Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton
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St Helen, Ranworth
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Ranworth was our first port of call on a tour of about twenty local churches, and I know Tom was a bit concerned it would cast all the others into its shadow. And there is much about Ranworth to be impressed by, not least, to me, a veteran of some thousand East Anglian churches, its very warm welcome. This is a church that knows its business, and its business is being the body of Christ on Earth, welcoming the stranger and pilgrim in its midst. I had rarely seen a church so militantly open, even to the extent of having an adjacent stable block converted into tea rooms. They are also very trusting in allowing any one who wants to to go up to the top of the tower, which we will come back to in a moment. This is open church government at its best.
The building is a grand one, sitting (to my eyes) in hedgerowed Norfolk fields; it was only from the tower that I saw quite how close to the Broads it is. Boats tie up at a staithe below the church, and the constant stream of visitors, many wearing life jackets, are a result of this proximity. They enter a typical East Anglian medieval church, only the clerestory missing that might knock its grandness into magnificence.
The treasures of St Helen are very well-known, so I will not attempt to surprise you with them. Two are virtually unique, the third the finest of its kind. The first of them sits just inside the door, the Ranworth Antiphoner, a large singing book now in a bullet-proof glass case. This illuminated manuscript was produced at Langley Abbey, and used in this church before the Reformation, and then disappeared for three hundred years. In the 1850s, it was discovered in the collection of the merchant banker Henry Huth, but it was not until its sale in 1912 that it was recognised as coming from Ranworth originally. By one of those miracles that sometimes happens at the right time, it was bought and returned here. Tom tells me that for many years it was kept in a room on the tower stairs.
Secondly, in the middle of the nave is the splendid Cantor's desk. This was used for reading the Gospel, and is unusual in having two ledges, one facing east, the other west. It may originally have been in the rood loft. The eastern side has an image of St John's evangelistic symbol and the opening line of his Gospel in Latin; the west face has, apparently pasted on, a fifteenth century versicle form of the Gloria. It is quite extraordinary; I saw something similar in a Greek Orthodox monastery on Symi a few weeks later.
Behind it stands the greatest Rood screen in East Anglia. It stretches right across the church, aisles and nave, being built out to form grand reredoses to the aisle chapels. The middle range features the twelve apostles; the south aisle chapel range three Marys and a tremendous St Margaret, the north aisle chapel range St Etheldreda, St Agnes, St John the Baptist and St Barbara. You can see all the panels below.
The north part of the screen is rather curious; the third panel, St John the Baptist, has clearly never been finished; the outlines were never filled in. But the screen was constructed a whole century before the Reformation, so why is this? In addition, St Agnes has been crudely converted into St John the Baptist; she has been given a beard, and her lamb has had a flag on a pole added to it. There was a chapel here dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the obvious conclusion is that the third panel was blocked at some time (but by what?) and the second panel had to serve as the chapel patron.
Finally, we come to the best, and most famous parts of the screen, the sides of the chapel reredoses which face into the nave. On the north side, Bishop St Felix and Martyr St Stephen are joined by one of the great medieval art survivals of the 15th century, St George. Similarly opposite, Archbishop St Thomas of Canterbury and Martyr St Lawrence are joined by a glorious St Michael. The three dragon killers are probably the best single painted 15th century panels in East Anglia.
Who is missing? By rights, the four Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome should be here - they seem to have been mandatory in east Norfolk. But the Ranworth screen, despite its splendour, is still incomplete; as explored on the introduction to this church, The entire rood and roodloft has been lost; what we see now is merely the bottom two thirds of the original. Probably, the rood loft also had painted panels. Probably, the four Doctors were among them. I wondered who else there was.
The east side of the screen is also painted, Tudor roses on red to the north, on green to the south. There are misericord seats, mostly modern but a few medieval - but they paled into insignificance against everything else I had seen. Sated, barely noticing how primitive and plain the font was, I climbed the stairway and ladders up through the belfry onto the top of the tower, the fresh air clearing my head at the top.
It would seem churlish to observe that this wonderful place is rather lacking in atmosphere, because this is no doubt a result of the steady stream of visitors that it is fully entitled to and is to be complimented on. The best English churches are folk museums as well as living faith communities. St Helen is clearly among the best examples of both.
Simon Knott, September 2004
You can also read: an introduction to amazing screens
an introduction to amazing screens
Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton
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