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.

See more from James at Stained Glass Attitudes.