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St Mary, Riccall, Yorkshire, East Riding

(53°49′57″N, 1°3′33″W)
SE 620 378
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval St Mary
now St Mary
  • Rita Wood
16 May, 15 November, 9 December 2005, 24 February 2006, 16 March 2007

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Riccall is a village about 3.5 miles N of Selby and 9 miles S of York. The church of St Mary lies to the centre of the village and is built of local Magnesian limestone. The building consists of a late 13thc chancel; nave with clerestory and 15thc battlements; late 12thc and early 13thc nave arcades; N and S chapels off the chancel, and a Norman W tower with bell-openings of c.1170-90. Between 1862 and 1877 the church was restored by John Loughborough Pearson, who rebuilt and heightened the tower, rebuilt the roofs and, significantly, rebuilt thye porch and the S aisle wall. During this rebuilding the S doorway was not taken down but left in place, propped up (see photograph).

The church is known for its ‘Yorkshire School’ doorway, c.1150-60. The doorway is thought to have been reset twice, first when a S aisle was made in the late 12thc or early 13thc (see off-centre round-headed slit window at W end of S aisle), and again when the aisle was widened to the present limits in the 15thc. At the second rebuilding if not before, the original sequence of voussoirs was lost, as is clear from the disruption of the conventional order of Adam, Eve and the serpent in the tree (order one, voussoirs 4, 5 and 2); there are other discrepancies. Between voussoirs 6 and 7 of the first order is a triangle of mortar causing a slight pointedness in the arch.


The Domesday Book records that in 1066 2 carucates belonged to the archbishop; canons of York Minster held this estate from him in 1086. A second estate, of 1 carucate, belonged to the king in 1066; by 1086 it became part of the bishop of Durham’s manor of Howden.

In the 13thc the church belonged to the prebend of Riccall, the parish was in his peculiar jurisdiction, and he was the patron. The prebend was established some time before 1217, and the church seems to have been under the control of the Chapter of York in some sense throughout the 12thc.


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches



1. Doorway

Decay Around 2005, the condition of this and other Yorkshire School doorways in Magnesian limestone was being examined by English Heritage in cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, but no conclusions are known and no action has followed. It is noticeable that damp is crawling up the pillars and now reaches the ring of the capitals on the R: this is higher than before. Ground water is being drawn, or forced, up; the tile floor of the porch sweats. Perhaps the sculpture was preserved by being left in situ in Pearson’s restoration, but that meant that no damp course was provided for the doorway, while presumably the remainder of the wall would have been provided with one. The situation is worse at Brayton where the water table is even higher.

Free-standing Romanesque carving in village churches generally is on two levels, not fully three-dimensional; it is compact and stylised. Riccall’s carving is unusual in that there is, or was, a relatively high proportion of free-standing detail in the little figures. When assessing the subjects, allowance has to be made for the parts that are lost: this is the case at Healaugh, where Christ seated at the apex of the S doorway had his hand raised in blessing – not as one might assume blessing generally, but it would have been held over the couple seated immediately below his right hand. Another site with free-standing sculpture is Conisbrough church (YW), where a capital in the N arcade has a man praying with his hands together, and a figure of Avarice, both entwined with foliage. A little hollowed out foliage is carved at Selby Abbey. The fragments of label at Bridlington Priory are exceptional for 12thc work in England but unlikely to be related to those just mentioned. Orders of chevron mouldings at Askham Bryan and Thorpe Salvin have free-standing parts.

Faces Although very fine detail remains to be seen, the surface is not always good. There seem to be two styles of human face carved, a chubby face (St Michael, Adam, Eve) and a face with sharper, stylised handling (the bishop, and other faces on voussoirs 9 and 10 of the second order). This latter type of face also occurs at Stillingfleet.

Original sequence of voussoirs The muddling of the voussoirs probably occurred when the doorway was rebuilt in the 15thc. However, this does not seem to have disrupted a narrative or necessary order (except in the case of Adam, Eve and the serpent), because the subjects seem to be largely self-contained on each stone, not only visually but in their likely interpretations. One or two motifs elsewhere were probably misplaced too. On the label, one of the round motifs at the lower R has a joint across it, but both pieces contain slightly more than a half-star; it is possible that these two stones were originally at the impost on either side.

Library So far as the motifs used on the first and second orders and the capitals are concerned, this is a scrapbook of a doorway; the arches are a library rather than a discourse on one text. Even allowing for the taking down and reassembly of the doorway in the past, no unified scheme of interpretation seems possible (though there is unified scheme, for example, at Bishop Wilton on a doorway which may appear chaotic at first glance). In its scattering of meaning and senses of interpretation, the Riccall doorway resembles those at Wighill, Brayton and Birkin (all North Yorkshire). The doorway would have given a versatile priest ample examples for orthodox teaching. Every voussoir has a distinct design and suggests at least one basic lesson.

