Wednesday, 17 February 2016

St John the Baptist, Saxmundham

Visited last week, this is not your typical Suffolk Church. Little evidence of the original  Norman or possibly Saxon church remains, much disappearing during major restoration and rebuilding in 1873 by  Diocesan architect Richard Phipson.  However the church  still contains some original items of an earlier date.

Much of the text that follows is taken from an excellent guide to the church.

The Western tower (14th century) has diagonal buttresses at its western angles. The two light belfry windows and the similar west window are in the Decorated style of the early 14th century. The restored west doorway is also of this date, although some of the masonry in the lower part of the tower is arranged differently from the rest and may have formed part of the 11th century church.

The Font c 1400 - This is a typical East Anglian design with octagonal panelled bowl carved with lions interspersed with angels holding shields on which are displayed the instruments of the Passion (East), the Cross (South), the emblem of the Trinity (West) and the three crowns of East Anglia (North). The bowl of the font is original.

The whole of the nave is crowned with a splendid 15th century single-hammerbeam arch braced roof, with castellated hammers and wooden demi-figures as corbels below the wall posts.

During the Georgian era, or perhaps before, the roof was covered in with a flat plaster ceiling. however the ceiling was removed in 1932 to reveal this splendid roof. It has been restored and the wall plates have been renewed, as have several of the other timbers. The ancient woodwork is less brown in appearance than the modern. The figures beneath the wall posts are mostly original.

The Chancel- One of the most distinctive features of St John's is its weeping chancel. (The Chancel is built at a pronounced angle to the nave.) This is fairly common in churches built in the shape of a cross (cruciform) but is very rare in a church of this type. The main feature is not the angle, which is much greater than usual, but that it is to the South.
Other churches with weeping chancels incline to the North, representing Jesus on the cross with his head towards the penitent thief on his right Here it is to his left, signifying that Jesus died for the impenitent as well as the penitent. Saxmundham church is one of the few in Europe to have this feature.

 This is believed to be part of the original Rood screen.

Perhaps the most interesting survival in the church, and a rare one, can be seen in the most easterly windows of each of the clerestories. These are the stone corbel ledges that once supported the canopy of honour over the rood. They are both carved elaborately, and the northern one is castellated.

 Sancta Johnannes, Ora Pro Nobis ('St John pray for us') is carved in a banner along that on the south side.

Outside again and one final feature of note can be found in the churchyard on the tombstone of John Noller (1725). The east and west faces of the tombstone are small, inclined oblong recesses which form a simple and imaginative sundial. Every sundial needs a pointer or gnomon projecting in front of the dial to cast a shadow on to a marked scale. Any such projection low down on a tombstone would certainly, sooner or later, be damaged. To prevent this happening, the designer of John Noller's headstone hit upon the ingenious idea of making the edge of the headstone's surface the gnomon and obtained the relative projection by recessing the dial.

As the stone faces east and west, he carved a morning dial on one side (east face) and an evening one on the other (west face). If you look in the recesses on both faces you will see the hour markings 1,2,3,4,5 on the west recess and 7,8,9,10,11 on the east recess. 12 o'clock is not marked because at the moment of noon each dial is completely in shadow.

It was  13:24 when I took the photograph.

The dials are not upright on the stone but at a slant. The upper edge which acts as the gnomon is so slanted as to point exactly to the north star, or in other words, be parallel with the earth's axis.