Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Michael, Irstead

Irstead, remote by the water

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A modern St Michael in a bit of a tangle From the south-east Notable name in the graveyard

    St Michael, Irstead

This is a secretive place, at the end of narrow lanes that twist down from Barton Turf and Neatishead. They peter out here beside the Broad, and the little church sits in a tight, neat graveyard above the road. An excellent modern image of the patron Saint is finding his dragon a bit of a handful in the niche above the entrance. The pretty thatching is not that unusual, but rather delightfully it is visible from inside as well. A small south aisle sits snugly beside the narrow nave, and all in all it is like a child's rustic model of one of the larger churches hereabouts.

It has a number of features of outstanding interest, perhaps the greatest of which is the font. I've never seen another one quite like it. The panel facing east depicts the head of Christ in Majesty, on a patterned background. Mortlock thought another panel showed the same subject, but in fact I think this is the head of St John the Baptist, prepared on a platter for Salome. Both retain traces of original colour. On another panel, the hand of God offers a scroll, presumably of the Law, while a fourth has very curious, dovelike shapes coming together to form something which may or may not be a green man.

Font: Christ in Majesty (E) Font: very curious (SE) Font: St John the Baptist's head on a platter (S) Font: the Hand of God (W) The font, handsome on its pedestal

The screen is also extremely curious. I have never seen paintings quite in this style before, or in such an arrangement. They are painted directly onto boards, three Apostles each to a set of four boards. There is no tracery around them, and if the frame in which they are set was a roodscreen at all originally is not completely certain. Indeed, the stalls beyond are directly built into them, and I wondered if the boards were actually the backs of the stalls. The tall figures are painted in an apparently late Victorian approximation of the 15th century, but here is the most curious thing: the Saints have all had their faces scratched out. Now, there are a number of possibilities. Perhaps all has been repainted but the faces, though I don't think so. Or, this is evidence of extremely late iconoclasm, which is hardly credible. I wondered if some Victorian ritualist had painted them and then deliberately scratched out the faces to make them look old. Very odd.

Screen: north range Screen: south range
St James the Less (I), St Matthew (II), St James (III) Screen: St John (IV), St Andrew (V) Screen: St Andrew (V), St Peter (VI) Screen: St Jude (VII), St Bartholomew (VIII), St Simon (IX)

On the north wall there is a rather alarming St Christopher who positively dwarfs the rest of this tiny church, and there are a couple of roundels of good European glass in the chancel, one depicting the Last Supper. Strange too are the little niches on the ends of some of the benches. Perhaps they once held images, although they are very narrow. But one of them is carved as if with the doors to the niche closed. I began to wonder if someone, somewhere, was enjoying a joke at our expense.

Before leaving, look at the door. The iron handle and boss, and possibly the door itself, are among the oldest things here.

Simon Knott, September 2004

You can also read: an introduction to amazing screens


The pretty south arcade and mini-aisle Irstead's singular font Wall painting: St Christopher Wall painting: St Christopher (detail)
Looking east European glass: the last supper European glass: female head Looking west Rood group in the former north doorway
Dog and ball Niche panel in a bench end Closed doors in a bench end Looking west Ancient ironwork Charles Horner, Madras, 1811

an introduction to amazing screens

Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk