Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mixing Sacred and Profane

Before the “rediscovery” of the Gospel Procession in the twentieth century, and allowing for diverse and obscure old church customs when the Book of Gospels was carried around fields and up hills, the Gospel and Epistle was read in church from an ambo or lectern.  And before Georgian and Victorian church craftsmen fashioned eagles out of brass or wood, such an ambo would be of various designs and ordinarily made out of stone.  Most of these were summarily ejected from English church buildings during the Cromwellian vandalism, and it is of one of these ambos that I write today.

The church of St John the Baptist in the village of Crowle, Worcestershire, is a mishmash of architectural heritage.  Its origins are twelfth century but many alterations took place over the following three hundred years and there was a complete rebuild in the nineteenth century (which remarkably kept the earlier design and integrity.) 

On a sunny summer’s day the erstwhile Vicar of Crowle, one Edwin Crane, was walking his dog and smoking his pipe in the churchyard when he decided that the lump of stone in the overgrown corner needed to be examined.  Now I made most of that up, but it is certainly true that in 1841 the vicar arranged for the restoration and mounting of this discarded ambo.  After much cleaning it was mounted on a new pedestal of five marble columns.

This ambo dates from the thirteenth century and is carved from smooth grey limestone with various leaves, grapes and vines decorating its front and sides.  Aha!  Eucharistic symbolism?  Not at all, for a bearded figure with raised arms and grasping a lower vine invites a comparison with Bacchus.  And its gets better or worse, depending on ones appreciation of medieval history. Under the supported vine branch is an inverted lion’s head – the lion being the ancient symbol of the devil.

Modern church furnishings are so dull and boring, are they not?

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