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Rock

Dedication : St Peter & St Paul  Simon Jenkins: **                                                       Principal Features : Norman carvings of Herefordshire school. 

Rock, near Kidderminster, is a fine church of Norman origin which holds some of the best remaining examples of the Herefordshire school of carving. It was built around 1150 by Roger de Tosny, the grandson of Ralph of Normandy who was standard-bearer to William the Conqueror at Hastings.

The nave and chancel are Norman but the south aisle and tower date from 1510. Restorations were carried out in 1861, 1881 and early in c20. The construction is of stone blocks (“ashlar”).

The nave is punctuated by double window spaces. Of each pair, one is a window and the other “blind”. This unique configuration is purely decorative, although its attractiveness is at best open to question!

The north doorway is the principal one. Rather disappointingly, the tympanum is plain, possibly originally painted. There are several orders of decoration, but no beakheads, zodiac symbols or the like. The capitals have grotesque masks. There was probably a Norman south door as well, but all that remains are various decorative items incorporated into the body of the church.

It is the chancel arches that are the real glory of this church. The capitals are adorned with fantastic figures from legend and the “Bestiary” of the time.

The font too is c12 Norman with attractive stylised “flower petal” motifs. It

is very different from other fonts of the Herefordshire school found in places like Eardisley and Chaddesley Corbett which are adorned with fantastic carvings.

There are some interesting furnishings: a whipping post and stocks made by a local blacksmith in around 1773 and a pre-Reformation oak “St Peter’s Pence” chest.

Finally, the stone slab now mounted for use as an altar in the Lady Chapel was found under the nave during restoration and is believed to possibly be of Saxon origin.

One of the elaborate double window openings, complete with supporting decorative columns. Note also the somewhat weathered Norman corbel table above.

The decorative courses around the north doorway. Note the rather unusual “saltire” course second from the bottom.

The north doorway is an elaborate one. However, north doors are rarely as decorative as their south counterparts so we perhaps have reason to mourn the loss of the south door at Rock! The “mask” capital can be seen upper right, and detail of the supporting decoration lower right.

Looking east towards the chancel and its elaborate arch.

Looking towards the west end. Norman windows can be discerned on the north wall, but to the south we see the arcade of the c16 aisle.

On the south chancel capital we have a human face sporting a magnificent goatee beard! Behind him is a lion (recognisable really only by his apology for a mane!) who looks over his shoulder and bites his own enormous tail that has curled under his body.

To the left we can see stag. He is leaping over the body of a centaur draped around the corner of the capital. To the right is a strange “exhibitionist” figure, a little reminiscent (but no more) of the sheela-na-gig at Kilpeck. His hands and legs are those of a contortionist. Note the elaborate decoration to the right and above these motifs.

By contrast, on the north side we have intertwined decorative devices, rather than the fantastic figures of the south. They are no less fine, however, and note the head in harness peeping out. A horse? A bear?

Between the bearded man and the contortionist can be seen a Sagittarius figure - see photo right.

The eastern capital has a ship with turned-back animal heads at each prow. Inside are seven human heads with some heads and arms also visible. This is believed to be the sea monster “Aspido” from the Bestiary. he creature lay dormant until unwitting sailors landed and made camp on his back. When a fire was lit he awoke and dragged the ship beneath the waves. The cross gives us the clue that this is allegorical: those that trust in the devil and his wiles will be dragged below to the fires of hell.

The centaur figure (see above) with the stag jumping over his back.

The Norman font with its stylised decoration.

The supposed Saxon altar table in the Lady Chapel and upon which several consecration crosses (particularly on the leading edge) can be discerned.

The bases of the chancel arch are also decorated.

The Peter’s Pence chest.

Even the interiors of the nave windows are supported by columns.

Footnote - The Pecking Bird

In the Lady Chapel is this memorial slab to Richard Smith, last of the Carthusian rectors.

The whipping post, last used in 1860.

Footnote 2

To the left of the centaur figure on the chancel arch (see above) is this image of a bird pecking at - or possibly, in my view, preening - the head of a smaller bird.

This is a motif that seems to be unique to the Herefordshire school of cavers and can be seen on the tympanum at Pipe Aston, St Giles Church and on the door capitals of Ribbesford, St Leonard Church on these pages and elsewhere in the Herefordshire Norman churches. This one at Rock is unusual in that there is yet a third bird below the recipient of the pecking.

Nobody definitively knows the meaning of this. Pelicans appear a lot in church iconography because of their alleged habit of pecking their own

As we were leaving we saw this (Dutch!) gentleman walking down the path and we exchanged some words about the church. It turned out that he was there to adjust the clock and he very kindly allowed me to accompany him up the tower!

breasts in order to feed their young with their blood, but this does not to apply here.

There is a variation where the pelican revives its young by spraying it with its own blood - an obvious allegory with Christ’s sacrifice. This seems to me to be a possible explanation of this Herefordshire School imagery.