2. Order one

Order one, voussoir 1: St Michael There is another St Michael at Barton-le-Street.

Order one, voussoirs 2, 4 and 5: The Tree, Adam and Eve As first made, voussoirs 4 and 5 no doubt flanked no. 2, conflating Temptation and Fall into one scene in the usual way. A depiction of the Fall in very similar figures but the standard order is carved on the memorial at Conisbrough (North Yorkshire). The subject also occurs on fonts at Langtoft and Cottam (East Yorkshire). It is useful to have the well-preserved representation of the hair of a man and woman as on these two figures, especially when assessing the two tiny figures in fonts on capitals of the doorway at Kirkburn (East Yorkshire). The semi-circular shapes around the legs of the figures are likely to describe the surrounding Garden, rather than the place within it where Adam and Eve hid from God. The first Eden was an earthly paradise, which may be why there is no trace of beading on these bounds - it is not heavenly, its walls do not shine. See comment below regarding the Tree in order two, voussoir 16; this stands within a beaded semi-circle.

Order one, voussoir 6: A bird Contrast the bird at Healaugh (North Yorkshire) in the third order of the doorway - that bird is perched on the roll moulding. At Healaugh, the head is very pigeon-like, but unfortunately the bird’s head at Riccall is broken on the L side and indistinct on the R. The bird at Healaugh seems to be part of a Trinity, with Christ enthroned at the top, and a (headless) lion opposite it.

Order one, voussoir 7: A lion, facing front For the teeth, incised mane and tufted tail, compare the lion on a L capital of the outer doorway at Barton-le-Street (North Yorkshire), and another inside on the chancel arch S capitals. A better preserved example of the smile is the lion on the tomb-slab at Bridlington Priory (East Yorkshire). The rectangular frame is minimal, but it is an unusual feature, compare the head of the doorways at Barton-le-Street (archway of porch; North Yorkshire), Healaugh (doorway) and Adel (gable; West Yorkshire). The special surroundings of the animal, that is, the width of the voussoir, the distinctive ‘platform’, and the partial frame, suggests that this voussoir was originally in the central position. A keystone is seldom a feature of a Romanesque arch, but this voussoir would approximate to one. The lion probably represents Christ as the victorious king in heaven.

Order one, voussoir 9: A goat with a knotted tail Elsewhere (order 2, voussoir 12) the knot is a means of shortening something too long to be practical; hence the knotted tail may imply that the tail is very long. If it is a compound creature made up of goat and snake (with the meaning that it is one who seeks the highest things, and one who has new life) a lengthy tail gives it more heavenly vigour. The dog playing the harp, voussoir 8, has its own fable and the pairing is probably fortuitous.

Order one, voussoir 10: Cross pattern The alignment of this cross is along the radius of the arch; compare Stillingfleet S doorway, first order (North Yorkshire), where a similar motif is set with its axis in the true vertical, and Bishop Wilton, where David with Goliath’s head (a type for Christ’s victory over Death) is vertical though not on a central voussoir.

Order one, voussoir 11: Arcading with foliage The foliage has many parallels, but capitals of the chancel arch at Edlington (South Yorkshire) might be compared. The design could be a reference to Paradise.

3. Order two

Order two, R capital: Sideways mask If the man as the volute on the angle might be imagined as listening to St Peter preach, the (evil) mask might be seen as overturned or defeated by the gospel. Overturned masks are seen at Stillingfleet, Bishop Wilton, Moor Monkton and Liverton (North Yorkshire), and there is a battered one on the doorway at Birkin.

Order two, voussoir 1: A man and a mask No parallel for this has been seen.

Order two, voussoir 2: A standing man and a pillar The same pose is seen in illustrations of Moses before the burning bush (Exodus 3: 2-6), and the voussoir can be seen as a moral interpretation of that event (Wood 1994, 73-4). The pillar corresponds to the burning bush, suggesting the sacred space about to be entered, the church interior.

Order two, voussoir 3: The large and the small head In spiritual, rather than moralising imagery, foliage and breath would combine to represent the new life of heaven, but the small head at the back seems uneasy about his position. It might perhaps be a Janus image, a calendar figure; the fan of ‘foliage’ might picture frosty breath.

Order two, voussoir 4: A wyvern This is a combination of (probably) a lion and a snake, and given wings as well. Compare the goat with a snake’s tail, and wings (order one, voussoir 9).

