In a day and age overwhelmingly concerned with security it is rather a blessing to be able to wander into a church at any reasonable time of day and spend an hour or so exploring. Many a time have I arrived at a church to find it locked and bolted.
St Mary’s in Cerne Abbas is a ‘living church’, a building open to the public during daylight hours all year round. Built for the people of Cerne in the fourteenth century the church boasts a range of stunning historic features. The first thing one notices when walking into the church are the wall paintings above the nave. These are paintings of Biblical verses found in the 1560 Geneva Bible. Three of these verses were painted by Robert Ford in 1679. A later 1961 addition to these paintings can be identified by the fact that it displays both the date of its creation and initials of Queen Elizabeth II. Near the alter however, reside what is, certainly for me, the most exciting artworks contained within this church – medieval wall paintings.
If you turn to the left side of the altar you will find a fourteenth-century depiction of the life of St John the Baptist. The painting is, sadly, in a bad state of repair but the saint himself is still identifiable by the halo surrounding his head. Both the blue and red of the wall painting is still able to be seen, although the passing years have, understandably, dulled their shine. On the left side of the chancel there is also a circular painting outlined in red – this may be a consecration cross, a point marking where a Bishop has anointed a church as part of its consecration. Looking at these colours it is clear that during the medieval period this was a building of great colour and vibrancy. Whilst you are in this section of the church it is also worth taking in the fifteenth-century stone chancel screen that separates chancel and nave as well as the seventeenth-century pulpit on the nave side of this screen, which has been elaborately crafted from gorgeous oak.
As I took in some of the stained-glass features within the church, including parts of the East Window which some feel may have been transferred to this church from Cerne Abbey, I came across a rather different piece of medieval stained glass. On the south side of the church is a window that contains what appears to be a man with a rather odd expression. What this window is meant to depict is a lion’s head. There is a reason this lion may appear rather inaccurately drawn – if the artist had never seen a lion before, as is quite likely in this case, they may have had to turn to a variety of different sources to create an ‘idea’ of the lion, producing what now, to us, looks like a hairy man with his tongue sticking out. In any case the glass is rather a charming addition to the church, adding a touch of humour to the ecclesiastical setting.
It would make many a historian (and I’m looking particularly at my fellow medievalists here) understandably sad if I did not mention the fifteenth-century font which lies on the south side of the church near the entrance. This is an octagonal solid stone structure on perched atop a modern base. A painted cover made in 1963 sits on top of it and is said to be a feature particularly enjoyed by the late Queen Mother. One has to wonder how many hands have touched this font over the centuries. It is a feature that still strongly connects the traditions and spiritual life of the present with that of the past.
St Mary’s is a church that feels warm and welcoming. Some churches seem to exude a slightly uncomfortable or rather unwelcoming vibe for the curious explorer but this is not one of them. Instead this is a building in which you can take your time – whether you are stopping to pray or just taking in the history of the place.
Bibliography and Further Reading
‘A History of the Church’, Cerne Historical Society, (2019), https://cerneabbashistory.org/pdfdocs/Church.pdf, Accessed: 30th September 2019.
‘Parish Church of St Mary’s’, Historic England, (1956), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1323846, Accessed: 30th September 2019.
Yapp, W. Brundson, ‘Animals in Medieval Art: The Bayeux Tapestry as an Example’, Journal of Medieval History 13.1, (1987), pp.15-73.