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St Mary, Sparham
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St Mary is one of the churches in the Norwich to Fakenham corridor: five miles either side of the busy road are some of Norfolk's finest churches. If Sparham was in a different county, its church would probably be much better known.
It is a big church, and in many ways a typical East Anglian church with its great perpendicular tower and nave with aisles and clerestory. However, the chancel is rather curious, a long, low Early English affair, despite the later east window. The window above the chancel arch in the east end of the nave, which backlit the rood, has space to be enormous.
And there are other curiosities to the construction, which are immediately obvious as soon as you step inside -which you will be able to do, because Sparham is one of the many polite and welcoming parishes in this area which open up their churches to strangers, visitors and pilgrims every day. The arches of the arcades, for example, widen as they stride westwards, and the tower is buttressed on the inside. Mortlock, a writer whose judgement is usually sound on such matters, suggests that the tower was built free-standing. I think it more likely that the extension of the nave westwards was commenced while an older tower was in existence, but not completed before the new tower was begun. At this point, a judgement had to be made about the arcades, perhaps not without some confusion.
At the east end of the arcade, there is another curiosity - the outlines of two windows. These must have been there before the clerestory was added, to light the rood. There is something similar not far off at Stibbard, where the window is still open, but now only into the adjoining aisle.
Sparham's great treasure is the surviving dado of the rood screen, now unfortunately placed against the wall of the north aisle. It is probably of the 1480s, and fairly familiar in terms of its construction. What would have been the north side has two empty panels, but the other two depict St Thomas of Canterbury and St Walstan, two Saints most actively proscribed at the time of the Reformation. Each in his way signified a form of rebellion.
But it is the southern half of the dado which is what makes the screen famous. It depicts two scenes from a Dance of Death. Taking up the place of the first two panels is a skeleton in a shroud, pointing to a font and saying in Latin I should have been as though I had not been born, I should have been carried from the womb to the grave. On the adjoining space, a female skeleton offers a male skeleton a flower, and the Latin inscription reads Man that is born of woman hath but a few days and is full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and is cut down. These quotes are, of course, from the Book of Job, and the magnificent grisly scenes are parodies of two of the sacraments. The figures are pretty breathtaking, I think, quite unlike anything else on a screen in East Anglia. Curiously, they have had their eyes gouged out by Anglican reformers in exactly the same way as happened to images of Saints, and this only adds to their hideousness.
Sparham was, and is, a church in the Anglo-catholic tradition, as you can tell from the rood and the statues. The altar frontal was startlingly beautiful on the day I visited, and I only wish it was possible to photograph embroidery and bring out the best in it. The image of the angel below will give you an idea.
In the days when this really was a Catholic church, William Mustarder was one of its Priests. He died in 1490, which would put him in the right time frame for being responsible for commissioning the screen paintings. His brass figure survives not far from them, and he is wearing one of those high mass vestment collars typical of the pre-Reformation Church.
Simon Knott, September 2006
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