If anyone wants to know how I decide which churches to “write up” on this site I am hard-pressed to answer. Recent visits loom large in the mind, of course. Sometimes I decide that a particular county is poorly served and decide to rectify it. Sometimes if I have done a particularly long page about a very complex church I decide to tackle a small simple church just to give me a bit of a breather. Whim, however, is a big factor. Great Gonerby had a large element of whim when I chose it, added to my interest in cornice friezes in the East Midlands.
When I assemble the photographs for a particular church, or during the process of writing, puzzles and insights often come emerge and Great Gonerby falls into that category. Much time is, in my view, wasted, in trying to get into the minds of mediaeval carvers to “explain” their work. It’s noble work but without enormous expenditure of time and imagination the result is usually just speculation, often reflecting a person’s own preoccupations. You would be amazed at the number of seemingly innocuous carvings that are deemed to be sexually exhibitionism, for example! It is frustrating that we can’t get inside the fertile imaginations of the carvers but, except in cathedrals and abbeys that employed the very best of artists, I think we generally have to admit defeat. In fact, I believe many, perhaps the majority, are the whims of the individual carver.
Great Gonerby’s cornice frieze, however, has some scenes that are obviously designed to convey deeper meaning, no matter that is is opaque to us. Most of them are not “fantastic” and there are few that don’t have some quirk - such as the chains around the beasts’ necks - that have subtle significance to the people of the time, but which are lost on ourselves. It is finely carved and enormously interesting.
I have suggested - no more than that - that there is satire in those carvings. That is reinforced by what I call the “authority figures” on the corners of the cornices. It seems to me that these were people known to the carver and his guild, and the local people would have known them too. Without the benefit of the paint that would originally have been there and with weathering have taken its toll, we can’t make out as much detail as I would like. At least two of the figures, however, seem to have symbolism that is personal to them. Whether it is satirical or just symbolic of their positions in society we cannot know but there seems to be at least some element of caricature.
Then there are the label stops. Most label stops are plain boring. Most human heads could be representations of real people as many believe but they are generally anodyne and instantly forgettable. The two faces shown above, however, are in a different class and surely, again, real people. We can speculate that they were yeoman landowners or wealthy merchants. Whoever executed them was capable of conveying humanity and emotion, of creating a likeness and not just a generic representation of the human face. He was a craftsman and not, as on many of the churches, a stonemason carving a few external decorations.
Putting all of this together, Great Gonerby’s carvings are of more than normal interest. Any Great Gonerbian who has some spare time might profitably look at the local history archives and draw some conclusions. I am convinced that the carvers at this church were not just using their vivid imaginations: they had stories to tell.