Vertiginous cliffs, the rock folded and crushed; the distant groans of white water. The north coast of Cornwall is a land apart from the sub-tropical south. Tucked into the slope of a steep-sided valley or combe and only a field or two from a sheer drop into the Atlantic stands the church of St Morwenna, home to some of Cornwall’s finest Romanesque sculpture.
‘Morwenstow is rare in Cornwall,’ writes Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Churches, ‘in escaping Tudor reconstruction, apart from the west tower and south aisle. Norman beasts adorn the doorway and the Norman north arcade survives, green, damp and primitive…’ Primitive is a loaded word. Perhaps it is the setting, in which the elemental forces cannot be ignored, that sharpens the senses to the mysterious quality of the repeated blank masks of beakheads and strong lines of chevron. Primitive in the sense of simple, however, it is not. For the southwest, the Romanesque carving at the church of St Morwenna is an embarrassment of riches. As Edmund Sedding wrote in 1909 the stonework, ‘both for variety and skill in execution, has no parallel in Cornwall.’ While some of it may be slowly losing its form to the gales and rain much of it is well protected and the best, on the arcade of the north nave aisle, is as sharp today as it must have been eight hundred years ago. Morwenstow is also unique for combining the ‘Cornish’ massed and multi-directional chevron, pine cone or seed head motifs, masks and animals (found here and at Kilkhampton) with the singular beakhead style and triple chevron that characterize the work of north Devon.
Some of it is not in its original location. The later medieval building of the south porch, for example, has split the doorway of three orders, the outermost arch now framing the outer door to the porch itself while the other two remain inside. Small bosses and beast masks run around frontal chevron on the outer order; on the inside there is another run of frontal and lateral chevron and an inner arch of beakheads. The capitals include stylized foliage, a double-bodied beast weathered to globular lumps, and a spray of pine-cones. At the apex of the porch there are carved beasts supporting the Agnus Dei on a rope or cord, the ends of which are held in each creature’s mouth. There are corbels on the exterior of the porch too, isolated survivals of a highly idiosyncratic style, beast masks with enormous eyes accentuated by deep lines, mouths slashed across the entire width of the head.
The glory of the church, however, is the north arcade, three arches upon broad columns and plain and scalloped capitals, the central arch heavily decorated with beakheads and chevron. These closely recall the work in the north Devon churches at Shebbear, Buckland Brewer and Woolsery. At the easternmost terminus of the arcade the abacus to the capital is delicately carved with rosette motifs and interlaced semicircles.
Above: North nave arcade, detail of a capital, and the arch to the south door, Morwenstow (Photos: Alex Woodcock).