Cambridgeshire Churches

Barton, St Peter's

an angel in the spandrel of the rood screen

St Peter's sits hard up by the western edge of its churchyard, as if the tower is engaged in conversation with the lovely old house just over the wall. I arrived in the late afternoon having cycled from Comberton, so the west face was lit in amber-coloured light. It's a nice tower - quite tall, and an interesting shape. The staircase is in the south-west corner but there is no turret - rather, the south face is composed of two planes at a slight angle, so that the western half comes out to join the edge of the buttress, with the stair running inside the extra space created. The effect is rather odd, and you wouldn't call it elegant, but it adds character.

The porch is also good. Above the doorway is a little double window - I presume this means that there was once a parvise, although it can never have been much more than a cramped little attic. On either side of the window are two small battered niches, devoid of statues. The rest of the exterior is rendered in new stucco, and looks very Victorian. Never fear, though.

Inside, I was first surprised by how long and thin it was. This is an aisleless church - the nave is probably from the late 13th century, and the chancel has been rebuilt. Pause for a moment to admire the tower arch - it is very tall and thin and severe, the sort of sight I instinctively associate with Cistercian buildings, and not quite at home in this cosy little building.

The feature of St Peter's that really grasps the attention is its collection of wall paintings, but I'll start by describing the woodwork in the church. This is really quite fine, and the screen alone would be worth a visit. It is late 14th century - the surprisingly early attribution being because a number of shields on the eastern face have been identified as being the arms of Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely between 1374 and 1388. It's certainly one of the best screens I've seen in the county; the oak is now smooth and silvery from age, and bits of red and green paint remain both on the dado panels and on the tracery. The detail of the carving is the loveliest bit - there's an angel playing what looks like a zither in one of the central spandrels, and there are some birds on top of the arch. Also worth a look is the nave roof - it is a particularly steeply pitched A-frame construction, and the apex of each 'A' is filled with intricate carving.

the armoured man driving a very long lance at something

The wall-paintings are battered, faded and defaced, but substantial chunks still survive all around the nave. Opposite the south door, there is an image of St Michael weighing a dead soul. The Virgin Mary, wearing a very big crown, stands to the east and places her rosary in the opposite scale to weigh it down. To the west, an armoured man drives a very long lance at something, and the shadow of a horned devil lurks below the left-hand scale, presumably ready to drag the soul off to Hell if it should be found wanting.

To the west of the north doorway, below this scene, is a little portrait of St Thomas of Cantelupe. This is an example (rare in Cambridgeshire) of a local saint - St Thomas was a Barton man (though Hambleden in Buckinghamshire also claims him) who went on to be Bishop of Hereford, Chancellor of Oxford and High Chancellor of England in the mid-13th century. He died in Italy, and was canonised by Pope John XXII in 1320. Only the barest outlines of his face remain, but little villagers surround his feet, holding on to his robes.

To the east of the north door is a collection of saints. First, we have St Anthony with a pig, presumably representing the temptation of the flesh. Then we have St John holding a lamb, and St Martin of Tours on horseback dragging his cloak behind him for a leper. Beneath the level of the windows there was obviously a long frieze; the only bit that survives in a recognisable form is St Dunstan using some tongs to pinch the devil's nose.

On the south wall at the east end there is a split-level scene. The area above is so indistinct as to be unrecognisable, though the church guide suggests that it might be the Baptism of Christ. Below it, the depiction of the Marriage at Cana is easily recognisable; the face of Christ in the middle has gone, but his halo remains. Finally, around the south door we can just make out an Annunciation - the angel standing to the east has very elegant long red and orange wings, and I think the Virgin is standing to the west of it. Above them, there is another big horse - the artist obviously liked painting those - which belongs to St George. 

I'm a big fan of wall-paintings, and I liked these. Pevsner was sniffy about them ('Too defaced to be a pleasure to the eye') and Mark agreed with him, saying they were interesting but hardly beautiful. I don't agree, though. There are much better wall-paintings around, of course, even just considering southern Cambridgeshire. Try the doom painting at Great Shelford for starters, and Ickleton isn't far away, which is breathtaking. Barton isn't high art, and even by medieval English standards the paintings are rather crude. Still, there's something about the fragility of the paintings at Barton which moved me. This wasn't just education - a set of images from the Bible for an illiterate people. It was also about the people summoning the saints into their little church, packing as many holy images in as possible.

It's a practice one sees elsewhere, of course. My favourite fresco of all is the Allegory of Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico in the great Tuscan city of Siena. It was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti at about the same time as the saints at Barton, but of course no comparison is possible. Nevertheless, the purposes are intertwined. Lorenzetti's fresco is not just information or exhortation. No doubt part of its purpose was to exhort the governing council to rule justly and well, but there must also have been a magical aspect: by picturing the incarnations of Good Government so perfectly, they summoned these figures - Justice, Peace, Temperance and so on - into the chambers of power, and invoked their blessings on the city. The concerns of the merchant princes of Siena are a world away from those of the farmers of Barton, but the medieval love of holy images is there throughout - in that sense, they spoke with the same vocabulary.  [Mark adds: I've probably been spoiled by too many visits to frescoed buildings in Italy to appreciate these sad, scraped daubs as 'worthwhile art' - their value to me is, as so often with the elements that make up the english parish church, derived from their power as a witness to an alien world that has now gone forever.]

St Peter's was open when we visited

| | about us | | | | ©2009 Ben Colburn & Mark Ynys-Mon