"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Kilpeck Church - Part 1: Church Exterior (Romanesque Carvings)

The church of St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire, has often been described as England's finest Norman church. The present church was built around 1140 and it is likely that a Saxon church pre-dated the current building as the first mention of a church was in AD640 in the "Book of Llandaff". It is a particularly superb example of late Romanesque work with the Norman stone carvings both inside and outside the church made by The Herefordshire School of Romanesque sculpture (this refers to a group of master masons who carved characters in the West Midlands area in the 12th century). The sculptures were inspired by The Bestiary, other parts of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean and also reflected the traditions and cultures of Kilpeck's early settlers. Themes and designs also came from pilgrims routes across Northern Europe from Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Franks and Spaniards. The carvings date from the mid 12th century and have survived due to the durability of the Old Red Sandstone they are carved from. The church consists of a Nave, Chancel and semi-circular apse.

The name Kilpeck probably derived from "kil" meaning cell of a church and "Pedicar"or "Pedonic" from a person who lived and worshipped there. The church was founded by Hugh de Kilpeck who lived in the castle not far from the church. It was originally dedicated to St David but it is likely that when the Chapel at the castle dedicated to St Mary came into disuse the saint's name was added to that of St David at the church. The church was restored in 1864 but fortunately the architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham was aware of the beauty of the Romanesque style which he retained.

When looking at the corbels and door of the church it is important to remember that the church was built at a time when everyday life was very different to today. People would have been constantly reminded of death as life expectancy was short due to famine, disease (there was little medicine available), and violence. They believed that life should be lived in a way that would ensure everlasting happiness in Heaven rather that torture in Hell. Few people could read and, therefore, visual images were the main way of getting the message across to church goers.

I had done quite a bit of research on Kilpeck church before we visited but even so I was just stunned by the beauty of all that I saw. It really is the most amazing and beautiful church.

The church and the first view of that door.

The South Door and entrance to the church where the carvings depict the battle between good and evil. It is possible the carvings were made by two different masons as those on the right are of better quality than those on the left.

The tympanum showing the tree of life surrounded above in the arch by beak heads and mythical beasts.

A closer view of the tympanum - the tree of life (first planted in the Garden of Eden) was also known as the tree of good and evil. Below the zigzag or chevron pattern probably represents water from which the tree was growing. This pattern was the Egyptian hieroglyph for water. From a religious point of view as people enter the church they are passing under the waters of baptism and are thus cleansed from the sins of the world.

A Green Man at the top of the right column. The origins of the Green Man have been lost but he appears in many cultures around the world and is a pagan figure. He is always connected with foliage and could be a fusion of man and the world of nature. He is also known as Jack in the Green, Puck and the Old man of the Woods and is particularly connected with May Day when Celts celebrated the return of summer.

Lion and Basilisk. The Bestiary calls the lion the king of the beasts - courageous, proud and independent. The Basilisk was born from the egg of a cockerel, hatched by a toad or serpent and was lethal by its glance if it saw you before you saw it. The only way to beat it was to carry a mirror and reflect its image back at itself.

Beakheads and mythical beasts around the arch.

Both the outer pillars on the left and right contain continuous interlocking serpents where each serpent holds the tail of the serpent in front of it. This continuous symbol represents eternity and is known as an Ouroborus. Other interpretations suggest the snakes represent the defeat of the dragon of evil. Additionally, the Celts believed in the spirits of nature and the importance of new life in Spring so they used the snake to represent the continuous circle of life and re-birth as the snake renewed its skin each year. The idea of snakes circling the world and devouring themselves representing life and death is a very ancient one.

As can be seen there are many different personal interpretations that can be made of the symbols and what they represent.

The two warrior figures on the left hand column are the subject of much speculation. They have been called Welsh Warriors but they wear unusual caps which could be Phyrgian, quilted jackets and trousers and what looks like a soft shoe. It has been suggested they are Saxon Warriors whereas others believe, due to the Phyrgian caps, they could be warriors from the Middle East. Could they be connected to the founder of the church when warriors frequently went on Crusades to the Holy Land? One figure carries a cross and the other a sword. Could the cross above the sword have shown that God conquers the evils of war and it has been suggested that the lower figure is pointing to the door as a way to salvation.

More interlocking snakes on the right hand column and

in the centre on the photo below can be seen the symbol of the Rainbow Man known in myths around the world. This symbol is again very ancient and today in parts of Spain it is regarded as a good luck symbol. This symbol could also remind Christians of the story of Noah's Ark where God puts a rainbow in the sky after the flood as a promise that he will never destroy the world again by floods. Below the symbol there is no pattern and thus chaos whereas above there is a pattern perhaps suggesting that even among the chaos of the world there is hope.

Looking more closely at figures in the arch above the tympanum we can see several beakheads. These were common in medieval carving around the time of Henry I and prior to that occurred in Anglo-Saxon manuscript illustration. They are said to represent the sins of the world.

A dragon's head

More serpents eating each others tails.

This time a dragon eating its tail.

A carving which may be the angel Uriel who in the Old Testament story guarded with his sword the entrance to the garden of Eden so that humans could not return after being made to leave. The scroll he carries represents wisdom. Uriel was also called the angel for the south and this is the south door to the church.

A carving of the Phoenix who was believed to live for 500 years whereupon it was consumed by a fire of wood and spices but arising from the ashes on the third day. From a religious perspective it could represent the resurrection of Jesus.

A mask head with two dragons. In The Bestiary dragons represented evil

A dragon?

A manticore which had the body of a lion, the face of a man and the tail of a scorpion. Legends suggest that its beautiful song attracted people and when they got close
the manticore would eat them with his three rows of teeth!!

