On the Somerset Levels is the medieval parish church of Isle Abbots. The village gets its name from its position on the river Isle and its former connection with Muchelney Abbey.[i] The tower contains niches within which are a rare collection of medieval statuary. Many of such statues were destroyed in the Reformation. At Isle Abbots on the bottom 2 niches of the tower are empty.
The early-16th C Perpendicular-style tower of Isle Abbots is built from local Ham Stone & Lias Stone. The western facing side is built entirely of Ham Stone. The other 3 sides are built mainly of Lias Stone with Ham Stone dressings. The west door is the approach into the church and that side was to be where the best work was done.
The statue niches are on each side of the tower:
6 on the west front
2 on the east
3 on the south
1 on the north
Apart from the 2 lower niches on the west front of the tower the other statues remain. What saintly statues resided in these 2 niches may have been recorded at the time of the Reformation. However, we can only speculate. Perhaps saints relative to the Virgin Mary as the church was dedicated to her. St Anne was her mother, St Joseph her husband. It may have been other apostles, as St Paul and St Peter are on the upper part of the tower.
In terms of art history, medieval art has been rather disregarded and thought lesser than the art from the High Renaissance onwards. When the National Gallery was set up in 1824, it had no medieval paintings. When it did acquire some, it was relative to their position as part of art history, and they were not valued as art. They were seen as crude beginnings in art, with only artists like Raphael and Michelangelo doing it properly after them. Such an attitude had been stoked by the likes of the polymath and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and later reinforced by John Ruskin (1819-1900) as being in the ‘nursery’ of artistic development. However, today the National Gallery does have a collection of medieval art such as parts of altarpieces in their collection, recognising their value as art and devotional items. In my opinion one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the National Gallery’s collection is the Wilton Diptych (15th C).
The statues at Isle Abbots were likely made at the very beginning of the 16th C. It was a time when Michelangelo (1475 to 1564) was getting established in his artist career. The Pieta from St Peter’s in Rome (circa 1498) is a different form from what has happening in England at the time. However, we cannot make comparisons. What local people in Somerset connected with as their religious iconography was what was in demand locally. These statues reflect the talent, vision, and symbolism of the day. They were made to be seen, appreciated and part of devotional practice.
The feast days of the saints depicted are as follows:
It may have relevance to the position of the statues and how they were used or engaged with.
|WEST||Feast of St Peter & St Paul is on the 29 June|
|SOUTH||St Margaret of Antioch – 20 July
St Catherine – 24 November
St George – 23 April
|NORTH||Michaelmas – 29 September|
|EAST||St Clement – 23 November
St John – 24 June
St Peter and St Paul
A medieval parishioner could see instantly recognise St Peter and St Paul by what they hold. Reading symbols in a generally illiterate society was of key importance. St Peter on the right holds the Keys to Heaven in his right hand and a book in his left. St Paul on the left holds a sword in his right hand (symbol of his martyrdom) and a book in his left. The books are held differently by both saints.
Both saints wear robes with flat, but detailed folds. The craftsman who created them has used a similar style or even template but given them difference in their hair styles and folds of their robes. St Paul’s hair, whilst long, does have the feature often used of it receding. Their beards and faces are similar, but some distinction has been made.
The feast of Saints Peter and Paul is on the 29 June. Both saints were martyred in Rome, and some writings claim their martyrdom was around the same time, which is why they sometimes depicted together.
Virgin Mary & Infant Jesus
The statue of the Virgin and infant Jesus is stylistically similar to that of St Peter and St Paul. Her hair fans out beneath her crown (similar to St Peter). Her gown has even folds and there is some pattern detail around her knees. She wears a crown, as a symbol of the Queen of Heaven. She is seated with the Infant Jesus resting on her knee supported by her left hand. In her right hand she clutches possibly a flower representing her purity. This is often a white rose or white lily (in this statue it resembles a lily). Beneath her feet she tramples evil, represented by a serpent or probably a dragon in this arrangement as it appears to have legs. The iconography represents the Virgin overcoming the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jesus is represented, not as a baby, but a small man. He too wears a crown.
There is a neo-gothic statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus in St Teresa’s Catholic Church in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The church was built 1926, a year after St Teresa of Lisieux was canonised. The statue was amongst the artefacts given to the church by G.K. Chesterton. Here can be seen similar iconography represented in the neo-gothic statue.[ii]
Whilst modern, the Virgin Mary is crowned and holds a lily-like staff in her right hand and Jesus is held by the left. Beneath her feet is the trampled serpent of evil poking its head out.
