The church in St Cleer may be dedicated to St Clarus, the missionary saint who fled to France to escape the importunate advances of an amorous noblewoman, but at first glance, that seemed to be one of the few nods that masculinity would get within its ancient walls. We did not know at the time that the village was on the Mary Line, the feminine counterpart of the St Michael ley, but we ought to have guessed, given the plethora of women that gazed at us from the stained glass, the carvings and the textiles.
Appropriately enough, it was a woman who greeted us as we entered, turning off the vacuum cleaner so that we could explore in peace, and sharing with us snippets of history and local knowledge, and directions to the holy well we wanted to visit before leaving the village.
If ever a church were to celebrate the Divine Feminine, this was how it could be done. Even the angels, which are technically genderless, looked feminine… even those that might have been intended to be male.
The church is bright and airy. Most of the windows are of largely plain glass, with inset panels depicting female saints and martyrs, accompanied by an angelic orchestra and angels bearing the symbols of sainthood and, for the Virgin Mother, the Crown of Heaven.
Some, like St Buryan, after whom a Cornish village was named, are ‘local’ saints, while others, like St Margaret of Antioch, with the dragon from whose belly she escaped, are better known. We found many of ‘our’ saints amongst those pictured, those whose names and stories crop up time and again in our research, including St Catherine with her wheel… who had been making her presence felt since our early morning ritual at the Silver Well in Cerne Abbas a few days earlier.
In the Lady Chapel, a statuette of the Holy Mother and Child is flanked by candles and the altar bears finely embroidered saints… Lucy, Agatha and Hilda of Whitby with her snakes. Behind a blue screen, you can still see the old aumbry, where the elements of Communion were kept and the piscina where any surplus holy water was given back to the stone.
The chancel floored in black and white marble… the chequerboard design common to so many temples of the Mysteries… has a more traditional window, by Clayton and Bell, showing scenes from Jesus’ life, including, appropriately enough, the raising of Jairus’ daughter. In the small lights above the main panels, we once again see the sword-wielding archangel, Michael, whose name asks a question, “who is like God?“
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