King's design hovering around between Gothic and Baroque with the odd bit of Sixties Psychedelia added in.
The interior, sparkling white, and almost embodies what Hewlett Johnson, 'The Red Dean', wrote:

'....with great cool spaces, with whitened walls, with windows through which one could see the trees and fields and clouds, enlivened here and there with a splash of colour, or a patch of altar rich in hangings set on riddels, broad and majestic in its form, but severe in its splendid restraint....Flowers should stand in glass vases upon the altar or in great bowls on the floor beside it; or on a low stand by the chancel steps.  And there should be flowers in the porch to welcome me....The few lamps, ceremonial or otherwise, should be largely conceived and hung by great cords from the roof....The pulit should rise all alone unjostled by any seats, and the font in splendid isolation should face the altar from the west, with its own rich cover nobly hung by a great chain or cord from the roof. Nor should it lack homely or intimate touches.  Round the empty ailse there should be chapels or corners for speacial purposes, and the children should not be forgotten.  But the main impression should be that of space, broken only by a few significant and exquietly beautiful things; and every detail of the church, from the latch on the door to the buffet beneath my feet, should bespeak a car and a thought worthy of God's House.  Such a church, with its impalable air of freshness and vitality would recall us time and again to meditation and refreshment.'

Almost but not quite.  There is a coldness here, which I think is partly down to the mechanical carving of the rebuilt piers and arches, the institutional flooring and the strange colours things, like the roof, are painted.  Was it really necessary to repaint the hanging rood (by Comper) and the Lady Chapel reredos (by Bodley)?  To denude them, thereby?  The detailing of the west lobby is really excellent, the organ case above is not.  The most splendid thing in the church is the great seven sacraments font, which escaped the fire without serious damage.  Shame that King didn't replace all of the font cover that was destroyed in the fire.

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