X

St Stephen, Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire

Download as PDF

Feature Sets (4)

Description

Moreton Valence is a village 6 miles SW of Gloucester. St Stephen’s church stands in a secluded position located just off the A38 and about a mile east of the River Severn. It is a parish church comprising a C12th nave and chancel with the additions of a C15th-century west tower and a late C15th or early C16th south aisle. The most important Romanesque survivals are the north nave doorway, which features an elaborately-sculpted tympanum, and the chancel arch.

History

According to the DB, Moreton Valence belonged to the Whitstone hundred and was held by Durand of Gloucester. The inhabitants of the manor are listed as 4 villagers, 6 smallholders and 4 slaves. There is no record of a church or priest at this time. By the early C12th the manor had been tenanted to the Parvus family and the stone church appears to have been built during their tenancy. A charter, datable between 1148 and 1154, details that Moreton Valence church, along with Whaddon church, was granted to Hereford Cathedral by Roger Parvus after his brother, William Parvus, became a canon at the cathedral (Capes, 1908: 12; Walker, 1960: 203–4).

Immediately north of the church is a moated site, believed to be the vestiges of a hall built by William de Valence in the mid-13th century (Elrington et al., 1972: 208–13; National Heritage List for England, no. 1016767).

Features

Exterior Features

Doorways

North nave doorway

The doorway is of two orders with an enriched tympanum and lintel.

Dimensions
Depth of doorway 0.155 m
Height of opening 1.96 m
Height of tympanum 0.55 m
Thickness of tympanum 0.09 m
Width of opening 1.09 m
Width of tympanum 1.11 m
1st order

Depicted on the tympanum are two confronted figures: a winged angel battling a dragon. The seraph presumably represents Archangel Michael who is shown with a nimbus and long rope-like hair that is partially concealed by a round helmet. His robes are long and ribbed, while both wings are fluted and terminate in lower volutes. It is a dynamic composition with Michael striding to the right holding a lance horizontally in his right hand and a conical shield in his left. With his lance he pierces the dragon through the mouth.

The dragon has a pair of smaller wings carved in the same style as those belonging to Michael, and its serpentine head is twisted towards the archangel while its body is orientated in the opposite direction. Its lower body terminates in a trefoil and its front paws grip a towering cluster of foliage.  To the left of Michael are five raised circular shapes which may be the weathered remnants of five figures (see 'Comments/Opinions' below).

The tympanum and lintel are carved from the same stone, and the latter is carved with a horizontal band of saw-tooth sandwiched between two horizontal bands of scale pattern. Nine plain voussoirs of various sizes surround the tympanum and form the first order of the arch

2nd order

The second order of the arch comprises eighteen voussoirs, again of various sizes, each with a roll moulding and outer quirk. These are supported by a pair of nook shafts. Neither nook shaft has a moulded base, but each is surmounted by a cushion capital that has a large horizontal incision on the inner face nearest the doorway and a necking, and above the capital a chamfered impost with a quirk. The voussoirs that form the label are decorated with roll mouldings accentuated by quirks.

Windows

North chancel window

A simple round-headed opening with remnants of paint on the interior masonry.

Interior Features

Arches

Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

A relatively plain chancel arch comprising two orders on the west face and one order on the east face.

Dimensions
Depth 0.82 m
Height from the ground to the top of the imposts 2.04 m
Width of opening 2.17 m
East face

The single order is void of any mouldings except for the chamfered impost with quirks that continue from the west face.

Inscription

The south impost of the chancel arch (north face) has a carved inscription. This is almost impossible to read with the naked eye and only marginally easier to discern from photographs. See the 'Comments/Opinions' section below for a fuller discussion.

West face, 1st order

The order has no mouldings except for a pair of chamfered imposts, each with a pair of quirks on the chamfer and a single quirk on the face above.

West face, 2nd order

Roll mouldings adorn the voussoirs of the arch like their counterparts on the north nave doorway, and this arch is supported by nook shafts surmounted by quirked imposts and a pair of cushion capitals with neckings. Each nook shaft has a base embellished with geometric carvings. The south base is incised with a spiral pattern and an upper rim of cable moulding. Likewise the north base has an upper rim of cable moulding, however the main body is instead decorated with point-to-point chevron.

