English Church Architecture.
EARDISLEY, St. Mary Magdalene (SO 312 491),
(Bedrock: Silurian Pridoli Series, Mudstone Formation.)
A church notable above all for its outstanding Norman font.
This is a building of rather complex plan, formed of a chancel and nave with a lean-to S. aisle and S. porch, a wider independently-gabled N. aisle and adjoining northwest tower, and a modern vestry and store room to the north of the N. aisle. The unbuttressed tower is an eighteenth-century addition, as witnessed by the round-arched bell-openings composed of wide, single lights. It was erected, according to Pevsner, in 1707 (The Buildings of England: Herefordshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963, p. 121). Elsewhere around the church exterior, most features seem restored or renewed, and although the preponderance of trefoil-cusped lancets, usually in pairs or groups of three, suggests a date for the original building around 1300, it fails to prepare the visitor for the greater interest within.
Most immediately striking on entering are the S. and N. arcades (shown, respectively, above left and above right). They differ from each other in every particular and so must be described separately. The S. arcade is formed of four bays, with a wall piece separating the easternmost arch from the others. However, all four are round-headed and formed of one unmoulded order, suggesting the cutting through of an earlier Norman wall towards the end of the twelfth century. Piers are rectangular, with the long sides running north/south and chamfers down the angles. Stylistic differences between the western arches and the eastern arch are limited to the absence of carved chamfer stops beneath the capitals of the latter (one of which is illustrated below left), and Pevsner's explanation for the intervening wall piece, namely that the three arches were cut through the former S. wall of the Norman nave and the single arch through the S. wall of the former chancel, leaving a gap where the chancel arch used to be, is certainly one possibility (there is no chancel arch now), while another could be that the eastern arch once led to a transept since this bay remains cross-gabled today. In either case, the N. arcade is completely out of synchronisation with its southern counterpart and consists of five bays of varying widths, of which the three to the west consisting of double-flat-chamfered pointed arches supported on octagonal piers and semicircular responds, are thirteenth century in date, and the two eastern arches, are a late fourteenth century addition (albeit Pevsner says early fourteenth century) which presumably once led to a chapel.
All this is interesting but by no means the most important work at Eardisley, for the exceptional Norman font surpasses even that at Stottesdon in Shropshire, and all but one or two others in this county and Worcestershire. What Malcolm Thurlby describes as its 'chalice-shaped [bowl] carved with a tightly woven, two-strand interlace on the rim, a cable-neck, and angular, two strand interlace on the splayed foot' (The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Carving, Wootton, Logaston Press, 2013, pp. 195-201), portrays (i) Christ pulling Adam(?) out of hell (the so-called 'Harrowing of Hell') towards the north (see the photograph above right), (ii) & (iii) a figure with a halo, holding a manuscript, perhaps intended to represent St. John the Baptist, facing east, next to two men fighting whilst struggling 'against the evil forces of the entwining stems' (ibid.), facing south and southeast (see the photograph below left), and (iv), possibly the Lion of Judah, facing west (illustrated below right). However, Thurlby also provides alternative explanations, including the very different suggestion that the figure holding the book represents God the Father and that together with the figure of Christ on his right and the dove on Christ's arm, this comprises a representation of the Trinity. It is impossible to be sure of course, but it does seem certain that the font can be dated to the reign of King Stephen (1135-54), and beyond all doubt, it is an exceptionally fine and well-preserved example of twelfth century carving.