Circles and Serpents

Romanesque sculpture is consistently surprising. In few places in Cornwall is it anything other than fragmentary, a doorway here or a corbel or tympanum (the segmental space immediately above the door) there. Sometimes, however, it is fragmentary at a single site, which, at some point in its building history has adopted a fairly scattergun approach to the reuse of its twelfth-century carved stones. Mylor is one such church. Here it’s possible to find one doorway still in situ, another likely made up from a tympanum and other original stones, and several carved corbels now positioned in prominent architectural locations (one of which is a beakhead, unknown in the county outside of Morwenstow and Kilkhampton).

Even so, the subtle inventiveness of the stonecarvers at Mylor repays close attention. It took me a while to see the head of a serpent, carved at the west end of the Romanesque north door. Its placement suggests that we read the entire moulding of the doorway as its body (the opposite stone at the other end is missing, perhaps it was carved with a  tail?). It’s a curious trick, one that, 800 years ago must have been more prominent, visually fusing the architectural elements of a building with an animate life-form. Medieval sculpture was usually painted (both interior and exterior), with some large-scale works decorating some churches (documents record that the tower of the church at Winchfield in Hampshire, for example, was painted with a dragon). Perhaps Mylor’s architectural serpent was originally coloured too.

The hyphenated variety of chevron, in which a point is alternated with a straight section, also features as part of the work at Mylor and links it stylistically with the south door at Cury. This particular form is unusual in Cornwall. Not even the west portal at St Germans, the north arcade at Morwenstow or the south doorway at Kilkhampton, the three major sites of concentrated and inventive chevron work in the county, feature this variety. The work at Mylor is in better condition than that at Cury which has suffered considerable damage and repair using inappropriate cement-based mortars.

At Cury the tympanum is carved with intersecting circles, a motif I’ve yet to see in Romanesque sculpture anywhere else. As the central image on a tympanum it may well be unique in England. Around the edge of this, carved into the voussoir blocks of the arch, is a complex work of interlaced chevron. This appears as a double-interlace on the face but if you stand close to the door and peer upwards you soon realise that it is in fact a triple-interlace form, the design continuing under the projecting edge of the arch. The hyphenated chevrons scale the door jambs and outline the interlaced circles of the tympanum, on the latter giving the effect of an explosion frozen in time. This vividly contemporary design, need I remind anyone, dates to the middle of the twelfth century.

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Above: The north door at Mylor. The head of the serpent (above right) faces downwards, its open mouth carved with pointed teeth.

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Above: Mylor’s beakhead (SW corner of the nave) and a close-up of the north door to show another animal head placed at its apex.

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Above: The tympanum at Cury. (See Artwork page for my illustration of this door).

(All photos by Alex Woodcock)

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