Priceless relic was pushed under stairs

PUBLISHED: 14:36 27 March 2006 | UPDATED: 09:03 24 May 2010

When Weston's centuries-old village church was destroyed and replaced by the present building, some of the bits and pieces of the old village church were used to adorn gate pillars, and as ornaments in walls and in houses. A few can

When Weston's centuries-old village church was destroyed and replaced by the present building, some of the bits and pieces of the old village church were used to adorn gate pillars, and as ornaments in walls and in houses. A few can still be seen today.Fortunately, the parish church does retain possession of a piece of carving from the village church, one of the oldest, a curious relievo. Even in recent years it was deemed of so little worth that it was tucked way under the stairs. It was brought to light by a former churchwarden, John Birch, an enthusiastic antiquarian, and through his good offices and the co-operation of the rector and church authorities, it is now displayed in the porch with reproductions illustrating the Church's missing Elizabethan chalice.The relievo is an extremely worn and weather-beaten sculpture. Mr Birch sent a photograph of it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, who regarded it as dating to the Fifteenth Century.Its existence is mentioned in the History of Weston Parish Church (1226-1910) written by the local antiquarian the late Ernest E Baker, who said that in 1910 it was on the inner wall of the vestry. He referred to its worn and mutilated condition, and expressed doubt whether there was any truth in the suggestion that it was formerly the head of the church cross, the remains of which stand close to the south wall of the church.Another prominent local antiquarian of earlier days, the Rev W Jackson, deemed the relievo of sufficient interest to merit extensive reference in his "Visitors' Handbook to Weston-super-Mare" dated 1877.Referring to the south porch of the village church he wrote: "Inside this ancient porch were the usual stone benches; and over the right hand bench, fixed into its eastern wall, was a most remarkable piece of emblematic sculpture in freestone, usually characterised as a crucifixion."The curious relievo was preserved by the late rector, and inserted high up on the north side of the present chancel in a secure, but rather storm-beaten situation. Whatever the scene sculptured may represent it is certainly not a crucifixion. The central figure is clothed in flowing draper, and seated on a kind of raised dais or divan, bearing in his lap a nearly nude human body, the head of which reclines upon his breast."The arms of this reclining body are broken away, while the supporting figure has its own arms and hands stretched out at full length. His face is turned to the spectator, and is shaded on each side by long, curling locks. His stature is meant to be colossal, a fact evident from comparison with the human body supported, and with two decapitated saints standing, one on either hand, in the foreground."Above the whole composition are two small figures, much broken, sitting one on each slope of the pediment. What was really the sculptor's intention, seems at first sight a point not easily determined."Jackson said he was satisfied the subject of the composition was divine love, as shown in the redemption of man. The Heavenly Father displays to the world the form of His crucified Son and the Holy Spirit, either in the shape of a dove, or an invisible presence, to be contemplated by the beholder.The standing personages in the lower part of the sculpture might possibly be the two usually figured as attendant on the crucifixion - the mother of our Lord, and the evangelist, St John.Or, instead of the apostle, Jackson suggests that it is likely the adoring male statuette is meant for the beautified Thomas a'Becket, and the dedication of Woodspring would thus be wholly commemorated in the relievo."Neither at Weston, nor at Bleadon, where a representation of the Virgin and Child occurs in a similar situation, is there any reference to the dedication of the churches themselves," he stated, "Nor yet do these tablets appear intended to invite persons to remain kneeling before them; the worshipper reverenced them as he entered his parish church and passed onwards."The little figures on the pediment may probably have been intended for censing angels - an idea borrowed from the Book of Revelations. The censers would, as usual in such representations, be thrown forwards and upwards.Jackson concludes: "... a tablet which once excited devotion among the rude forefathers of the hamlet," and is in itself so curious a composition, deserves some attention from the passing archaeologist, and still more from modern Westonians. "We have here expended pains and space upon it, because somewhat similar representations are not uncommon in the neighbourhood. We shall encounter on examples at East Brent, and another at Yatton, and both these examples resemble Weston in omitting the sacred Dove. But usage varies extremely."For an appraisement of Weston Parish Church as it stands today we have that noted