Order two, voussoir 5: A lion lying down The four shapes on the roll are individually like a clump of roots or foliage but, here, could they be part of the lion? The lion’s soft round paws and its long protruding claws could be represented. Domestic cats sleep in this position, sometimes resting with all four paws crossed together. The big cat with the extensive mane, if it is sleeping, is doing so with its eyes open, and could be an image of God as always watching over his people, described in the bestiaries and deriving from Psalm 121:4.

Order two, voussoir 6: Soldier with sword The triangular motif seen just above the hand could be a ‘breastplate of righteousness’ (Eesiansh. 6:14-17). This passage gives a list of armaments including the ‘sword of the Spirit’ and a shield, but this figure is not likely to have held a shield or some evidence of it would probably remain on the background. More likely, the carving refers to 1 Thess. 5:8 and the breastplate is one of faith and love. Loyalty may be expressed by the hand pressed to the heart. In any case, the two passages are very similar, both mentioning the helmet of salvation and making that clear the fight is a spiritual one (Ephesians 6:12).

Order two, voussoir 7: A man’s head A solemn gazing head is very common on corbels, and there are others in orders at Brayton and Birkin among beakheads, and at Healaugh alongside masks. This kind of head is likely to represent one who watches for the Second Coming.

Order two, voussoir 8: The bishop The soft form of mitre was going out of fashion at this time, and the pointed one (with peaks worn back and front) was coming in; an early representation of that type appears in sculpture at Kirkburn. Another figure of a bishop blessing is on the doorway at Bishop Wilton, order four but is worn and indistinct. Although the archbishop of York and the bishop of Durham had some financial interest in Riccall, figures of bishops blessing are found widely, for example at Shiptonthorpe and Conisbrough. It is likely that this figure represents the authority of the Church in the person of St Peter, bishop of Rome, rather than a specific contemporary bishop.

Order 2, voussoir 9: Figure and foliage The man’s face is similar to the face of the bishop in voussoir 8, and the resemblance to some faces carved at Stillingfleet is marked.

The posture should be compared to later carvings (Pickering late 12thc; Gothic sculpture elsewhere) in which people appear to push themselves out of the stonework, that is, are resurrected. The figure would read in accordance with this suggestion if the voussoir were at the lower R side of the arch. This figure is rising out of his stone coffin. This intricate carving would have been easily visible if the voussoir had been low down on the R.

The foliage pattern on the roll would always maintain symmetry in relation to the radius of the arch, compare Stillingfleet, throughout order one, and in particular voussoir 3, which has the same design on the roll. It is very useful to have this particular voussoir at Stillingfleet for comparison since it shows clearly that the symmetrical foliage has no physical connection to the motif on the main face (here a lion) and it must be used for a symbolic purpose, that is, to indicate a spiritual, particularly a heavenly, context for the whole order.

The forms behind the head and held in the hands remain to be defined. Might it be that the tubular thing continued forward in front of the hands as a crown or wreath arching across just above the head? This would add the narrative detail of the faithful man receiving a crown as he is resurrected into heaven from his coffin. The Hortus Deliciarum, fol. 244v, pictures crowns hanging over the heads of the blessed in paradise; 1 Peter 5:4 is one of many biblical texts supporting the imagery. Comparable carvings at this date seem to be rare - if one discounts all the crowned elders at Moissac and elsewhere because the crowns are already being worn - but Linda Seidel (1981, 50-51) illustrates examples of crowns in transit at Aulnay St Pierre and Parthenay. Those doorways also include the Wise and Foolish Virgins, calendar figures, etc. Connections with French sculpture may be recognised in several ‘Yorkshire School’ doorways, perhaps via Pontefract Priory (Wood 1998), or Holy Trinity Priory in York, or any number of immigrant workers and clerics.

Order 2, voussoir 10: Mask and man The composition should be compared to voussoirs at Bishop Wilton, order 3, no. 8. There are voussoirs at St Margaret’s, Walmgate, York, also of this general type. The particularly doom of the man at Riccall is exceptional, but a Cadogan guidebook describes a carving at St Sernin at Toulouse, on the S transept doorway, as showing a man having his testicles crushed, alongside a ‘femme aux serpents’. The man at Riccall is doomed because of lust, the man in voussoir 12 at Bishop Wilton, waving a mace and wearing chainmail, is doomed because of anger or violence. The expression on the face of the man on voussoir 10 makes clear that he has been caught by the devil; he is not being resurrected, or coming out of the mouth.

Voussoirs 9 and 10 describe opposite fates open to the soul. Compare Healaugh S doorway for representations of the blessed and the damned at the Second Coming.

Order 2, voussoir 11: Man pruning tree Something very like this arrangement is carved on the Porta della Pescheria, Modena cathedral, for the month of March, but that man holds a different tool. A ‘labour’ for February at Bishop Wilton is quite close to another carving at Modena cathedral, one on the nave screen showing Peter warming himself by the fire and the cock crowing. This indicates just how uniform calendar representations could be; how manuscripts travel easily.

