Sunday, 13 February 2011

St James, Selham

We tend to assume that architecture changed from Anglo-Saxon to Norman the instant King Harold was killed at Hastings, but in fact the transition had already started under Edward the Confessor and would not be complete until decades after the Conquest.
Edward, who was half Norman, had adopted the Romanesque style but it only became official when William began an enormous building programme designed to overwhelm the population with a sense of the power and wealth of their new overlords. While the designers imposed the new style, much of the actual work was done by Saxon masons who were either unwilling or unable to adapt.
The period has become known as the Saxo-Norman overlap, and you can see the results perfectly at Selham's lovely little church.
The thin walls and tall, narrow proportions of the nave and chancel are typically Saxon, as is the tall, thin north doorway.
But the walls are laid in herringbone courses with a rubble core, and the cornerstones are proper quoins instead of the long-and-short work characteristic of the Saxons.
Look at the chancel arch, however, and it gets really confusing.
The arch seems to be Norman, and the capital on the north side has carved volutes that are typically Romanesque.
The capital on the south side is pure Saxon, however, carved with writhing snakes grasping their own tails in their mouths, a symbol of eternity.
The slabs of stone on top the capitals, called abaci, are similarly disparate, with Saxon plaiting on the north and stylised foliage that could be either Saxon or Norman on the south.
The top stones on which the ends of the arch rest are called imposts. The one on the north has a sophisticated moulding on the inside face, leading one authority to claim it as a Roman fragment, but is carved on the nave side with stylised foliage. The impost on the other side is carved with the head of a beast, a Viking symbol denoting the exclusion of evil from the sacred space of the chancel.
It is difficult to believe that all these crudely-carved components were carved by the same hand. Was one side done by a Norman and the other by his Saxon underling? It is also possible that a Norman mason assembled the arch from recycled Saxon stones, filling in the gaps with his own work.
Whatever the process, the result is a memorable work of art.