The corbel table consists of around 85 corbels only a few of which are damaged. It is said some were destroyed by a Victorian lady as they offended her sense of morality. I am not sure how one which you will see below escaped her notice!

The corbel heads reflect a wide variety of imagery - Celtic designs, mythical beasts from the medieval Bestiary, warnings against sin, animals eating humans, real animals and some human heads which may possibly be based on important people living at the time. Again the imagery is meant for the majority of people in medieval times who could not read or write. There could be several interpretations for each corbel and we will never be able to understand all Kilpeck's secrets or fully comprehend what the medieval masons had in mind when making these wonderful carvings.

I think I took a photo of nearly every corbel but fear not I have only selected about a quarter to give you an idea of the various images used.

A bird possibly a Red Kite (which in The Bestiary attacks smaller birds and represent a greedy and grasping person) attacking a smaller bird possibly a sparrow.

A male human head with drilled eyes in the Celtic style.

A human head surrounded by the mane of a lion. In The Bestiary the lion is wilful and seeks freedom perhaps representing a wilful Adam fleeing from God?

A Celtic pattern showing four serpents with reed stems and leaves. Again the snakes could be representing the Devil and evil. It was once believed that if the serpent who encircled the world let go of the tail in its mouth the world would end.

A strange beast with the ears of a bear, the mane of a lion, Celtic pierced eyes surrounded by lines and protruding lips.

Possibly a pig? sticking out its tongue. In The Bestiary a wild boar would fight fiercely against an enemy - could this be a reference to Christians who have died for their faith?

A stone face at the side of a doorway.

A rosette of petals - there is a similar corbel in France at Aulnay-de-Saintonge

Another strange creature - possibly a frog with a very swollen tongue.

The head of a pig or a wild boar?

The corbel below I shall refer to as an immodest lady! I am so surprised this survived the Victorian Lady's alleged destruction!

It is The Sheela-na-gig

There are only around 45 of these in England some of the others are also in Romanesque buildings. They are seen on religious and secular buildings often above doors and windows to ward off evil. The word "Sheela" is a woman's name or an alternative word for a girl. They word "gyg" is Norse for a giantess. It is a pagan image common in Ireland and seen on pilgrim routes in Europe. The figure is said to symbolise fertility and lust and warn men of the wiles and temptations of women. There is a suggestion it was a pre-Christian fertility mother goddess and tales suggest this image was carved on stones and given to women while they were in labour in the hope that the goddess would help them have an easy birth.

A beast with Celtic pierced eye, a long nose and cat-like ears. Whatever it was eating has fallen away.

A bear with a muzzle eating two alarmed looking human heads. This corbel overlooks the site of the old medieval village where bear baiting could have occurred at fairs. Perhaps the villagers were being warned not to bet or get too close to the bear in case they ended up being eaten.

Possibly an ibex or a slaughtered stag?

The next corbel was my favourite. A Hound and Hare

In The Bestiary the dog is portrayed as intelligent and loyal to his owner. The lick of a dog can heal a wound in the same way a priest can cleanse the sinner of sins.

The hare is a timid creature and could symbolise people who put their trust in God.

A beakhead perhaps representing the sins of the world eating a human head. This again could have been a warning to people that they should not let sin consume them?

Two birds eating a serpent perhaps representing priests defeating evil.

Another scary beast with cat-like ears, a long snout, pierced eyes and pointed teeth.

Possibly a mask head - Celtic in style. In pagan times masks were used to ward off evil spirits. This carving may therefore be warding evil away from the church.

An Equus or Agnus Dei with a Maltese cross. This could be a reference to the church founder Hugh de Kilpeck who may have had links with the Knights Hospitallers and gone on the Crusades. If he did go and brought back relics they would have been placed on the church altar and this corbel is on the apse (east end) of the church.

Possibly a dolphin or a fish?

A Ram's head

A beast with pierced eyes, feline ears and a grinning mouth.

Lovers or wrestlers - perhaps again a message to villagers attending village fairs to be wary of sins of the flesh.

A pig eating a frightened looking man. Medieval fairs often had an event where people would chase a pig and whoever caught it kept it. Perhaps this corbel is warning people not to gamble as the pig may win.

An acrobat or dancer - again this could be a warning that dangers of excess can lead to temptation.

A female head

Two fish - one with scales and one smooth. Early Christians used a fish as a secret sign of their faith. There are also many references to fish in the New Testament.

A horse wearing a bridle

A bird

A male head with short hair - possibly a Norman

A male head with long hair - this may have been depicting a Saxon as Normans had short hair (see above)

A crocodile head swallowing a hydrus this is one of 3 grotesques, all crocodiles, on the west wall.

The West Window

This window is elaborately engraved with Celtic knotwork and two carvings of the Green Man. This is the most beautifully decorated exterior window of the church - perhaps because it faced the castle of the church's founder?

Victorian Bell Tower

D took a picture of me taking photos of the corbels.


As always I missed certain features! This time it was a mass dial, arrow and sword sharpening marks and I forgot to look at the nearby field where humps and bumps in the ground conceal what remains of Kilpeck medieval village.

Part 2 will include a visit to Kilpeck Castle (just to the west of the church) and a look at the interior of the church and churchyard. Sorry for all the photos and detail but as explained before I also keep this as a personal record of days out and holidays. There should be less next time!


I am indebted to the following sources for the information given above

Kilpeck Church Website

"From Big Bang to Beasties and Beyond - a Guide to Kilpeck Church for the Young and Young at Heart" written and illustrated by Diana Thomas

"The Parish Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck" by James Bailey

Also many thanks to my son for accompanying me as I know churches do not really interest him although even he was fascinated by the carvings and symbols. He especially enjoyed exploring the castle and the pub lunch!!!