Devon Churches - Origins, History & Development
Every church you see has its origins underground. Despite the tower pointing heavenward, heavy with bells which give the church a voice, it started in the darkness. The early Christians began by taking a meal to visit the graves of their deceased, where they prayed at their underground tombs in the Catacombs. With the acceptance by the Roman Empire of Christianity as the official state religion , the churches came out from underground and were built over the top of the graves - hence the crypt. These early shrines became decorated and elaborated upon , and sometimes combining with a previous site of pagan worship - often a holy well in Devon - they evolved over history into the buildings we find today. They are often the oldest and most centrally situated (and therefore easy to find) building of place that you might care to visit.
To visit a church is to go on a spiritual journey, but also a journey through history and time, through political and artistic development. The church itself has come on a very long journey out of the past and into the present, gathering and shedding objects of worship at different political phases in its cultural history, yet still carrying out the purpose for which it was built.
Every Devon church has its individual history, contents, appearance and atmosphere - and they vary. But in important respects all churches are alike, and therefore learning to 'read' one is to enrich the experience of visiting all or any of them. Many churches offer pamphlets or guide books of varying degrees of usefulness, which will tell you, typically, how many columns a church has, giving heights and diameters, and star the objects you are supposed to look at, giving their creators and dates. Sometimes, they offer little else.
It is the church itself which provides the underlying guide, as it shows things more or less in the order in which they present themselves, to people moving through the building, beginning with what they see when they walk into it. Churches are laid out with a certain trajectory of the soul in mind, and have not evolved randomly.
We can start at the entrance with the notice to whom the church is dedicated, and ask why. Naming a church after a saint is a custom that derives ultimately from those early churches built over martyr’s (people who died for their faith) graves, and the custom of calling churches after saints continues to this day. The saint ( or aspect of God) gives a church individuality and character, and the choice is always made for a specific reason, so that another layer of meaning is added to the building. The building remembers the inspiration given by the saint’s life, and proposes it to others.
Like reading a book, it is best to start at the beginning and work through to the end. A building covers a plot of land, and a church also has a ‘plot’ in the narrative sense, and each object and its place and position in the church is intended to have an almost theatrical effect on the viewer, a sequence in time with a deliberate orientation towards the future.
So we start by remembering the dead as we come through the graveyard, and the saint to whom the church is dedicated. One of the main purposes of a church is to help us remember that within time there is mystical experience, and this it explicitly acknowledges within the collective memory of the very fabric of the building. Absolutely nothing in it is without significance. The building deliberately intends to be a setting where spiritual knowledge is the focus of attention. Sometimes the meanings are specific and complex, for example the font, which stresses the initiatory aspect of baptism by being placed near the door, with its (usually) octagonal shape - a combination of a triangle (God) and a circle (Earth). Sometimes the meanings are more general, for example the nave - being a ship, which both stands for protection from the sea, and also for venturing out into the unknown, bearing onward the congregation , with the side aisles (or wings) to help it along. But always, at a simple yet eloquent level, churches are bigger than we are. Churches ‘orient’ us, that is,they face east, the direction of sunrise, and they invite us to embrace the movement that time imposes on our lives. Churches express time, but in terms of space, and they prepare the visitor for its final objective, which is to point to infinity.
Visiting an empty church, sitting alone in the silence, away from noise and distraction, helps to focus the individual, but at the same time it reminds one of things generally done in the company of others ; sharing a meal (altar centre stage) hearing the word of God (lectern to the right) the site of ritual group initiation (the font). One of the central tenets of Christianity is the belief that love, like mystical experience, is given to you. You can’t cause such a gift to be given, but if it does come to you, you have to respond, and a church is there to remind you, to give you a mental exercise in response.
In the past the marriage ceremony was frequently celebrated in the porch, to signify the start of a shared linear journey in time, and the ‘road’ ahead is the central aisle of the church itself, enhanced by the pillars acting as metaphorical trees. As we walk up the aisle we are presented with a view of the destination, symbolised by the apse, where the journey is completed at a higher and eternal level. The shape of the church represents the spiritual life, but also represents a human body, with the transepts as arms and the apse as the head.
Human beings are never in total control of their lives and what happens to them. Christianity suggests a life where fate, or destiny, is a life with God, which we are free to accept or walk away from, in the same way in which we are free to walk past a church, or to enter it and engage with its contents. And of course, free to interpret it as we choose. "I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was." (p.13 Barnes, Julian. Nothing to be Frightened of. Jonathan Cape,2008).
As we penetrate further into the body of the church , past the altar, we arrive at the sanctuary, the ‘sacred space’ which has a powerful aura, as it contains the sacrament - with a candle left burning to symbolise eternal life. It demands that we approach it purified, having had a ritual ‘wash’ from the holy water stoup at the church entrance. An enclosed space can act as a refuge for anyone who takes shelter inside it - hence the idea of sanctuary, which ultimately extended to encompass the entire building.
To many people Christianity means a continuing endeavour to live the implications of the life and death of Christ , and within the institutions that attempt to remember these insights there are many variations of attitude and emphasis, which are reflected vividly in the buildings they occupy, from the baroque (St. Michael’s, Exeter ) to the simple (St. Mary, Molland). But Devon churches all tend to nestle snugly in the voluptuous landscape and reflect its insularity.
Inside it is another story. Christ’s journey towards his crucifixion is commemorated in many churches by the Stations of the Cross. The fourteen ‘episodes’ are not always present, due to historical vicissitudes and changes in the expression of belief, but where they are there the pictures of each event , with spaces between, allow people to walk their own journey of spiritual accompaniment. At each picture the devotee stands still (ie., is stationary) and contemplates its meaning. During the Reformation these were often replaced by the Royal Coat of Arms and the 10 Commandments; the church was subject to political and social manipulation , and they are still to be seen in many churches today. As is the crucifix, there also to be contemplated by the congregation as an expression of the vertical aspiration of the horizontal church building.
A beautiful church which has survived times of purgation can offer varied artistic riches for the imagination, and therefore the soul. Carvings and paintings , statuary and fabrics of heavy velvet and delicate lace, lavishly or simply decorated furnishings such as a carved reredos or a painted rood screen all have their place. To walk into a church and see sunlight striking through coloured glass and dappling the opposite walls, the smell of fresh flowers and the lingering scent of incense, the silence of cold stone, the soaring columns, arches, and carving, and the memorials of the past, is a reassurance that a place has been maintained, thanks to the care of fellow human beings, ready for contact with the spiritual dimension.
Regardless of its appearance a church is worthy of respect because it is a medium of expression for both the human and the divine, and as a link between the people and the building it is an expression both of the community and its landscape. Religious art is religious before it is art, and it therefore reflects above all whatever people felt at the time to be useful on their soul’s journey. This meaning counts before skill - but happily is often married to artistic insight. Shifts over time in taste and sentiment are often exemplified by the interiors of Devon churches. So that nowadays statues with lurid bleeding hearts surmounted by halos are considered by some to be embarrassingly explicit and excessively sentimental as opposed to merely didactic. And box pews are considered to be undemocratic, redolent of social hierarchy. Today the values of the Devon church and its community are reflected in the proliferation of for example specialist areas devoted to children or missionary initiatives overseas. The interiors of some churches reflect secular as well as religious requirements, and worship today does not necessarily take the form of service to devotional high art, but pragmatism.
However many Devon churches remain true to their original conceptions, and are carefully curated, and all of them await discovery; it is up to each individual to make the visit meaningful within the terms of his or her own life.