The Resurrection of Christ from the Tomb
The image of Christ rising from the Tomb at Isle Abbots is an arrangement that appears often in the medieval period. Christ is stepping out of a sarcophagus and his foot has landed on a sleeping Roman soldier. This soldier has his sword resting beside him. Another solider below Christ appears to be resting on a battle axe. Two other soldiers peer out from either side of Christ. The one on Christ’s right holds a battle axe. The one on Christ’s left holds possibly a spear. The figure of Christ is much larger than the diminutive soldiers. Christ wears a crown of thorns, and the shroud and loin cloth is carved in folds around the shape of his body. His ribs have been carved along with the opening where he was pierced by the spear. He holds the cross and pennant staff in his left hand, which is partly broken. The cross at the top is attacted to a stone. I am not sure if Christ’s right arm & hand are broken off as this would normally be raised in benediction. The sarcophagus is richly patterned.
I can only imagine the discussion that took place between the carver of the Ham Stone niche and that of the carver of St George on his horse defeating a dragon. Or perhaps it was a discussion between those that had received the niche and the statue and were told to erect them. Someone forgot to make sure the statue carver knew the statue must fit in the niche. The height was fine. However, part of the side of the niche has had to be cut away to accommodate the width.
It strongly suggests that the niches were carved in a separate workshop (near Ham Hill?) to the stone statue carvers. The stone from which the statues is carved does not appear to be local – perhaps Doulting or Beer stone? The statue carver workshop may have been some miles away.
The statue is different from the others in that the saint is not upright but on horseback. There is the ‘S’ line going through the statue. His horse (St George holds a bridle) is disproportionate to the size of the saint. The horse’s tail and the dragon’s feet spill out of the space into the cut away part of the niche. Maybe this was the work of an apprentice who had got a little bit carried away with the romance of the story. The commission probably was for St George but how he is depicted in a niche would have been a challenge! If the carver had just omitted the horse, it could have worked!
St George depicted in Late-15th C-stained glass at All Saints Church, Trull, Somerset.
St Margaret of Antioch
St Margaret as part of her ordeal was swallowed by a dragon and upon making the sign of the cross the dragon burst open, and she emerged from its belly unharmed. She wears a crown and holds a lance or staff with a cross at the top. Beneath her feet is the defeated dragon. The folds of her dress on the lower part appear to illustrate the emergence from the belly of the dragon. The style of the statue is similar to some of the other saints with the hair standing out from the head.
St Catherine holds the two symbols of her martyrdom. The wheel is in her left hand (which she survived). The sword, with which she was beheaded, is in her right hand. She wears a similar crown to St Margaret. There are similarities to the statue of St Margaret. The folds of the gown and face. However, with St Catherine the hair is remarkably different. Rather that the straight hairstyle that sticks out form the head of the saint, St Catherine’s hair is long with flowing curls.
The Archangel Michael
This is the 3rd of the dragon slaying saints at the church. St Michael’s lance pieces the defeated dragon at his feet. He is a warrior saint. In his left arm he holds a shield with an 8-pointed star on it. His hair is short, and his facial features worn and perhaps rather indistinct. The wings give him a tight fit into the niche, but it works. I cannot help but think that along with the St George, the statue was carved by an apprentice.
The statues on the east side of the church appear to be the best preserved. The style is similar to that of St Peter and St Paul on the west side of the tower. They haven’t been weathered as much. It is also curious that there are holes and nicks in the lower parts of these saints. I wondered if these were to hold ironwork sconces for torches. Maybe on certain feast days they were illuminated.
St John the Baptist
St John holds his distinctive lamb and cross in his left hand. However, he isn’t wearing a camel skin, which sometimes he appears in. He is wearing a toga-like robe as St Peter and St Paul are attired in. Although over his bare feet there is no longer what appears to be his robe and I wonder if this is meant to represent the camel skin.
His right hand with an elongated forefinger which points towards the lamb. His hair is long and styled with slight waves, standing out away from this head. He has a beard.
St Clement is in his papal vestments and wearing a papal crown. He holds over his right arm an anchor, the symbol of his martyrdom. His right hand is raised in a blessing. In his left hand he holds the papal rod (orferula).
In the late-15th C William Caxton printed copies of Jacobus de Voragine’s work The Golden Legend. The work is a collection of hagiographies compiled between 1250 and 1280. It was very popular in late-medieval Europe. It was a key source for medieval artisans creating images of the saints and their iconography.[iii]
The depiction of St Clement is an unusual choice. There are no church dedications to St Clement in Somerset. There are one or two in Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall. St Clement was the 4th Pope – St Peter being the 1st.
