Saxon sculpture in Stepney

Guest post by James Alexander Cameron

St Dunstan’s, Stepney is rather a surprise in the East End of London: a medieval church sitting in an uncommonly spacious and well-kept graveyard, where you could imagine Victorian gentlemen and their ladies taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. Not much to look at from the outside: it’s a rather late medieval building, mostly 15th century, although greatly restored by the Victorians. However, inside it has a remarkable artistic survivor from before the Norman Conquest. The interior is rather foreboding and gloomy, and the kitsch 1950s stained glass by Hugh Easton certainly not to my taste (the boyish half-naked Christ in the east window is said to be modelled on the parish priest!).

The sedilia, the seats for the medieval priest and his assistants, the deacon and the subdeacon, can be seen in the south wall by the altar. These sedilia have rather interesting carving across the arch over the centre seat; a style of medieval ornament art historians call stiff-leaf, based on no specific plant. Although it has been greatly restored in the mid-19th century, it’s a clue that these sedilia are older than the rest of the church, from the mid to late 13th century. Above the door opposite the sedilia is a very battered little sculpture of the following century, the 14th. We can tell this because of the more complex pointy canopy it has over the top of the figures. It was originally part of a larger artwork: it most probably shows the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary so may have been a large stone altarpiece showing the life of the Virgin.

However, at the very end of the church behind the altar is a remarkable medieval sculpture dating back nearly a thousand years: a relief of the crucifixion perhaps carved around the year 1000. The earliest record of it is from 1793 when it was recorded over the south porch, and this placement outside may have been its original setting in the Saxon church that stood on this site, before it was moved to this more distinguished setting in the nineteenth century. We can tell it is Saxon because it is like the manuscript illustrations of that time. The figures have a rather dainty feel; note the tiny feet floating above the ground, unlike the rather more brash and weighty style of figure preferred by the conquering Normans. It is badly worn from its years outside, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to get up close to something so old, rather than see it entombed in a glass case. You can make out the delicate sorrow of the grieving St. John, and two tiny little figures either side of cross who once would have been brightly coloured to represent the sun and moon. It’s a very rare example of Saxon art surviving in London, and startling to think how many other things the artist who sculpted this must have made, and how much by him and his contemporaries has been lost.

St Dunstan’s main Sunday service is at 10am, with a weekly open morning for visitors on Thursdays 10-12. It may be open at other times around other daily services, but contact the church first. www.stdunstanstepney.com

See more from James at Stained Glass Attitudes.

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A walk in Golders Green

I did a tour in Golders Green this week, courtesy of London Transport Museum (www.ltmuseum.org)  and it was even more fascinating than I expected (thanks to the excellent guide, Mark King). Here are some highlights of the walk, which concentrated on places of worship – and food (a subject for another day):

1. Golders Green was the first suburb to owe its existence to the coming of the Tube. The Hampstead Tube opened in 1907, when the area was mostly green fields. Much of it was owned by the church and ongoing control by the church commissioners means the area has relatively few pubs.

2. The Golders Green Hippodrome was built in 1913 as a 3,000-seat music hall before being taken over by the BBC as a TV studio and convert hall. In the 1970s, acts such as Queen (their first live public recording) and AC/DC appeared there. A Grade II Listed building, the BBC moved out in 2003 and it is now a vibrant Christian prayer hall, after El Shaddai International Christian Centre bought it for £5million in 2007.

St Alban's Church, Golders Green

3. St. Alban’s Church was 100 years old last year and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu came to preach, as he was curate at the church in the 1960s. (The Nobel Prize-winner recounted how he would ask a policeman in Golders Green for directions just to hear the bobby call him: ‘Sir’.) The architect of the church was  Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who also designed the red telephone kiosk, and Bankside and Battersea power stations. It has an outside pulpit to allow the vicar to preach to overflow crowds.

Shree Swaminarayan Temple, Golders Green

4. Originally a Presbyterian Church, the Shree Swaminarayan Temple is now attended by Hindus from all over north London. Inspired by spiritual leader Jeevanpran Shree Muktajeevan Swamibapa’s  liking for bagpipe music, which he heard on a visit to London in 1970, a band was formed soon after by worshippers here. The Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band now has 50 members who dress in full Highland regalia, and play regularly – with a full repertoire of Scottish and Indian tunes – at the temple and at charity events. They are a marching band with 24 pipers and 12 drummers. You can sing along to them here:

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Golders Green Walk – London Transport Museum

Transport for London Walks

Walk London

Secret London – Golders Green