30 April, 2016

Kilpeck Church: the South Door

The small parish church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, in Herefordshire, is justly famous for its remarkable Norman carvings.  For example, the Green Man on the right-hand capital of the south door.

Green Man, south door of Kilpeck church
Kilpeck is a small village south-west of Hereford (see map link) below.  The name is recorded as Cilpedec in the Book of Llandaff, meaning ‘the cell of Pedec’.  ‘Cell’ in this context refers to the dwelling of a Christian holy man, presumably the eponymous Pedec. Nothing further is known of Pedec.

Map link: Kilpeck

The first mention of the church is in the Book of Llandaff, written in the early twelfth century, which records that the church of Cilpedec in Erciog,  with all its lands around, was given to the Bishop of Llandaff in around 640 AD. 

Erciog, also called Erchyng or Archenfield, was an independent early medieval kingdom located in approximately what is now the southern part of Herefordshire. In Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1185, the area was still considered Welsh and subject to Welsh laws, and it remained in a Welsh church diocese (first Llandaff, later St David’s) until the nineteenth century.

Kilpeck was given by William the Conqueror to a Norman lord after the Norman Conquest, and the son of this Norman lord, called Hugh de Kilpeck, built the present church in about 1140. The exact date is unknown, but it was given to the Abbey of Gloucester in 1143 and so was presumably built before then. It presumably replaced whatever earlier building was on the site when it was given to the Bishop of Llandaff, perhaps a chapel or a hermit’s cell.

It is a small church with a chancel, nave and semi-circular apse at the east end.

Kilpeck Church from the south west

The most spectacular feature of the church is the magnificently carved south door.

South door of Kilpeck Church
The two outer columns are carved with twining snakes, each snake biting the next one’s tail.
Snakes on the south door of Kilpeck Church, right-hand column

The guidebook says the snakes might illustrate the defeat of the dragon of evil, or that they might represent the continuous cycle of life as the snake can be considered to be ‘reborn’ each year when it sheds its skin.  They remind me of the intertwining serpents in Norse/Viking jewellery. In the twelfth century the Normans were not that many generations on from the Norse adventurers led by Hrolf (also called Rolf, or Rollo) who founded the dukedom of Normandy in 911, and I wonder if they retained some of the artistic tastes of their ancestors.

The inner column on the left shows two warriors standing one above the other.  They seem to be wearing pointed caps, quilted jackets, long trousers and soft-looking shoes.

Warrior on the south door of Kilpeck Church, left-hand column
This costume does not look obviously similar to the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry, with their mail shirts and helmets with nose guards. It is not known exactly what the warrior figures represent – perhaps the equipment of the local fighting men.

The South Door is not the only example of carving at Kilpeck, which also boasts a series of astonishingly well-preserved corbels. More on the corbels in another post.

The Parish Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, 2000. Guidebook available at the church.


Constance Brewer said...

Love all the closeups of the South Door, especially of the warrior. Thanks for shooting details!

Carla said...

Constance - Glad you liked them! The warriors are rather interesting, aren't they? If they were meant to represent the local lord, I'd have expected them to be wearing mail shirts as an indicator of their status. I've read somewhere that Norse fighters in the Western Isles at around this time routinely wore quilted garments instead of armour, and that these garments would have been surprisingly effective as the quilting would spread the force of a blow. Quilted tunics worn under mail would have had the same effect. Nearly everyone would have been able to get/make a quilted garment, whereas mail was a rare item. Maybe the two warriors on the pillar represent the local warrior band.

Gabriele Campbell said...

What a lovely church. I'm very fond of those old Romanesque (Norman) churches that sometimes can be found in remote villages. We got a few of those as well.

The carvings are stunning. How did they survive almost untouched by the weather for so long?

Barbara Martin said...

The snakes intrigued me -- as they have several meanings: one, being evil, two, as representatives of medicine and healing via the rod of Asclepius (which dates back to approximately 2600 B.C. in Syria or India) or more commonly known as the caduceus.

The other informatuin you have provided, Carla, is spot on in detail. Any writer would find your posts a pondering place, as it does for me.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Good question. The guidebook says that the sandstone has developed a very hard surface patina so it's now almost impermeable to water. It doesn't say why or how this patina could have formed, though. Maybe it's a property of the specific sandstone used (the quarry is unknown); it's not a standard property of sandstone, because sandstone carvings often weather down to not much more than amorphous lumps. Some interesting chemistry going on, I would guess.

Barbara - Yes, my attention was caught by the snakes too, partly because they reminded me immediately of the twining serpents on Norse jewellery. I don't know what meaning(s) the snake was thought to have in that context; the World Serpent leaps immediately to mind. I'd guess the snake was not necessarily evil in Norse symbolism, or surely it wouldn't be so popular. Perhaps it was more of a symbol of power and strength. That might also be consistent with the caduceus meaning, if that is seen as overcoming illness and disease.
Glad you find the posts interesting! (and apologies for there being so few lately)