Time travelling: Fantastic beasts and where to find them…

The reason I had long wanted to take my companion to the church at Breedon on the Hill was carved in stone. On my first ‘accidental visit’, I had been astounded by a collection of cross shafts tucked away in a corner and was texting my astonishment with one hand whilst taking photos with the other.

The stones had evidently survived from the seventh century Holy Hill Monastery that had occupied the site before it became a Priory. And there were so many fragments…

There were your standard cross shaft carvings… the kind with the so-called Celtic interlacing. Beautifully worked roundels and sinuous tracery…But it was the collection of scenes and beasts that really got me excited…

Collectively, some of them are probably classed as Anglian Beasts or something similar… which basically means that we have no idea what they are. Take the forked-tongued ‘dog’ with the serpentine tail curled into a spiral, for example. Or, are those scales on its flank and flames issuing from a dragon’s mouth?

And, if that isn’t odd enough, what about the ‘alien’ with its arms in the air and its ‘legs’ made of tortuous knotwork. It looks as if it could have wings too. Or is the figure rising from writing smoke or stylised clouds?

…while another creature has its neck stretching up as knotwork to an uncertain number of heads Yet another looks awfully like a Brontosaurus… and old these stones may be… but they are not that old…

It was almost a relief to identify Adam and Eve, on the lower panel of one of the fragments, complete with Tree and serpent. Though what story is depicted in the upper panel was anyone’s guess. It looked as if it involved someone in a fur-trimmed hoodie though…

I was bouncing with my ‘finds’ on that first visit. Just what stories were the monks telling with their stones? The carvings go back to the earliest Christian establishment here, and it looks as if the myths and tales of the pre-Christian world were still very much a part of their lives and art.

I was so excited by this church, with is gorgeous stained glass, imposing tombs and this dim little corner with its collection of stones that I failed completely to notice the others…

Set into the walls of the nave, above the arches, is the remains of a frieze. It has been dated to the time of the monastery.  As the walls of the nave are thought to date to the same Saxon monastery, these stones may have watched over the life of the church for twelve hundred years or more.

There are birds pecking at vines, four-legged creatures that could be deer…

There are people, horsemen, and patterns, all so deeply carved into the stone that they still stand out in spite of their age.

One panel has a group of very strange beasts, biting at each other. Finding this was just incredible, as it is a panel I have seen so many times in books and learned articles of Anglo-Saxon art.

And, if that was not enough, the ‘Anglian Beast’ is just feet away… looking more like a lion than anything else.

In places, you can see how the blocks were slotted into the stonework and protected from the damp with sheets of lead.

But not all of them can ever have been intended to be completely inset, as they terminate in pairs of carved heads.

The heads seem more crudely carved than the filigree of stone with its fantastic beasts, and some of these fragments may once have decorated the exterior of the church. Even so, there is a lot of detail still remaining on hair, beard and headdress.

It was incredible to find so much…so many carvings, so many stories! And the little church was far from done with its surprises.

The closer you look, the more you see. There is a medieval grave slab set into one wall. Beside it is a haloed figure standing by a cross…

Near that is a fragment of a much larger and possibly later scene… with a couple of flasks, a chest and a single leg…

Above it is a fragment of frieze with vines. There is still over sixty feet of frieze in the church. To one side is a plain-looking stone with a tiny imp peeping out from its corner. Was that part of the original design? Or was it perhaps the stone mason indulging in a moment of whimsy?

Behind the altar in the side chapel, which just happens to have a cross pattée on its cloth,  is a reredos made up of groups of saints either side of a female figure.

These are quite different from the filigree frieze. They are similar to designs in the Book of Cerne which dates to around 820 and they are thought to be twelve to thirteen hundred years old.

The female figure at the centre does not have a halo, so perhaps she represents Mary Magdalen, or one of the local saints, rather than the Virgin. Whoever she is, she is making the sign of a Byzantine blessing. Below it, you can see one of the many chevron-cut stones set int the walls, and above it an incised string course.

There is another pair of figures close by that have a more naturalistic, less stylised appearance. They look to be a man and a woman… only one of the sports a beard… and hold something that looks like a plant. I love the way their heads lean together, as if they are smiling at a shared secret.

On the rear wall of the side chapel is the Breedon Angel. Or rather, a perfect, 3D laser cut facsimile of it, the original being kept under lock and key. It is one of the finest surviving examples of Saxon art in stone. The flowing draperies and the delicate carving of the hand, raised once again in a Byzantine blessing, must give the lie to any idea of the Dark Ages being without beauty or sophistication.

This tiny church, perched on its half-eaten Neolithic hillfort, contains one of the finest collections of Saxon stones in the country… and I only found it by accident. In many ways, I am glad of that, as it still retains its inner peace. It also has some remarkable tombs in the other side chapel… and for once, I will have to write about those too…

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
This entry was posted in Ancient sites, Art, Churches, Don and Wen, dragons, History, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Time travelling: Fantastic beasts and where to find them…

  1. …’someone in a fur-trimmed hoodie’… Hmmm… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. barbtaub says:

    Wow! This is so incredible. I was particularly impressed by the figures of the male and female holding the plant—it’s amazing to look at the sheer draperies around the legs and realise this is all carved—in stone!— over a millennium ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jamie Dedes says:

    What a find. These are remarkable.


  4. This small church is a true museum of stonework, Sue. Stunning pictures. —- Suzanne


  5. Darlene says:

    I have learned so much following you around as you make these incredible discoveries. This has to be one of my favourite posts.


  6. noelleg44 says:

    The beasts are indeed fantastic! You can’t help but wonder where the carvers got their ideas…


  7. Mary Smith says:

    Fabulous and astonishing, Sue. I think the ‘bronotsaurus’ looks very much like the Loch Ness Monster.


  8. What fascinating and mysterious stonework. The insets in the walls are so amazing as is the depth of the relief carvings and the magical beasts. What a cool place to explore and research.


  9. These are beautiful. They just don’t make anything this beautiful anymore.


  10. Widdershins says:

    Love the imp! 😀


  11. blosslyn says:

    How old is the church Sue ?


  12. One gets the impression that real beings were frozen to stone here. Very mystic.


  13. Adele Marie says:

    Okay, I got very excited when I saw these carved animals. They look like the same carvings which exist in Göbekli Tepe, Turkey.

    That’s the lion one, but there is one of a more brontosaurus looking creature too. xxx


    • Sue Vincent says:

      Now, I would love to see that place! Eleven thousand years old… and we still have this unspoken idea the ancients were primitive, uncultured, and crude???

      Stylistically, the carvings are very different, but given the difference in time and distance, that is only natural. The figures, I believe, symbolise some of the qualities that humankind have always held important… and associated with whatever aspect of divinity they recognised. xxx

      Liked by 1 person

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