authority, S E Dykes Bower, whom the church authorities consulted in connection with a scheme for the beautification of the chancel. The first part of this scheme, the removal of the organ from the chancel to the west gallery, has already been carried out. Work on the main part, the general improvement of the chancel and the replacement of the crude nineteenth century choir stalls will be carried out this autumn."The usual form of this church is the result of successive additions that have almost obliterated any trace of the original structure," Mr Dykes Bower reported. "The interior is now an example of 19th Century Gothic, of no great architectural distinction, but not devoid of a character."Thus, the galleries, which in some churches are a disfigurement, have here panelled and moulded fronts that are not unpleasing; their delicate small scale details divert attention form the ungainly design of the arcade, particularly on the north side where its mouldings are all of plaster. The later, south arcade, of stone, is better."The side windows of the aisles, too, have traceried heads of quite good design and are glazed with clear glass, the pure white light form which gives to the nave an even illumination."The east window, also glazed with a background of clear glass but enriched with fragments of old stained glass in the tracery and roundels, panes and armorials in the main lights, is of outstanding beauty. It is by far the best thing in the building and, by virtue of its position, the most prominent. The possession indeed of an east window of such merit is so exceptional that any attempt to beautify the rest of the church is well worth while."This east window was given to the church by Henry Law, who was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1824 until 1845. The gift was made when the chancel was re-built in 1837, and is believed to have cost about £500. His son, Henry, was the Rector of Weston, and his daughter, Jane Harkness is commemorated in a tablet in the chancel. The coloured glass is made up of vignettes illustrating scenes from the life of David and Our Lord, and some scarp borders and roundels.There are five vignettes in squares and five in circles, the subjects being: the nativity; the presentation in the Temple; the flight into Egypt; the entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; the crucifixion; David taking a lamb from the lion's mouth; David playing the harp before Saul; David slinging a stone at Goliath; and David decapitating Goliath. There are also three coats of arms of the Bishopric and the Law family.Antiquarian Jackson in his 1877 handbook suggested that "it is difficult to date the series later than the former half of the thirteenth century."Mr M D W Poole, in an interesting article on stained glass in Weston churches, contributed to the Mercury a few years ago, pointed out that in 1946 Dr Christopher Woodforde in his book on the stained glass of Somerset had stated that these panels were designed in the early part of the 19th century, in the style of the 13th century.Professor Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England - North Somerset and Bristol, published in 1958, agrees with Dr Woodforde that the panels are 19th century imitations and comments: "It is their lettering which first shows their date."On this Mr Poole adds: "If these scriptural scenes are 19th century imitations, and the evidence strongly suggests this, they are much rarer than genuine thirteenth century glass.... With the exception of a collection of somewhat similar vignettes of Lytes Cary, these scenes have no counterpart in Somerset.Mr Poole says that little has been written about the patchwork gardens and squares in the windows but points out that W J Robinson in West Country Churches has shown that much of the glass in Bishop Law's extensive collection came from a church in Rouen, which was destroyed during the revolutionary era."The Bishop bought a wagonload of this glass and had it brought to England," Mr Poole comments. "It seems quite probable, although there is no positive proof, that many of the Parish Church fragments may have originated form this source."In a window in the north aisle of the church is a small figure of St Bartholomew. He holds a flaying knife in his hand. This figure was originally in the east window, but could not be reincluded in it when it was repaired after narrowly escaping complete destruction by blast in the air raid of January, 1941. Only the bottom portion of the St Bartholomew figure, which is 15th century, is original.The bomb which damaged the Parish Church east window actually fell just outside Grove Park, shattering the Grove Pavilion and killing three well-known young Westonians who happened to be passing.The church window was blown out, but the fragments scattered around both inside and outside the church were carefully recovered and stored in boxes. During the war years the window remained boarded up and subsequently the glass was pieced together by a Bristol expert.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 16, 1966

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