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Nassington (Northants)

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Dedication : St Mary Magdalene                                 Simon Jenkins: ***                Principal Features : Superb c12 wall paintings. Kneelers! C14 Rood Screen.

One night in 1979 Ickleton suffered what could have been a catastrophic fire.In the event, little damage was caused. Potential disaster became serendipity when the clean-up operation on the walls led to some the uncovering of some of the best remaining mediaeval wall painting in England. For the student of church architecture Ickleton went from being somewhat run-of-the mill, albeit with a Norman core, to being one of the most important churches in the county.

The arcades are Norman dating from about 1100. There had been a theory that the four end columns were of Barnack stone from a Roman villa, but excavations have revealed that the villa in question was of Ketton stone. The current theory is that they come from a previous Anglo-Saxon church. Incidentally, both Ketton (Rutland) and Barnack (Cambs) churches will be included on this website in due course.

The west door is also Norman, although somewhat plain. The original Norman chancel has been completely lost; it probably had a semi-circular apse. The present nave dates only from the late c18. The original Norman tower was also replaced. Most of the south wall of the nave and the south transept are c14. As can be seen in the picture left, the exterior appearance is uninspiring, even messy.

The frescos are quite another matter! Those on the northern part of the nave dates from c12. The doom painting above the chancel arch is c14.

More than any other church I have visited, Ickleton demonstrates how extensively our churches were once painted internally. There were few areas that were not ripe for decoration, extending even into window splays and arcade soffits (undersides). Of course, as with most church frescos, some colours have survived better than others, but at Ickleton it is not hard to close one’s eyes and imagine it in its original glory.

The arcade painting is in four sections: from west to east we see The Last Supper, The Betrayal, The Flagellation (of Christ) and Christ carrying his cross. In the areas between the arches we see the Martyrdom of St Peter; the Martyrdom of St Andrew and what may be the Martyrdom of St Laurence.

Only the top part remains of the Doom painting. The Virgin Mary is portrayed as bear-breasted, leading to speculation that this is Mary Magdalene. That would be surprising if it were true, but the (excellent) church guide book points out that in c14 bearing the breast was a symbol of supplication, suggesting that in the picture the Virgin was pleading for the souls of sinners.

There are some very nice poppy heads on the benches. The nave also has a rather unusual feature of a double clerestory. The lower one is the original Norman, whilst the higher one resulted from the nave walls being raised in the c14 to accommodate wider aisles.

Finally, and unusually, I would like to mention the extraordinary collection of kneelers, all embroidered with scenes from Ickleton’s history. The dedication shown by those responsible for this magnificent record is worthy of comparison with that of those who created the frescos all those centuries ago.

The south west arcade shows that here too there was painting, although it is visible only around the arches. Note too the last two columns which are of Ketton stone and may be Anglo-Saxon.

The north west arcade with its extensive frescos. Note also the Doom painting over the chancel arch and the double clerestory.

A closer view of the north east arcade showing the extent of the painting and also the variation between the decorations on the soffets of the two arches.

A close up of some of the painting. Top left is the Last Supper with Christ and his Disciples seated at the table. Judas Iscariot is the conspicuous figure taking a fish from the table. This can be interpreted as a theft or alternatively that Christ is represented by the fish and Judas is taking his life. Note that the line of disciples is continued into the splay of the Norman clerestory window. To the right of the window is Betrayal. This scene is not so easy to discern. On the extreme right, Peter is cutting off the ear of the unfortunate Malchus, servant to the High Priest. Judas and Jesus are to the left but it is difficult to see the kiss of betrayal.

Lower left is the martyrdom of St Peter by being crucified upside down. Note the complexity and beauty of the painting surrounding the arch itself.

Close up of the Last Supper.

Close-up of the Martyrdom of St Peter.

The Betrayal.

The Doom painting over the chancel arch. Note the somewhat voluptuous bear-breasted Mary to the left of Christ. To his right is either St John the Evangelist or St John the Baptist. Angels float above their heads.  Lower right are fragments of those condemned to Hell. Below Christs’s feet a couple of people rise from the grave.

Painting on the soffit of one of the chancel arches.

The c14 rood screen survived the Reformation and is extremely fine.

The Norman West Door.

The rood screen looking towards the chancel.

Poppy Heads - from left to right :    

     - The winged bull of St Luke

     - The winged lion of St Mark

     - The Angel of St Matthew

If this were an Eagle then it would be the symbol of St John, completing images of the four evangelists but I am afraid it looks like a dragon to me!

A couple of kissing hens here!

The Kneelers

These (a very small selection) are all pretty self-explanatory, except perhaps the 1643 kneeler which records the visit of the Puritan “Enforcer”, William Dowsing, who was the scourge of many a church in the East of England. Ickelton lost its steeple crosses and most of its “idolatrous” glass.

Ickleton has a font cover that may date from c14. Note the elaborate lifting tackle!

Unusually, Ickleton has a sanctus bell. Once an important part of the Catholic mass it is a fairly rare survivor in post-Reformation Anglican churches. Sanctus bells derive their name from being rung first during the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord...”) part of the Mass.