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St Mary Magdalene, Pulham Market
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Magdalene, Pulham Market
St Mary Magdalene is a big church, a town church. Externally, it is hard to see anything that is not late-medieval, and this building would look quite at home in the centre of Norwich, perhaps somewhere along St Benedict's Street. Entering into the spirit of the the thing, the Victorians treated St Mary Magdalene to an overwhelming restoration in the 1870s. They don't seem to have touched the structure much, and just about all the money, £1,800, went on internal furnishings. Pevsner quotes this amount from Kelly's Directory with one eyebrow raised, because it is about £350,000 in today's money, which is not much to pay for rebuilding an aisle or a tower, but buys an awful lot of Minton tiles and pitchpine benches at a time when, it is worth recalling, labour was very cheap.
The niches that flank the west window and door of the tower appear to have their original statues in, albeit vandalised too much to be certain. It appears to be an Annunciation scene. As at nearby Pulham St Mary, there is a grand early 16th century porch - not as ornate as the one in the sister village, and on the north side this time. A curiosity is that the large east window of the porch lights directly into the west end of the north aisle. This would seem to suggest that the porch predated the aisle, but it is so late that it is hard to think that there would have been time to build it before the Reformation set in. As we will see inside, the arcades have little to offer on the subject. Perhaps the window was an attempt to lighten what is a fairly dark interior. Today, some panels of medieval glass have been reset among frosted quarries, better than it sounds but difficult to photograph without through light.
Alnother feature that this church shares with the one at Pulham St Mary is a large sign, CHURCH OPEN, its briefness prompting a sense of anticipation, and hinting at an excitement inside. God bless the churchwardens of Pulham, I thought, and in we went.
A large, slightly anonymous interior, a town church. And then, the surprise of those arcades. The most western bay of the south side is rounded, and then it leaps away eastwards with pointed arch. The north arcade columns are fuller, with four shafts each, and may postdate the porch, or may not. A pleasing mixture, which lightens the sense of an off-the-shelf design. The font, at the west end, may help explain some of the cost, as it is a fabulously ornate Victorian piece, somewhat in the style of that at Norwich St Lawrence, with a castellated rim.
As well as the big 1870s restoration, throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, fabulous money was being spent here on glass of the highest quality. Happily, the received tradition has come down far enough for us to see much of it as artistically significant; this church is a treasurehouse of Victorian styles. The very earliest is in the east window, of 1838, in the Pre-Raphaelite style that would flower in England over the next two decades. It depicts three scenes in the life of St Mary of Magdala, an unusual subject in itself, but one which the Victorians loved for the frisson of a fallen woman that it provided. In the centre, Mary sobs at the foot of the cross; on the north side she washes the feet of Christ, a gorgeously erotic scene, and on the right she returns to the upper room to tell the disciples that the tomb is empty. The artist is Henry Halladay, the glassmakers Heaton, Butler and Bayne
The best of the rest of the glass is in the south aisle. There are two magnificent Annunciations, and the early 20th century Adoration of the Magi in the east window of the aisle is full of gorgeous bronzes and golds. The Presentation in the temple is also fine, although by now Mary has become a kitsch figure, barely drawing the eye.
I haven't yet mentioned the most striking feature of the Victorian restorations. This is the vast mural above the chancel arch, depicting the Ascension. Ordinarily, I like things like this, and applaud the decision not to whitewash them - there is a broadly contemporary and beautiful St Michael above the chancel arch at Great Moulton, just across the A140 - but the Ascension is an awkward subject. In medieval times, it was conventional to portray it as the gathering together of the Apostles, who pray and look upwards, prefiguring Pentecost; Christs feet in the clouds above would remain to remind us of the incarnational nature of the story. The Victorians prefered to show the whole body of Christ, with the Disciples marginalised. Perhaps they were uneasy with the Catholic feel of the traditional iconography. Whatever, it is hard to show a man ascending, even the Son of Man, or especially so. Should he flap his arms? Should he look downwards at his followers, or upwards at his destination? As so often, Pulham's Ascension looks like nothing so much as a robed figure trampolining, and it is better to look instead at the restored canopy of honour in the roof to the west of it, where the Victorians did a much better job of seeming convincingly medieval.
Simon Knott, March 2006
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