Monday, December 20, 2004

I have visited a strange place

This most recent saturday, Rachel and I took a bit of a muddy stroll down the Thames to visit St. Mary's of Iffley. Our trusty National Trails Guide to the Thames path had informed is that we were on our way to a "superb Norman church...richly deorated in Romanesque style with fantastic beasts and zigzag stonework in and out." After our visit, we would learn that this is a common approach to describing the place-- see the website for the Church. These description completely miss the point, as far as I'm concerned.

The first thing that stuck us about the Church was that we were fairly sure that we'd failed to find it. Following the direction in the Thames Trail guide book led us up to a smallish looking, yellowish looking building. There was no notable zigzagging or fantastic beasting in sight. This kind of thing happens a lot when one follows the National Trails Guide to the Thames path, as the Guide contains directions such as (P. 30) "When you see, opposite, a big house if Cotswold Stone, take the path bearing right across the meadow." So: a lot of our muddy little walks are spent trying to figure out what is meant by "big" and "path" and "opposite" and such, and often we end up just walking to the river and going south until things look familiar.

Trusting in the guide for a bit, we walked up towards the front of the Church. If it seems odd to you that the front of the Church is as far as possible from the entrance to the church yard, then you and I think along similar lines. When we reached the front door, we saw the zigzags and knew that we were in the right place. Here's a little photo we snapped of the door:

Zigzags appeared present, and the door certainly looked unusual. We assumed that we'd found the right place. Then we looked more closely at the door, and started to think that the descriptions of the place had missed something out by a bit. To wit: the creepiness. For instance, the zigzags on the door are not merely geometric patterns. Rather, they are a constituted of bird beaks attached in unpredictable ways to either bird heads, human heads, or nothing at all. The detail of the door edge looks like this:

The other door that we found also seemed odd, if nothing else than the unusual prevalence of death and violence in the little carvings surrounding it. Having examined the doors and snapped some pictures, we headed inside.

The inside of the Church appeared empty. I say "appeared" because it turned out that one of the local lads has presumably had a very exciting friday night, and was passed out in one of the pews. Our talk and picture taking didn't seem to distrurb him, so we shuffled about some more. The inside didn't have as much creepyness as the outer door-- there were some assorted little goblin looking creatures about, but most of the stonework bore pleasantly featureless zigzagging. The main exception to this was that over the altar type area, the figure of a dragon sloughing off its skin is inscribed. To me this seems a bit unusual as Christian iconography goes. It is highly likely that this is because I am ignorant, but it still seemed creepy.

Returning outside to check that we hadn't missed and photos, we noticed something odd about the grotesques along the top of the building. They appear to be sending the church up. The one that caught our attention first was this:

That's a flying angel cow, bearing a banner that reads "Luke". Other popular apostles had their own animals-- or at least Mark and John did, Matthew's name presumably requiring too much carving to write. All seemed a bit derisory to us. And then there was this:

Initially this didn't seem too odd, but then I started to wonder: is that person crying? Laughing? What are the theological implications of this? Please comment if you have any ideas about resolving this question.

On returning home and checking the internets for information about the place, I found one literary excerpt about St. Mary's Iffley. It was written by Keith Douglas four years before he was killed at Normandy in 1944:

What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle and I will hear
and come another evening, when this boat
travels with you alone towards Iffley
as you lie looking up for thunder again
this cool touch does not betoken rain
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.
There are strange places in this world, and Rachel and I visited one of them on Saturday.