Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Roof Bosses of Atherington

St Mary's, Atherington, Devon

The North Devon parish of Atherington is one of five parishes that I collect information about in my role as a Online Parish Clerk (OPC). An OPC is a volunteer with an interest in the genealogy and history of a parish, and collects copies of original records, indexes or transcripts relating to that parish. The OPC undertakes to make such information available to enquirers for their own personal use. For more details about the OPC project click here, or visit my website to see what I have collected about Atherington, High Bickington, Tawstock, St Giles in the Wood, and Yarnscombe.

Atherington is one of my neglected parishes. Much of the information I typically provide (lookups of baptisms, marriages, burials) is available elsewhere, either through FamilySearch or Devon Heritage. As well, despite two visits to Devon in the last four years, I have not been able to get inside the church. The first time the church was locked and there was no indication as to where a key could be found. The second time the roof was being replaced, so even the churchyard was inaccessible. This is unfortunate, since everything I've read and seen about St Mary's, Atherington suggests that the inside is definitely worth seeing.

St Mary's contains a number of effigy monuments and chest tombs. A few photographs of these (including the one to the left) were recently uploaded to Wikipedia. The effigies and chest tombs were moved to St Mary's from nearby Umberleigh when the Chapel of the Holy Trinity was demolished about 1800.

St Mary's also contains unusual crocketed bench ends, a 15th century font, as well as some medieval glass. Also noteworthy is the rood screen and loft. The elaborately carved screen and loft date from the mid 16th century and were the work of two local craftsmen. The loft also has the distinction of being the only surviving rood loft in Devon.

One of St Mary's interesting features is the large number of late medieval oak roof bosses that adorn the wagon roofs in the nave, chancel and north aisle. The carvings depict fruit, foliage, animals and men, as well as mythological creatures, including several imps. A few years ago, I was sent a collection of photographs. Here are four of the best, beginning with an imp:

This roof boss features a dragon suckling its young. The boss may be a reference to a verse from the Book of Lamentations: “Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones."

The foliate head or "green man" is a common roof boss motif in Devon churches. The green man is undoubtably of pagan origin and is commonly thought to represent fertility. Another interpretation, more in line with Christian teaching, is that the green man is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection.

Titivillus was the demon responsible for recording the idle chatter of the laity in church, to be later used as evidence for damnation. Titivillus is also the patron demon of scribes and is said to have entered the scriptoria of monasteries and caused errors in manuscripts as they were copied.

I'll be visiting North Devon again next summer, and hope that this time I'll finally have the opportunity to photograph the inside of St Mary's Atherington.

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