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English Church Architecture -



ST. GERMANS, St. Germanus of Auxerre (SX 359 578)  (October 2010)

 (Bedrock:  Middle Devonian to Carboniferous, Saltash Formation)

St. Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378 - c. 446) is another fifth century dedicatee of the churches of Cornwall, but a rather better documented one than most.  He is believed to have been a bishop of Auxerre (Gaul) who was sent to Britain in c. 429 with the mission to suppress heresy in the British church, but who allegedly became involved in leading the native Britons in their successful resistance against an invading horde of heathen Saxons.  (See Wikipedia.)


The building dedicated here to St. Germanus (shown above, from the southeast) is one of several in western England and Wales and the most important Norman/Norman-Transitional church in Cornwall.  It is not an easy one to interpret, however – a task made more difficult by the fact that the north and east fronts can be viewed only from the private grounds of Port Eliot Estate.  Fundamental to its understanding is the realization that the present plan is not the original one and that what now appears as a pair of twin naves and chancels, is more accurately a nave and chancel with a S. aisle and chapel of similar or greater dimensions. The original building, which was constructed as the priory church of a community of Augustinian canons in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, consisted of the wide nave and flanking towers which are still largely extant, with symmetrical narrow aisles and a long choir to the east. Subsequent alterations to this plan included:  (i) in the early fourteenth century, the widening of the two eastern bays of the S. aisle to form a large chapel;  (ii) in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the widening of the rest of the S. aisle and the construction of a shallow S. porch against the S. wall of the southwest tower, in order that the aisle and chapel might serve as a parish church, alongside the priory church;  (iii) in the sixteenth century, the shortening of the choir after the Dissolution had rendered it obsolete (thereby reducing the nave and chancel to the length of the S. aisle and chapel); and finally, (iv), in 1802/3, the demolition of the N. aisle and the construction of the small transept now forming the organ chamber but which initially served as the Eliot family pew. (See the Cornwall volume of The Buildings of England by Pevsner & Radcliffe, Penguin, 1970, and the guide to the church by the Reverend Canon John Spence.)  These parts of the church must be considered in order, beginning with the W. front.


This is a powerful piece of architecture, comprising the W. wall of the nave and the towers on either side. The great round-arched doorway into the nave (illustrated left), though very worn, is formed of seven moulded orders beneath a gable, bearing (from outside in) chevron on orders one, two, four and five, a roll on the third, and what might once have been beakhead on orders six and seven, together supported on jambs with attached circular shafts and chevron moulding alternately. The wall above the doorway is pierced by three stepped round-arched windows, with side shafts with scalloped capitals. The towers rise up in massive square section for the first stage in the case of the southwest tower and the first two stages in the case of the northwest tower, above which the two upper stages of the southwest tower are probably late fourteenth century Perpendicular work, still square in section but narrower, with two-light bell-openings with straightened reticulation units in their heads, and the third (bell) stage of the northwest tower is Early English and octagonal. Both towers communicate with the nave inside through Transitional pointed arches, and a third, similar arch, leads from the southwest tower into the aisle.  (See the thumbnail, right, which was taken from the aisle.)  The northwest tower now has a door in this position, opening into the grounds of Port Eliot.


Transitional work in the nave comprises the two unequal western bays of the arcade (seen in the photograph, left, from the west end of the nave) formed of pointed arches of two plain orders, supported on very wide circular piers with square scalloped capitals and a matching W. respond. They are continued eastward by four similar but slenderer bays, built after the partial collapse of the original work in 1592 (church guide).


Well before this, perhaps around 1340, the widening of the two eastern bays of the aisle to form a chapel, required the construction of new windows, of which the westernmost S. window survives. Whatever windows were inserted further east were themselves replaced in Tudor times by the two uncusped, three-light windows present today, which are much less attractive but seen to better effect inside, for reasons that will appear below. The E. wall is pierced by a pair of three-light windows at the lower level, with central lights stepped down and wheels of tracery above, and a third three-light window above and between. The lower windows are separated by a niche, now housing a modern statue of Christ the Good Shepherd, and the S. wall shelters in a recess the remains of a large tomb-chest, which at some point in time has been badly vandalised.


The four-light S. windows in the four western bays of the aisle (seen in the photograph at the top of the page) have been renewed externally but appear contemporary with the widening of this part of the aisle (i.e. early Perpendicular) inside and feature tracery which - described from west to east - is reticulated in the first, alternate with subreticulation and split "Y"s in the second, alternate with subreticulation, split "Y"s and subarcuation of the lights in pairs in the third, and alternate with subreticulation, subarcuation and a supertransom in the last: they seem almost to have been intended as a deliberate illustration of the possibilities of recent forms.  Perhaps around the same time, a new E. window was inserted in the choir, for it appears to have been re-used in the chancel when the choir was shortened in 1539 (ibid). This is five-light and transomed, with cinquefoil-cusped lights above and below the transom, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and strong mullions either side of the central light. The shallow S. porch is open to the west and south, and communicates with the main body of the church through a door in the E. wall, leading down steps into the S. aisle;  it has a barrel-vaulted ceiling divided into squares, each crossed by a pair of diagonal ribs.


So much for the details...  Taken together, unfortunately, these changes (in particular, the demolition of the N. aisle in 1803) have given the church the "unhappy" proportions it has today (Pevsner).  Carpentry in the building is almost entirely lacking in interest and the church contains few furnishings of note:  the font is late Norman but plain, with a big square bowl supported on five circular shafts.   However, some stained glass in the chancel and chapel and two monuments elsewhere, are worthy of attention, the most striking of the latter being the huge pile of marble in the (alas, desperately dark) northwest tower (illustrated below left).  This was carved by Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770) - the greatest statuary working in England in the early eighteenth century - and subsequently described by Pevsner as "the most ambitious monument in Cornwall", although it is one of the artist's earliest signed works and looks, in all honesty, a little disjointed, with its constituent elements rather too far apart.   It commemorates Edward Eliot (d. 1722), shown reclining on his left elbow, looking up at a seated allegorical female to his right, while putti above carry his medallion portrait up to heaven in accordance with a well-worn, suitably elevated theme for "polite" monuments in the days of the Whig supremacy.  Edward's widow, Elizabeth Eliot, née Cragg, who paid for the work, was the sister of Anne Knight, whose monument to her husband, also by Rysbrack, can be seen at Gosfield in Essex.  The second monument (below right), on the S. aisle E. wall where it narrows slightly into the chapel, is dedicated to John, 1st Earl of St. Germans (d. 1827), and signed by Sir Richard Westmacott (1775 - 1856).  It depicts a girl sitting on a chair, with her head resting on her hand in sorrow, and is almost identical to a monument by the same artist at Dullingham, Cambridgeshire.


















Finally, the stained glass in the chancel E. window (illustrated left) and in the two square-headed S. windows in the chapel (below), mentioned above, which together form a single composition, are constructed to the designs of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 98), by William Morris & Co.  They feature figures representing Joy, Justice, Faith, Hope, Charity and Praise in the S. windows, the four Evangelists and St. Stephen in the E. window lower tier, and in the upper tier, Christ in the centre, flanked by SS. Mary and Mary Magdalene.  They are fine examples of the genre, without any trace of Victorian heaviness.