Wednesday, 30 April 2008

St Mary Magdalene, Tortington

Tortington Church reveals itself as Norman the instant you turn into the churchyard, by the round arch of the south door and its zigzag ornament so characteristic of the 12th century.
The arch is particularly lavish in having two circles of zigzag, the outer one with curious objects looking a bit like bunches of grapes in each angle, and an outer circle of stylised flowers. It is very typical of the Norman style.
Step inside the church and another typically Norman feature is revealed. Every stone of the chancel arch has a weird and fearsome carved animal head. Birds with bulging eyes and beaks like toucans, fish-like creatures with great crests, snakes with bulgy bodies and rearing protruberances on their heads and creatures so bonkers they defy classification.
These creatures are called beakheads, and although they occur fairly frequently further north, there is only one other example in Sussex, at New Shoreham.
No-one seems to know what they represent or why they came into fashion. Some say they were the ‘signature style’ of one of the groups of Norman masons who toured the country picking up work during the building boom after the Conquest. Others claim they are derived from Nordic pagan symbols.
Perhaps they were linked in some way to the wall painting of the second coming with its inevitable gruesome scenes of sinners being dragged into hell that usually decorated the wall over the chancel arch.
The beakheads at Tortington still have small remnants of the bright colours they would have been painted originally. They must have looked truly terrifying to a congregation of country folk that had never seen the Muppets on the telly.
The plain keystone and the stone with the coat of arms were inserted in 1750 when the arch shifted and had to be repaired.
Below the arch is a brass to Roger Gratwik, lord of the manor of Tortington Cheynesse, who died in 1596. The epitaph is typical of the time, both in its preachy tone and its spelling. Even in Jacobean times, the engraver must have known about “i before e”, surely:
Behould and see a freind most deare
The Lorde hathe thaken him awaye,
Amend your lives whilst you be here
For flesh and bludd must nedes decay.