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English Church Architecture -



THORNHAM PARVA, St. Mary (TM 104 714)     (March 2009)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


This is a small building of considerable interest, albeit that, perhaps, some of its features are not quite as special as the church literature suggests.   Constructed of coursed rubble with lashings of mortar between, the church (shown above from the northeast) consists of a short W. tower, and a nave and chancel forming a single unit, and its striking appearance on approach is due to the fact that not only are the nave and chancel thatched, but so also is the tower, which has a pyramidal roof.  The oldest features include the Norman N. and S. doorways to the nave, of which the former is plain and the latter (shown below left) carries a roll supported on abaci atop an order of shafts with scalloped capitals that differ slightly left to right.  There is also a little Norman window in the nave S. wall while other windows comprise:  (i) two with Y-tracery, opposite each other in the chancel, commensurate in style with the late thirteenth century;  (ii) a three-light window in the chancel E. wall (shown right), in early fourteenth century reticulated form, which could be contemporary with the two-light window with flowing tracery, now renewed in the head, in the nave S. wall towards the east; and (iii) three, two-light square-headed Perpendicular windows with cinquefoil-cusped lights, one each in the nave N. wall and the S. walls of the nave and chancel.  The tower, which rises in two stages to the simplest of one-light bell-openings, lit below to the west by a window with depressed cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery, is of interest not for these details but because a contract for its erection survives with one, Richard Cuttyng, and his partner, John Tilley, who appear to have undertaken the work c. 1485-6 and of whom nothing else is known.  It seems evident, however, that the pair were not distinguished masons, for modest though their commission was, an action was taken against them afterwards on the grounds of defective workmanship - then a rare event indeed (English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary by John Harvey, Alan Sutton, 1987).


Inside the building, different matters comes to light.  Most immediately noticeable are the wall paintings that clearly once covered almost every available area of wall space.  A booklet inside the church describes these in detail but Pevsner dismissed them in two words - "hardly recognizable" - and, needless-to-say, the nearly five decades that have passed since his visit have done nothing to improve them.  They include on the N. wall, a possibly unique cycle of pictures that together depict the legend of St. Edmund, but their state of preservation is, unfortunately, dismal,  and today only a scholar or a visitor armed with both the booklet and a vivid imagination, will be able to make much of them.  Slightly better are the New Testament scenes depicted on the S. wall, which include the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.  (The thumbnail, right, shows a part of each of these scenes, with the figure on the right, looking right, showing one of the magi, and the figure on the left, looking left, showing St. Joseph in the temple.)


However, of greater significance than these is the painted oak retable in the chancel (illustrated below), of unknown origin but discovered in a barn at Thornham Hall in 1927 and dated on stylistic grounds to c. 1330.  This is altogether finer stuff and Pevsner even considered that it might have come from the royal workshops, as it is "especially close to the sedilia in Westminster Abbey".  Inevitably, the figures have darkened over the centuries, but its state of preservation appears good otherwise, even allowing for the wholesale restoration carried out around the turn of the present century.  Pevsner's description of the painting style deserves to be quoted in full for it certainly cannot be bettered: "The figures are slim and swaying.  The drapery folds have deep troughs across the waist and then fall diagonally.  The background is treated in fine gesso patterns.  The spandrels have various flowers and leaves in relief, also painted" (The Buildings of England: Suffolk, revised edition, Penguin, 1974).  The figures represent, from right to left, St. Dominic, St. Catherine, St. John the Baptist and St. Peter, followed by a Crucifixion scene with SS. Mary and John the Evangelist looking up at Christ on the Cross, after which there come St Paul, St. Edmund, St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Peter Martyr. 



A few remaining features of the building can be more quickly described.  There is a roll around the splay of the Norman window in the nave S. wall, which presumably shows the form of all the windows in the twelfth century Norman building, suggesting that even then, it was not without some ambition.   The fourteenth century octagonal font has tracery patterns on the faces of the bowl and stands on a wide octagonal base.  The attractive rood screen is probably fifteenth century work and composed of a large central opening and four divisions on each side, all with alternate tracery and quatrefoils filling the uppermost reticulation units, with fleurons in their centres.  Finally, the heavy gallery projecting from the tower, supported on two slender metal columns, is an early nineteenth century addition to the building, which gives the section of the nave to the west of the doorways, a pleasant enclosed, domestic feeling, that contributes to the ambience of this church, which is at once both rich and homely.