After tentatively asking permission, we were finally inside the church at Ogbourne St Andrew. We never know what to expect from these places when we visit for the first time, preferring to look first and research later. If you know all the things the books say you ‘ought’ to look for, your eye is automatically focused on those features and you have no idea what else you might miss. Of course, the downside to that is that there is an awful lot to see… and, not knowing, to miss.
Over the past couple of years we have evolved a systematic approach to our visits to ancient buildings and sacred sites, at least where the camera is concerned. It allows us to see and note pretty much everything… even if we don’t always realise till later when we go through the photographs and marry them to subsequent research. With the old churches, we have learned to know a sedilia from a piscina and can pick a Norman arch from a Gothic. We can even recognise some of the designers of stained glass. But those are details, mere knowledge, absorbed as we looked… and only the least part the story, providing no more than context for our real quest.
It is not the architectural history, nor even the artistry of the churches that caught our interest. It is the human story of our own history… and the hidden language of symbols that permeate every surface, from the carved capitals of the pillars, through the stained glass, to the wall paintings and stone. It is a visual language that we have forgotten, lost to the tide of education that allowed folk to read for themselves, lost when the liturgical services left Latin behind and stories no longer needed to be painted on the walls for the uneducated, buried deeper still by the encroaching wave of accessible media, from the first printed books to TV and computers.
We still live in a world where visual symbols speak their wordless language, of course, but just as Old English has evolved and much of its vocabulary has become indecipherable to modern ears, so too has the complex, visual lexicon fallen into desuetude. Everything from colour to juxtaposition had meaning, once upon a time and though we may not always be able to decipher the original message, contemplating the symbols opens new doorways into understanding, shedding light on questions that are as old as the hills and illuminating the dusty corners of stale dogma where acceptance has become a habit and we have ceased to look and question, seeing only what we expect to see.
The little church we had entered, however, was not going to get our usual attention. We prefer to have the place to ourselves, unless we are blessed with meeting one of the locals who love the church and wish to share both its history and their own warmth for a while.The ladies cleaning the place were busy and we felt our presence an intrusion. Our visit was in the nature of a raid… a quick once over, lots of photographs and we could always come back if we needed to… It happens sometimes.
Even so, perhaps especially so, we needed to look and take note of details. The place had been built in the 1100s and there were carved capitals and terminals from that time. A later piscina, a small drain in the wall where excess holy water would be poured to keep it within the body of the church, had been fashioned from an earlier capital. A selection of 17thC monuments merited a glance; the one for William Goddard and his wife illustrating just one small facet of that forgotten language… some of their children in the lower frieze are holding skulls to symbolise their premature deaths.
There was only one stained glass window of note, showing personifications of Strength, Temperence, blind Justice and Wisdom. But the altar cloth was a perfect illustration of how we look without seeing… a modern floral embroidery at first glance, overlooked by many, yet which ctually held three symbols very much on our minds; a bird, a hart and a rather green lion…