Returning to the church of St John the Baptist in Strensham. Above the font at the west end of the church is a wooden gallery. Nothing too unusual about that, although it is probably that the wood was originally used as a rood screen and moved at some point in the 19th century to support the tiny single manual pipe organ. (Originally an harmonium but refitted with 20th century electricity, I wonder if it’s ever played these days.) No, it’s what the wood frame contains that is breathtaking. A series of twenty-three painted panels depicting Christ in the centre (naturally) flanked with apostles, saints and clergy (well, senior clergy.) The original images can be dated to the 15th century, but the paint has been repaired and reapplied at least once since then. This fact has sent many a history purist into fits of apoplexy, but to be honest that’s exactly what church decorators did a thousand years ago so why kick up a fuss today? Like that expressed in the Birmingham Archeological Society report of 1875:
“…To the great disgust of everyone it was found that an artist, who had been painting a portrait in the neighborhood, had been so much interested in the unique series of well-preserved paintings, that he volunteered to touch them up generally and restore them. This had been done and the pictures as works of the fifteenth century rendered absolutely useless. If the zealous artist had been present, and his absence was very much regretted, he would have had a very bad half an hour.”
A very bad half an hour? Such veiled threats from the Birmingham Archeological Society are not to be treated lightly!
Most of the images can be identified – and as nearly all have their traditional emblems the job is made even easier. Moving from south to north, that is left to right, we see:
An archbishop with pallium (ecclesiastical poncho) and cross.
St John the Baptist (well he is the patron) with lamb, book and knobbed cross.
St Blaise (ehem, cough) with wool, comb and staff. The patron saint of woolcombers.
St Edmund with arrow (what shot him.)
An archbishop again.
An unidentified saint. Possible St James the Less, or St Simon the Zealot.
St Phillip with a tall cross.
St Thomas with a carpenter’s square.
St Andrew with a cross. (No, not a saltire.)
St John the Evangelist with a quill, and a chalice out of which a demon is emerging!
St Peter with, yes, the keys.
St Paul with a sword.
St James the Great with a pilgrims staff, hat and badge.
St Bartholemew with a flaying knife. The patron saint of tanners.
St Jude with an oar.
A saint with a book. Possibly St Matthew.
St Matthias with halberd (a two handed pole weapon.)
An archbishop. They came in threes.
St Erasmus with a windlass. A patron saint of sailors.
St Laurence of Rome with a gridiron. The patron saint of cooks, I kid you not.
St Stephen with stones (what killed him.)
St Anthony the Great with a pig, on account of the legend that he was once a swineherd.
After a very good half an hour scribbling down notes I left this line of holy images and emerged, blinking, into the daylight. The sun was still shining, birds were singing, the motorway traffic still roared in the distance, and the farmer was driving his tractor back up the field again. Locking the door I returned the key to its hook, wondering who would be the next person to take it. The farmer had climbed down and was walking towards the fence. I thanked him for his help and told him how much I had enjoyed my time in the parish church. He nodded appreciatively, and told me that he, as churchwarden, had been the last person to lock the doors and leave – in August 1991. The parish may have gone, but the people are still there. Except the Russells, of course.