Church of St Mary and St David, Kilpeck - Architecture and Carvings

Architecture and Carvings

The carvings in the local red sandstone are remarkable for the number and fine preservation, particularly round the south door, the west window, and a row of corbels which run right around the exterior of the church under the eaves. The carvings are all original and in their original positions. They have been attributed to a Herefordshire School of stonemasons, probably local but who may have been instructed by master masons recruited in France by Oliver de Merlimond. He was steward to the Lord of Wigmore, Hugh Mortimer, who went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and, on his return, built a church with similar Romanesque carvings (now largely lost) at Shobdon, 30 miles north of Kilpeck. Hugh de Kilpeck, a relative of Earl Mortimer, employed the same builders at Kilpeck, and their work is also known at Leominster, Rowlestone and elsewhere.

The south door has double columns. The outer columns have carvings of a series of snakes, heads swallowing tails. In common with most of the other carvings, the meaning of these is unclear, but they may represent rebirth via the snake's seasonal sloughing of its skin. The inner right column shows birds in foliage; at the top of the right columns is a green man. The inner left column has two warriors who, unusually, are in loose trousers. The outer sections of the arch above the doorway show creatures which can be interpreted as a manticore and a basilisk, and various other mythical and actual birds and beasts. The semicircular tympanum depicts a tree of life.

  • An angel appears in the centre of the arch above the south door

  • Other details of the arch include serpents and dragons swallowing their tails (see Ouroboros)

  • The "green man" on the capital of the columns to the east side of the south door

For many years the south door was hidden by a wooden porch, but this was removed in 1868 to allow visitors to see the carvings as originally intended. Although this has left the doorway exposed to the elements, the sandstone is exceptionally robust, and its condition is carefully monitored. In 1968 a narrow protruding strip of lead was let into the mortar above the arch to protect the carvings from water running down the wall above.

Eighty-five corbels survive, one fewer than are illustrated by Lewis in 1842 (originally there were 91). The meaning of most is obscure, but some probably come from a bestiary, and they include a Sheela na Gig.

  • One corbel shows a hound and hare

  • Two corbels, depicting a ram and a lion

  • The famous sheela na gig

  • The carved stoup, brought from Wormbridge

Two green men appear as capitals on the richly decorated columns of the west window. In the centre of the corbel table below the window, and at each corner of the nave's west wall, are large protruding dragons' heads with coiled tongues. Each of the three mouths gapes to a different degree, rather like an animated sequence evenly spaced across the western facade. (A fourth dragon head, on the south-east corner of the nave, is broken.)

Inside the church, the chancel arch is also richly carved, though far less spectacular than the south doorway. Its carved figures are said to have been inspired by those on the "Puerta de las Platerias" at Santiago de Compostela. The ceiling boss or keystone of the apse depicts four lions' heads. There is a massive baptismal font of polished conglomerate, a curious holy water stoup, shaped like a fat, tightly girdled torso (brought from a chapel near Wormbridge), and a rare Romanesque font-stopper.

A very simple belfry now rises from the roof; although its design is in keeping with that of the rest of the church, it is a 19th-century addition. Elsewhere too, the restoration and necessary modernization of the church have conserved it well.

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