Blackbird, crows, a ram: St Hilary’s church decorations

St Hilary's churchA couple of years ago I posted about the memoirs of Fr Bernard Walke, the innovative and much-loved (by most; there were some dissenters) Anglo-Catholic priest in charge of St Hilary’s church 1913-36 (link HERE). My friends, the owners of the elegant cats, recommended a visit to the church, especially because of this connection with its warm-hearted, slightly eccentric priest, and the numerous artworks that decorate the interior – donated by friends of Annie Walke, Bernard’s artist wife, and an associate of the nearby Newlyn school of artists. They include pieces by Annie Walke herself (a striking portrait of an armoured Joan of Arc), Roger Fry, Dod and Ernest Procter and Harold Knight.

We went on a blustery day last weekend. The church is tucked away down a lane at the edge of the tiny village of St Hilary, a few miles outside of Penzance. It’s a rural, sparsely populated district, fairly bleak and largely agricultural. The copper and tin mining industry that used to thrive here, and which Fr Walke tried in vain to revive during his time in the parish, has long gone, and much of the working population moved on with it.

A chap we met in the church was visiting from London. He told us that he’d been born and brought up in the village, and although a Catholic he used to attend services in the church sometimes (after Fr Walke’s time). He said the locals were very poor in his day – most didn’t have running water. Now, he added ruefully, the place had become gentrified, and in his view had lost much of its gritty character.

The church is set in the highest point of the swelling land between the Marazion and St Ives, where the peninsula of Cornwall is only a few miles wide. It’s thought that there would have been a Roman fort on the site originally, then various early medieval churches, possibly with other dedications. I’ll comment on the dedication to St Hilary of Poitiers in a later post.

Apparently the 13C spire can be seen from both coasts. It’s rumoured that the port of St Ives is said to have paid to whitewash it, to act as a navigation and orientation point for sailors. The paint is no longer there.

The spire and tower are the only surviving parts of the last of the two or more medieval structures. It burnt down in a disastrous fire in 1853. The rebuilding used much of the original stone material in the two following years.

Joan Manning-Saunders nativity scene

This appears to be a nativity scene, with fairly conventional setting – except for the very Cornish-looking engine house in the distance

There are too many pictures that I took of the paintings that decorate the interior for one post; let’s start with the pictures on the parclose screen in the Lady Chapel, in the NE end beside the altar. These vibrantly coloured panels were painted by the remarkably precocious 12-year-old Joan Manning-Saunders (1913-2002).

She was living at Sennen

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 2

This seems to be the shepherds being told by an angel of the nativity – unperturbed by the frisky sea serpent below.

Cove, a few miles west of St Ives, near Land’s End, when Fr Walke commissioned her to paint this sequence of panels – I think they’re watercolours. They’re scenes from the New Testament, but with her own idiosyncratic interpretations.

A couple of years later, when she was just 14, she became the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London, a feat she repeated the following year. She became famous over the next few years as

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 3

This seems to be a rather hallucinatory annunciation; the young woman (Mary?) seems to be having a picnic with a Cornish pasty and half-finished bottle of red wine. A goat admires the languidly stretching leopard floating over a tree. Lions lie down with lambs.

a youthful prodigy, but her career faded in her later life.

So what’s a ‘parclose screen’? They’re designed to screen a chantry or side chapel from public areas of the church like the nave or chancel (the space around the altar at the east end of the church). Such screens are often richly carved and decorated to allow for light to enter and to enable some sight of the altar during eucharist or mass.

I’ll end this first post with the three painted wooden panels around the pulpit (by Ernest Procter?). There’s St Mawes (Maudez or St Mawes with ramModez in Breton, where he founded houses and was said to be a bishop, and where he’s better known.) Cornish tradition has it that this 5C saint established his hermitage in the small coastal town opposite Falmouth that bears his name. He was possibly a monk and missionary from Wales, founder of monasteries in Cornwall and Britanny. I’ve been unable to find a source for the iconography in this portrait, which depicts the ram that he employed to carry his prayerbook. I suspect this and other unusual iconographical features in other pictures in this church simply reflect the taste and imagination of the artists.

St Kevin with birds' nests

St Kevin seems to have a bird’s nest in each hand here! Inquisitive rabbits look on from their burrows.

St Kevin (Coemgen) was the 6-7C hermit, founder and abbot of the monastery at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The most famous and charming of the many legends about him is depicted here: he prayed for such a long time in the ancient orans prayer posture (arms outstretched, palms upwards) seen in the painting that a bird (usually portrayed as a blackbird) built a nest in his hands. When he realised what was happening he chose not to move as this would disturb the bird. After it laid an egg Kevin waited until it hatched, and the baby bird had fledged. In another legend he’s said to have fed the members of his monastic community on the salmon brought to him by an industrious otter. I posted long ago about another helpful otter in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (link HERE).

There are many such legends of (especially Irish) saints that serve to show the affinity between saints and the natural world. I recall first reading about this many years ago (before my academic research into medieval hagiography) in a delightful book intended originally for children by the wonderful Helen Waddell: Beasts and Saints, a collection first published in 1934 of her translations from the legends in their original Latin.

St Neot admonishing crowsSt Neot is shown admonishing hungry crows: don’t eat the seedcorn sown on the ground. His dates are unknown but he’s said to have a Glastonbury monk who became a hermit on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, where he founded a small monastery; a village there bears his name. The legend of King Arthur burning the cakes originally appeared in a Latin life of Neot.

Once again I’ve not found the source of this legend of the crows (it might have been borrowed from another saint’s life; it reminds me of the scene early in Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, when young Jude is too soft-hearted to scare off the crows feeding on the seeds of the farmer who employed him to do so – rather the opposite message than the one in this picture). Better known is the legend of the wild stags which came and offered their services to him when his oxen were stolen by thieves (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The stag often features in the iconography of Neot.

More next time. I’m indebted for some of the detail here to the church guide, which includes notes by Dr Hugh Hynes on the paintings and decorations.

 

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8 thoughts on “Blackbird, crows, a ram: St Hilary’s church decorations

  1. So interesting, Simon, and as I’ve said before you’re so lucky to live in such a lovely part of the world. Plus you have defintely introduced me to New Things – I have neer come across a parclose screen before!!!

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