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

St Andrew, Wellingham

Wellingham

Wellingham

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    St Andrew, Wellingham

We are in the quiet lanes between Dereham and Swaffham, and this is a pleasant place to come on a summer afternoon, the fat light slanting across the great velvet cushion of the graveyard, the little church a jewel set in the middle. St Andrew is a typical small parish church, similar to hundreds in Norfolk and thousands all over England. There was an extensive late 19th Century restoration which left it feeling crisp inside and out. There is no division between nave and chancel. The blind arcading inside the south wall suggests that there was once a south aisle, but curiously the entire wall was rebuilt in the 1890s. Lancet windows are probably 13th Century in origin, but again it is hard to see what is original and what those clever Victorians did.

And that would be it I suppose, were it not for one outstanding treasure, the remarkable painted dado to the early 16th Century roodscreen. At this time many churches were relying on local hands to fit out there churches, but it is hard to think that Wellingham's screen is not the work of a master craftsman, perhpas even of European significance.

As you might expect, the panels are painted with Saints, but instead of each figure being set formally against a background, each is part of a scene, as if this was a narrative. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in East Anglia. So, the court watches from the castle battlements while St George dispatches the dragon, St Michael weighs souls while the Mother of God uses her rosary to push down the balance in favour of sinners who have prayed to her, St Sebastian is punctured to excess while onlookers gaze in wonder, Christ the Man of Pity stands in his coffin surrounded by the Instruments of his Passion - though there may be more to this scene than meets the eye.

The panels on the north side are, from left to right, I: now blank, but Walter Rye in the 1870s records St Anthony of Egypt and St Roche, suggestive of invocations against a local outbreak of plague; II: St Sebastian punctured with arrows, and St Maurice with sword and lance; III: St George killing a dragon.

St Sebastian (15th Century) St Maurice (15th Century) St George kills a dragon

The panels on the south side are IV: St Michael weighing souls; V: The Image of Christ the Man of Pity; VI: now blank, but Rye notes the martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury.

St Michael weighing souls and Christ the Man of Sorrows (15th Century) St Michael Christ the Man of Pity

The Christ the Man of Pity scene is perhaps the most haunting of all, now surviving in just the top half of a panel. The risen Christ stands in his tomb surrounded by the instruments of his Passion. Ecce Homo, it says above his head, but who are the two figures? Ann Nichols suggests Herod and Pilate. However, it is likely that this image was only part of a larger scene of the Mass of St Gregory. The lost half would have featured the saint kneeling before the altar and consecrating the host as the figure of Christ appears to him. A near-identical scene appears on the sculpted reredos of 1513 in the chapel of St Saviour and St Boniface in Exeter Cathedral, Devon (thank you to Dr Helen Wilson for pointing this out to me). The devotion was popular after the 1500 Year of Jubilee, appearing in printed engravings in the 1490s and the early 16th Century, most famously by Dürer in 1511.

The St George panel is so reminiscent of the great wall painting of the same scene at Norwich St Gregory, across the county, that both were probably rendered from the same original source, probably also another engraving. But the detailing is delightful, the expressions on the watchers faces and the little dogs that wander about. And intriguingly, the spire of a church in the distance appears to be that of Norwich Cathedral.

the court looks on the dragon dies a maiden looks on

Another panel full of intriguing little details is that of St Michael weighing souls against their sins. If the sins prove to be the heavier, the souls are destined for the torments of hell, so little devils tug on the cords and hang off the cup to pull down that side of the balance, which appears to contain a large white worm. The souls in the other side of the balance, however, are helped by the Blessed Virgin who lays her rosary on the scales in answer to their prayers to her, thus pushing it lower.

Blessed Virgin intercedes as St Michael weighs souls (15th Century) souls in the balance sins in the balance

The screen was the gift of Robert Dorant and his wives, and the dedicatory inscription dates the screen at 1532, right on the very eve of the Protestant Reformation. How fresh it must have seemed, even as the time came to put away these things. Its survival under the circumstances seems remarkable.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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Wellingham dressed for harvest cui mundus moro, Christus vita

   
               
                 

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