Interior Decoration

String courses

Chancel string course

A string course runs at mid-height along the east wall of the chancel (interior). It is carved with a saltire-in-square design and each saltire cross is decorated with four balls in the recessed areas between the axes. A close-up photograph of this feature is missing from this report.

Furnishings

Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae

Piscina

The piscina is located in a round-headed alcove in the south wall of the chancel. Besides the chamfering on the lower edge of the top stone, there is no notable tooling.

Comments/Opinions

The wording of Roger Parvus’s charter implies that Moreton Valence church was completed by 1154, as opposed to the building project being anticipated or only recently commenced. Unfortunately the charter cannot confirm whether the church was granted to Hereford Cathedral immediately after its completion, or whether a period of time elapsed before Roger Parvus decided to make the donation.

The inscription on the south impost of the chancel arch appears to confirm patronage from the Parvus family. According to the Victoria County History (Elrington et al., 1972: 213–5), it reads:

[ISTA BA] SILICA FVIT DEDICA

[TA IN NOMINE D]NI NRI JHU XPI ET IN HONORE[M]

[BEATE MARIE VIR]GINIS ET SCI STEPHANI PROTHO

[MARTYRIS ...] QUAM NOVA[M] FECIT DEDICARE

[...]DIC PAVVS

The letters that the present author has discerned seem to confirm the accuracy of this transcription. In translation, it records that the church was made and dedicated to Christ, the Virgin Mary and St Stephen through the agency of someone called Parvus. Unfortunately there is no date, but if the inscription dates from the 12th century, as the VCH suggests, it may be contemporary with the earliest fabric.

Despite the simplicity of the chancel arch in comparison to the north doorway, there can be little doubt that the two are roughly contemporary and the work of the same craftsmen since both arches have two orders with almost identical mouldings. In one of his earliest works, Zarnecki (1951: 30, fig. 31) suggested a date of c. 1120 for the tympanum of the north doorway. On the basis of its relationship to other 12th-century artworks, discussed below, and the date of Roger Parvus’s charter, the present author wonders whether the tympanum could have been carved closer to the middle of the century.

Tympanum

The five circular shapes to the left-hand side of St Michael where observed and described by Keyser (1905) over a century ago when the tympanum was probably in better condition. He observed these as ‘several figures, probably intended for rescued souls’.  If these shapes were once figures, it is more likely they represented the heavenly army that fought beside Michael as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘And there was a great battle in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon.... And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil’ (Revelation, 12:7–9). After all, the Book of Revelation is surely the scriptural basis for the tympanum.

The iconography of Michael fighting the dragon is peculiar to Western Christendom. In Carolingian representations the archangel is shown triumphant above a small vanquished dragon, whereas by the early eleventh century the dragon had been enlarged and Michael given a more aggressive pose. The Moreton Valence composition of Michael lunging to the right with a shield belongs to the later Northern tradition, although the lance is more typical of Continental iconography (Alexander, 1970: 88–98). There are many other Romanesque sculptures in England where St Michael is positioned on the left holding a shield, including reliefs at the churches of Harnhill (Gloucestershire), Kingswinford (Staffordshire), Southwell, Hoveringham (Nottinghamshire), Hallaton (Leicestershire) and Garton-on-the-Wolds (Yorkshire). The Southwell and Hoveringham tympana have both been dated to c. 1120, however they lack the naturalism and control that can be seen on the Moreton tympanum (Zarnecki et al., 1984: 123; Kirsop). Only the reliefs at Hallaton and Garton-on-the-Wolds mirror the Moreton tympanum in depicting Michael with a conical shield and lance, yet they differ in showing the archangel trampling the dragon.

