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Help and advice for St Marychurch - from Some Old Devon Churches (J. Stabb)

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St Marychurch


Some Old Devon Churches

By J. Stabb

London: Simpkin et al (1908-16)

Page 217

Transcribed and edited by Dr Roger Peters

Full text available at

Prepared by Michael Steer

Between 1908 and 1916, John Stabb, an ecclesiologist and photographer who lived in Torquay, published three volumes of Some Old Devon Churches and one of Devon Church Antiquities. A projected second volume of the latter, regarded by Stabb himself as a complement to the former, did not materialize because of his untimely death on August 2nd 1917, aged 52. Collectively, Stabb's four volumes present descriptions of 261 Devon churches and their antiquities.

ST. MARY CHURCH. St. Mary. This parish church is said to have been the earliest in Devon. In Domesday Book [1086] it is called "Saint Marie Churche". The present fabric was rebuilt in 1861 and consists of chancel, nave, north and south aisles, south porch, and west tower containing eight bells, cast and hung in 1880. The tower was restored in 1873 at a cost of £3,500 in memory of Bishop Phillpotts [1778-1869], of Exeter, who is buried in the churchyard.

The great object of interest in this church is the old font [plates 217a, 217b, 217c, and 217d]. There is a rather remarkable history attached to it. Before 1824 the lower part was uppermost and the upper part was buried in the floor. In 1824 the floor was repaired when the carving was discovered on the lower portion; on examination this proved to be the original font and it was then placed in its original position. The bowl is ornamented with a rim about twelve inches in depth, consisting of seven rings intersecting each other and decorated with beads or studs; within these rings are carved figures of very rude workmanship.

In Dr. Oliver's Ecclesiastical Antiquities, Vol. 1, p. 184, the following list is given:-

"1st. A bird (probably a dove) with a bunch of grapes or olives in its beak.
2nd. A boar baited by a dog.
3rd. A man with a bugle in his right hand, and a dog by his right side, his left hand holding a spear.
4th. A man falling head over heads, nearly doubled, with a sword in his hand, Qy. if Goliath?
5th. A figure in a chair, playing on a harp, Qy. if David?
6th. A man on horseback, blowing a bugle, which he holds in his left hand, with a sword in his right.
7th. A Salamander, emblematic of fire, with the head of regardant."

I have given the list of carvings with Dr. Oliver's ideas as to the meanings, but I think he is incorrect in his conclusions. Of course, when dealing with symbolism in art it is possible to start with a preconceived idea, and to make everything work in with that idea. Necessarily where there are no documents in existence describing what the carvers of the font intended to represent, imagination must come largely into play in deciphering the carvings.

There have been at least three papers published on this font: those by Miss Minna Gray, Miss Kate M. Clarke, and Miss Mary Salter. To take the last first, Miss Salter placed the date of the font long before Saxon times, in fact she does not think it was originally used as a font but as a divining well. The following account of its origin is from her point of view:- "The church of the parish of St. Mary Church is the fourth which has been built on the same site; a Phœnician temple probably once occupied the same spot, as I found the font to have been an ancient divining well, containing a valuable record of the religious and physical history of the Phœnicians and Cimmerians. The seven-ringed carving has been inscribed at various times with Phœnician or Archaic Hebrew characters, Greek and Egyptian letters and hieroglyphs; lastly, it was whitewashed, and that part of Domesday Book which relates to the neighbourhood painted in a darker tone on it. This has nearly all disappeared under the vigorous cleaning to which the font has been subjected. The character inscribed on it form a valuable link between the north western and south eastern alphabets. The original font was funnel shaped; it has been turned upside down and the carving buried to preserve it from the Puritans, and an octagonal top placed on the upturned bottom."

Miss Minna Gray, in her paper read before the Exeter Diocesan Archæological and Architectural Society, in 1905, divides the carvings into three pairs and a single panel. The first two, the boar baited by a dog, and the man with a bugle, she thinks represents a hunt; the hunter a priest, for he is arrayed in a chasuble, and the quarry the unclean swine, symbolical of demonical possession; or, in other words, these panels are symbolical of the casting of the Devil and all his works.

The next two panels, the dancing girl* and the harper, Miss Gray thinks are fitting types of the pomps and vanities of the world renounced in baptism. (* Dr. Oliver is clearly wrong in describing this figure as a man; the accordion-pleated skirt can be plainly seen on the panel here, which is almost identical with the carving on the font at South Milton.)

The third pair of panels represent another hunting scene, a mounted hunter pursuing a beast of undefined species. This Miss Gray thinks represent the evil one pursuing souls.

In E. P. Evans' Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture is an illustration of a scene very similar in which the animal is called a beaver; after a description of the engraving follows this passage, "But though, O man, separate from thyself the works of the flesh . . . . and throw them to the devil who hunteth after thy soul, saying 'I will pursue my enemies and overtake them.' Then canst thou exclaim with the Psalmist, 'our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken and we are escaped.'" To quote Miss Gray, "Surely this is what we have represented on the font; the third renunciation of the baptismal vow; and the result of that threefold renunciation we find just as described above, the soul as a bird escaped and feeding on the Tree of Life" (depicted on the seventh panel).

Miss Clarke, in her paper in Devon Notes and Queries for January 1907, differs from Miss Gray in her interpretation of the carvings in several particulars. Firstly, she objects to the dividing of the panels into three pairs, and a single panel, for the reason that the greatest importance was attached to mystic value of numbers, and especially the number seven. "Three is the number of the Trinity, and consequently, of the soul made in the image of the Trinity, and indicates all spiritual things; four, the number of the elements, is the symbol of natural things, of the body, of the world which resulted from the combination of the four elements." She therefore divides the panels into two parts of four and three each; three of a spiritual and four of a natural nature.

As to the meaning of the panel representing the dancer and the harpist, Miss Gray and Miss Clarke agree that it symbolises sensual pleasure; but Miss Clarke thinks that the idea that the horseman is the evil one pursuing souls is open to question, she rather thinks that it is intended to represent a preacher whose forcible arguments are symbolised by the horn and the knife. Miss Clarke considers the beaver to be more probably a wild ass - a beast of bad character - symbolising the sinner, and the bird to represent the Church. To sum up, Miss Gray considers the whole series of panels to represent the three-fold renunciation of the baptismal vow, and the soul's escape as the result of that renunciation, while Miss Clarke considers the meaning to be that the two hunters have turned their backs on the world and the flesh, and are driving sinners into church. May we not have here the result of baptism, the regenerate soul that has renounced the world, the flesh, and the Devil, feeding on the Tree of Life, a privilege belonging only to those who have been baptised?

The registers date from 1641.