We were, as always, up and out early. This time we were on a mission of hope… we hoped the church would be open, as it looked too good to miss and we were meeting the girls a few miles away that morning too.
You might have thought we’d be all churched out after the marathon on Saturday, where we had visited seven of them, but each one is an adventure… you never know what you will find. What we found in Tavistock was an open door and morning prayers in progress. Withdrawing quietly, out of respect, we went for a walk through the old town, watched the birds foraging for breakfast… then tried again. This time, we were in luck.
The church of St Eustachius is one of only two dedicated to the saint in Britain. Eustachius was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity in the second century, when he saw a vision of a crucifix lodged between a stag’s antlers. Refusing to worship the gods of Rome, he and his family were persecuted and massacred.
One of the first things you see as you enter the church is the etching of the stag on the modern glass door and an older wood carving showing the saint’s conversion.
A church may have been established on this site as early as 1193, but the first definite historical reference tells us that there was a church here by 1265. That church was not long-lived, and a new one was built by Abbot Robert Champeaux and dedicated in 1318, making the current building seven hundred years old.
There are all the usual later alterations, additions and renovations, that make these old churches pieces of living history.
Just inside the door are a fifteenth century font and an old pillar stoup, not unlike one we had seen earlier that weekend, and dating to the fourteenth century.
Above the font hangs an antique copy of Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, where the bodies of the Virgin, the Christ Child and John the Baptist are arranged in a triangular pose, with the two boys playing with the little bird.
Aside from its mastery as a piece of art, Raphael’s painting is a deceptively simple one, holding a good deal of symbolism, from showing the Virgin reading a book to the colours of her garments… and not a few mysteries such as why the Holy Mother is looking not at Jesus but at John…
There is an abundance of wood carving in the church, adorning the walls, covering the pews and creating a magnificent nineteenth century organ screen with a whole host of angels. And it is this very variety of arts and crafts that make these old churches such a delight to explore.
For us, though, convicted churchaholics it would seem after the past few years, it is the symbolism that draws us, as much as the history or the art itself. Threads we have been following for years now may be untangled at the next church… or ravelled even more tightly than before with the addition of some new theme.
It is hard to explain what can be conveyed with a raised eyebrow, or an ‘oh yes?’ when we see a motif repeated or expanded… one we may last have seen five years ago, at the other end of the country. You would have to follow the journey with us… which is one reason why it is told in our books and on our blogs.
It would take an essay to explain just why it is significant that Raphael’s Virgin looks to John, or why the stained glass depiction of St Michael by Charles Eamer Kempe jumps right out at us. The artwork and artefacts are all interesting in their own right, but the added dimension of a shared journey makes each one of them a new piece in a puzzle we may be gleefully solving for the rest of our lives.
Some things, though, are worth looking at simply in their own right, without any need for a reason. The stained glass in St Eustachius’ church is magnificent… with far too many glorious windows to include them all.
St George and St Michael are both included more than once, along with their dragons. One window is basically an examination of conscience.
There is a magnificent window by William Morris as well as the one by Kempe, and another by Clayton and Bell… all names to conjure with where stained glass is concerned.
But it is not magnificence that really holds the key to these old churches… it is the human story. You may find it in the small details that are often overlooked, like the handsewn banner of the Virgin and Child, or the stitched story of St Eustachius draped over the pulpit.
It may be no more than the names in the Roll of Honour, where the men and women who were lost to war are remembered in a book kept safe in a glass case beside fragments of medieval tiles.
You might find it in the memorial inscriptions and dedications, in the figures that grace the tombs of the wealthy, or in the wooden cross that commemorates a life poorer in gold but perhaps richer in love and joy.
Look down and the tiles and flagstones are worn by the passage of thousands of feet, look up and be caught by the puzzle of the Tinners’ Hares… three hares sharing three ears who each have two ears of their own. It is a symbol found across the globe, in many cultures and religions.
In Christian terms it is thought to represent the Trinity… while in pre-Christian terms it referred to fertility and the lunar cycle. Or so we think… the real meaning is not a certainty, and so, as with the best of symbols, we are left searching within for its meaning.
Curiously, the Book on the lectern was open at a page where it says, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen’… and that is the way to visit these old churches. Listen to the stories told by wood and stone, needle and glass… for they are all part of our own story, and it is surprising what you can learn about the present from the past.