There is stylistic evidence to suggest that the Moreton Valence sculptor was inspired by the work of the regionally influential Herefordshire School. The Moreton tympanum is comparable to two other tympana associated with the Herefordshire School in the nearby villages of Ruardean (Gloucestershire) and Brinsop (Herefordshire). These two tympana depict St George rather than St Michael, yet their compositions are similar in that the saint is positioned on the left and pierces the dragon through the mouth with a spear. The Ruardean tympanum is particularly akin to that at Moreton; both saintly figures are in dominant positions, each with his head at the apex of the stone, Michael’s wings mirror the position of George’s cape, and the dragons turn their heads to receive the lance blow. These tympana are also technically similar being carved from single stones and surrounded by plain voussoirs. In addition, the Moreton tympanum has been compared to a Herefordshire School-inspired sculpture found at Alveley (Shropshire), now fragmentary, which has been dated after 1155. Hunt and Stokes (1997: 30) suggested that this fragment was once part of a relief that depicted St Michael fighting the dragon with a spear. A small portion of the serpent’s scaled body is visible on the bottom left-hand corner of the fragment and the inclined posture of the archangel’s upper body is suggestive of a spear thrust.

As noted above, the dragon on the Moreton tympanum has a trefoil tail and its forelegs are obscured by a cluster of foliage. These foliate motifs are associated with the dragon alone and appear to have symbolic importance, perhaps representing the entangling forces of evil. A similar idea has been suggested for certain foliage designs on sculptures attributed to the Herefordshire School; for example, the scene of two sparring knights bound by tendrils on the font at Eardisley has been interpreted as a social commentary on the sinfulness of violence (Zarnecki et al.; Thurlby, 2013: 104, 195; Hamer, 1992: 273; Hunt, 2004: 212; Wood, 2012: 6).

Equally, the Moreton sculptor could have modelled his work on representations of St Michael in other media. A walrus ivory tau-cross head believed to have been made at Winchester between c. 1140 and c. 1150 features St Michael battling the dragon (Zarnecki et al., 1984: 223; V&A). The archangel is shown in half-profile with a pair of wings and holding a conical shield in his left hand. There is visible damage to his right arm and wing, but based on his posture it seems that he originally held a lance which he plunged into the dragon’s open mouth. Such ivory carvings are rare, although this piece raises the possibility that there were other portable sculptures of St Michael in the region which could have inspired the delicate forms and surface details seen on the Moreton sculpture.

These style comparions coupled with the available documentary evidence suggest that craftsmen could have been employed at Moreton Valence later than 1120, probably closer to the middle of the 12th century, and almost certainly before 1154.

Bibliography

  • J. J. G. Alexander, Norman Illumination at Mont St Michael 966–1100 (Oxford, 1970).

  • Anon., ‘Tau-cross head’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, online at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73082/tau-cross-head-unknown/.

  • W. W. Capes (ed.), Charters and Records of Hereford Cathedral, 840–1421 (Hereford, 1908).

  • K. Morgan and B. S. Smith, 'Moreton Valence: Church', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10, Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds, ed. C R Elrington et al. (London, 1972), pp. 208-215. 

  • E. Hamer, Patronage and Iconography in Romanesque England: The Herefordshire School in Context (Unpublished PhD thesis, Chicago, 1992).

  • J. Hunt, ‘Sculpture, Dates and Patrons: Dating the Herefordshire School of Sculpture’, Antiquaries Journal, 84 (2004), pp. 185–222.

  • J. Hunt and M. A. Stokes, ‘Sculpture and Patronage in a Shropshire Manor: A Group of 12th-Century Sculptures from Alveley’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 150 (1997).

  • C. E. Keyser, ‘Notes on a Sculpted Tympanum at Kingswinford Church, Staffordshire, and Other Early Representations in England of St Michael the Archangel’, Archaeological Journal 62 (1905), pp. 137–46.

  • National Heritage List for England, Historic England, no. 1016767, online at http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1016767.

  • M. Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture (Logaston, 2013).

  • D. Walker, ‘The “Honours” of the Earls of Hereford in the Twelfth Century’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society, 79 (1960), pp. 174–211.

  • S. Wood, The Eardisley Font (Eardisley, 2012).

  • G. Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066–1140 (London, 1951).

  • G. Zarnecki et al., English Romanesque Art 1066–1200 (London, 1984).

General view of the interior looking south-east
General view looking north
General view looking west
General view looking north 2
General view looking south

Location

Site Location
Moreton Valence
National Grid Reference
SO 780 097 
Boundaries
now: Gloucestershire
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Gloucestershire
Diocese
now: Gloucester
medieval: Worcester
Dedication
medieval:
now: St Stephen
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Jon Turnock 
Visit Date
30 April 2014