Order 2, voussoir 12: Standing woman The ‘leaf on a stalk’ is likely to be intended for a flaming torch, and the woman a Wise Virgin from the parable, see Wood 1994, 74-5, fig. 7. Compare the candle held by a cleric on the font at Kirkburn. Very similar figures were on the imposts at Healaugh (now decayed).

Order 2, voussoir 14: John the Baptist The subject also occurs at Barton-le-Street (North Yorkshire) but by a more sophisticated craftsman (Wood 1994, 77).

Order 2, voussoir 16: An inverted tree Trees of this general form are repeated as a pattern on the doorway at Stillingfleet. A similar arrangement of a single inverted tree with a beaded arc is at Barton-le-Street (YN), inner doorway, second order, voussoir 12. It is suggested that the individual tree is the Tree of Life, which in the Old Testament is in the earthly Garden of Eden and in the New Testament is in heaven. The inversion would indicate that this tree is rooted in heaven. The beaded semicircle is not part of the tree and may be supposed to suggest the tree’s location in the heavenly Paradise garden.

4. Order 3 and Label

Order 3, R capital Compare similar imagery but not the same sculptor, on Stillingfleet S doorway, order 1, voussoir 8, where the face of Christ is complete.

Label The form of the cylindrical motif is comparable to that of medallions on arches at Stillingfleet, Brayton and Birkin. The rayed motif with the conical centre is used at Bishop Wilton on the impost of the S doorway, and at Stillingfleet on a string course on the W wall of the nave. These motifs are not flowers but represent a star or source of light. The centre of the rayed motifs and the beading round them have a tiny central hollow, as does beading on the fillet around the order of beakheads. This hollow or a bored hole is common with star forms even in chip-carving, and may have been used to hold fragments of glass or to produce an effect with colour. The third order and label combine to show beakheads alongside stars: a variant on the more usual pairing of beakheads with chevron patterns, which can be interpreted as evil spirits countered by spiritual light (Wood 2001, 5, 25).

5. Belfry windows; Piscina

Belfry windows Morris (1919, 277-8) calls the tower late Transitional on the basis of the belfry windows being pointed and the one on the W face having a pierced hole in its tympanum between the two openings – this is said to be incipient plate tracery. Any point is hard to see, except on the window facing E.

‘Norman piscina’ Sir Stephen Glynne, visiting in 1867 (Butler 2007, 331), reported that ‘The chancel has a Norman piscina with toothed ornament’, but Pevsner and Neave say that there exists a ‘fluted piscina with a little nailhead’ (1995, 655) in the S wall of the chancel. The feature is a row of coarse nailhead below the rim. This could well be the same item that Glynne saw, and it would not normally be included in the Romanesque corpus.

6. Restoration

Major restoration 1861-77 by J. L. Pearson; Anthony Quiney calls this ‘the best side of Pearson’s restoration work’ (Quiney 1979, 129). It is fortunate that photographs of the restoration have been preserved in the village, and that copies have been made available for this project.

As well as the medieval alterations mentioned above concerning the S doorway and the tower arch, there were also changes at the E end. During the restoration, Pearson had ‘discovered the foundations of the apse of the early chancel below the steps which lead from the nave into the present choir’ (James 1972, 10). The additional E bay to the nave (with octagonal piers) and a new chancel replaced that apsed E end probably in the late 13thc.


J. R. Allen, ‘The Norman Doorways of Yorkshire’, The Reliquary, II (1889), 101.

Borthwick Institute faculty papers, Fac.1864/2.

L. A. S. Butler (ed.), The Yorkshire Church Notes of Sir Stephen Glynne (1825-1874), Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 159, Woodbridge 2007.

E. James, The Parish Church of S. Mary, Riccall, York 1972.

J. E. Morris, The East Riding of Yorkshire, 2nd ed, London 1919.

N. Pevsner & D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd ed., London, 1995, 654-5.

A. Quiney, John Loughborough Pearson, Yale 1979.

L. Seidel, Songs of Glory: the Romanesque Facades of Aquitaine, London 1981.

Victoria County History: East Riding of Yorkshire, III (Ouse and Derwent Wapentake; Harthill Wapentake, Wilton Beacon section, west), 1976, 87-8.

R. Wood, ‘Malmesbury Abbey: The Sculpture of the South Entrance’, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, 91 (1998), 42-56.

R. Wood, ‘Geometric Patterns in English Romanesque Sculpture’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 154/1 (2001), 1-39.

R. Wood, ‘The Romanesque Doorways of Yorkshire, with special reference to that at St. Mary’s Church, Riccall’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 66 (1994), 59-90.