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Kilpeck

Dedication : St Mary & St David  Simon Jenkins: ****                                               Principal Features : Extraordinarily complete and decorative Norman church.

Amongst students of church architecture few churches are as well-known as Kilpeck. To the public, few places could be more obscure!

If any church deserves the word “extraordinary” it is Kilpeck. Once adjacent to a Benedictine monastery, it dates from about 1140AD and is little changed since. Kilpeck was gifted to the splendidly-named William fitz Norman after the Conquest and the church as we know it was commissioned by his son, Hugh. It dates from comparatively late in the Norman period and yet it is awash with the most elaborate carvings, many of a distinctly un-christian nature. Celtic, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and pagan imagery vies with Christian iconography in a riot of dragons, warriors, monsters and animals. What Hugh intended the parishioners to learn from these images we can only speculate, but we can detect everywhere imagery of life, death and re-birth.

Kilpeck was built by the “Herefordshire School” of masons and we know that they were influenced by the churches of South-West France and the pilgrimage destination of The Cathedral of St James at Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain; but none of this accounts for the imagery of Kilpeck. The excellent church booklet speculates that Hugh may have returned from the First Crusade in 1096 with holy relics that needed a suitable church to house them.

The church is a three-cell affair of nave, chancel and apse. The apse ceiling is an early example of stone vaulting with decorated ribs and a stone roof boss.

The doorway arch has three orders of decoration : a chevron moulding, followed by Norman beakheads and a third order that includes some astrological symbols. This third order is not supported by the door pillars so it is was probably added a littler later.

The incredible left door jamb. The two warrior figures are known as the “Welsh Warriors” but their origin is in fact unknown. We see a lance in the hands of the upper warrior and a double-handed sword in the one below. These serpents slither up the pillar, and tumble down on the right hand pillar.

The right hand door jamb has less dramatic carvings on the inner side, although there are two birds near the floor. The outer order, however, seems to be a similar riot of entwined serpents to its left hand counterpart. The serpents hungrily devour each others’ tails, possibly representing the devouring of evil. However, the serpent can also represent healing so this is open to question.

The tympanum is comparatively restrained by Kilpeck standards! It represents the Tree of Life.

A cockerel (?), a dragon, grotesque heads, an angel, a phoenix, masks and beakheads compete for our attention above the south door.

The left hand door capital. A basilisk (left) and lion (right) paw at each other somewhat half-heartedly - evil fighting evil.

The right hand door capital. This looks vaguely like a Green Man but, given the good versus evil theme of the rest of the doorway, such a rebirth theme seems unlikely. Is this the word of God being preached?

Looking towards the chancel and apse. A beautifully clear line of sight through two restrained Norman arches.

This extraordinary “font” is in fact a holy water stoup that would have been located outside the church. It is much older than the church and came from a chapel in the nearby Forest of Treville. It is much older than the church, possibly even pre-Saxon, a truly thrilling thought. The hands clutch a pregnant belly.

The semi-circular apse. In all too many churches the apses have been removed or replaced by rectangular chancels. Kilpeck remains intact and my photograph cannot do justice to the air of intimate sanctity of this ancient place. The domed roof was to to the early Christians a symbol of heaven. Under the centre of the chancel arch you can see the rare stone boss.

The font which is early Norman and therefore not part of the later church that we see now. The Herefordshire School specialised in highly decorative fonts so that is what we expect to see at Kilpeck instead of which we see this plain composite stone bowl devoid of all decoration! The stone is believed to have come from the Hay-on-Wye area.

The south column of the chancel arch with its carvings of saints. This layering of one figure on another is said to be inspired by the Gate of Silversmiths at Santiago de Compostella. The lowest figure is priest holding an aspergillum, or holy water sprinkler. The others are indeterminate, although on the north pillar the middel figure is St Peter holding a key. It is possible that the four largest figures on the two columns are coillectively the four evangelists.

The stone roof boss in the apse. It is not known what the four heads are meant to represent.

This figure on the West window (repeated on the other side of the window) is quite clearly a repeat of that on the South Door. Note the elaborate decoration above and below.

The west end is adorned by a series of grotesque “monsters” springing from some very celtic-looking ornamentation.

A Cornucopia of Corbels

Don’t try this at home..! One of the very few surviving “sheela-na-gig“corbels in this country. It represents “low morals”. Yep!

Ahhh! This dog and hare could be cuddly toys! The dog represents faithfulness and the hare represents “men who fear God”

These innocent-looking little birds are in fact biting a serpent.

A grotesque head with Mick Jagger lips. Could it be a fish?

A fiddle player who looks suspiciously like the sheela-na-gig’s brother also symbolises low morality. Well we all know the devil has the best tunes!

The man - we presume - on the left is groping the bottom of the - we presume - lady on the right who seems less than keen. It is hard to work out whether some of these corbels were warnings or recommendations!

I have no idea of what this lady is doing!

South Door Ornamentation

Two fish - one with scales, one without. Of course, St Peter was a fisherman and a stylised fish adorns the cars of many Christians even today.

Four dragon-heads happily devouring each others’ tails.

The sign of Pisces on the outer order of decoration. Note the cord joining their mouths. The fish swimming in opposite directions denote the good and evil in a man’s life.

A Manticore (lion with him human head). Note the scorpion-like sting in his tail.

A dragon on the left of the doorway arch.

A mask with dragons emanating from the mouth.

A Phoenix

A pair of dragons seemingly joined at the tongue!

Phoenix and Angel at the apex of the south door.