Summary of the Hagiography of St Clement in The Golden Legend
The Golden Legend, printed in 1483/4 describes the life of St Clement. He was born to a noble Roman family. The Golden Legend tells of a long, convoluted story about how the family were split up, shipwrecked, and lost. The intervention of St Peter sorted it all out. After Clement becomes Pope his enemies appealed to the emperor Trajan, who exiled him to the Sea of Pontus (southern region of the Black Sea). Clement, and his followers, landed on an island with 2000 Christian prisoners working in a marble quarry. They told him of how they had to carry water on their shoulders 6 miles. He commanded them all to pray and then he saw a lamb on a rock with its leg raised indicating a place. Taking a short stick, he struck the place and water sprang forth. Following this many people came to be baptised at the place and many churches were erected in the area.[iv]
3 years after Clement had arrived on the island, the Emperor Trajan heard of what had happened and sent a general to sort out the Christians. This general had Clement thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck. He thought that by doing this the Christians would have no place to worship the martyr. However, his followers prayed, and the sea drew back 3 miles and revealed a small temple with an ark containing the body of St Clement with the anchor beside him. Then every year following for 1 week the sea would withdraw for pilgrims to visit the sea temple. The miraculous recession of the sea did cease some years later due to the sinfulness of the inhabitants of the city that had grown up. Barbarian had also destroyed the temple. A priest called Philosophus sought out Clement’s body and through divine revelation found it and the anchor. He took the body to Rome, and it was placed in a church now named after St Clement. His relics are still there, although the church has had several rebuilds. Also, other relics are claimed by the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves in Ukraine. There is another chronicle that tells of how Cyril, bishop of the Moravians took Clement’s relics to Rome. There is a monastery built on top of where St Clement’s remains were found – the Inkerman Cave Monastery in the Crimea.[v]
St Clement’s Church in Oranges & Lemons
St Clement is a patron saint of sailors. The nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ mentions St Clement’s. Both St Clement Eastcheap and St Clement Danes Church, Westminster claim they are the church mentioned in the rhyme.
Why St Clements at Isle Abbots?
I find myself wondering why a saint related to the sea has a statue at Isle Abbots which is far from the sea. It is however, in the heart of the Somerset Levels. The Levels get easily flooded and it seems appropriate to have a protector saint associated with water. The floods over the winter of 2013-14 were declared a major incident. There has also been flooding from salt water inundations. On 30 January 1607 what is thought a tsunami caused a surge in the Bristol Channel which drove water inland and across the Levels. It killed 2000 people and many livestock.[vi]
It seems that St Clement was needed to protect against the hazards of flooding locally. He faces east across the Levels.
Niches Headers, Angels & Hunky Punks
The niches themselves are an interesting set of medieval artistry. There are differences and similarities. St Paul, St Peter, St John, St Clement, St Margaret, and St Catherine have similar niche headers. The niche header of the Virgin and Infant Jesus is comparably much more elaborate and decorated. It incorporates dragon-like faces with fangs.
St Michael and St George have similar niches, which are different from the others. On the top part there are stylised flowers or stars, rather than crockets. The niche header for the Resurrection is in this style also.
Angels, Faces & Hunky Punks at the Base of The Virgin & Infant Jesus, and The Resurrection
Beneath each niche is an angel holding what is either a book or shield. They are all different. Along with them are sometimes appear faces, hunky punks, and other angels. Perhaps the faces relate to doners, but the other carvings are some sort of protection against evil. The angels’ faces are all different.
Beneath the Virgin and Infant Jesus is the angel with 2 human heads either side. There is also what maybe a hunky punk slipped in on the right-hand side, which is not part of the niche arrangement and fits at the end of the moulding surrounding the window. Are these two human faces real people such as doners?
At the base of The Resurrection niche is the dominant angel with spreading wings, 2 grotesques either side and a hunky punk positioned just to the left, at the base of the window moulding.
Summary of the Saints’ Angels
St Michael has one angel with spreading wings and elaborate hair.
St Clement just has one angel with folded wings.
St John has an angel with folded wings wearing a crown and robe.
St Margaret has one angel with folded wings.
St Catherine has one angel with folded wings.
St Peter has one angel with folded wings.
St Paul has one angel with folded wings.
St George has one angel with spread wings, elaborate hair and two winged putti heads.
The angels associated with The Resurrection, St George and St Michael are similar. The other angels form a set different again.
The empty niches are missing any images on their base. The niche heading is different in each – the one on the left has crockets and the one on the right stylised flowers. Could it suggest the there was a regular saint in the one with crockets (as per the majority of the saint statues) and something relevant to the life of Christ under the one with stylised flowers? St Michael and St George also had the stylised flowers (or stars?) – maybe that is another clue?
The statue of the Virgin & Infant Jesus and The Resurrection would have been relevant to the activities of worship. They would have connected the parishioners to the two significant times in the Liturgical year – the Nativity and Holy week. The saints’ statues would have meant that their lives could be taught, and the images reflected on, and prayed to. Medieval society worked with symbols and religious metaphors. Where I see empty niches in medieval churches, I now find myself wondering what saints or images there could have been there.
These statues are rare survivals giving us a window into what was important to local people worshipping at their local church on the Somerset Levels in the early 16th C.
[i] G. W. Wade, J. H. Wade, Somerset (London: Methuen & Co, 1929) p. 75.
[iii] Mary Chisholm <https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/15th-century-stained-glass-saints-of-the-golden-legend-the-dragon-window-trull-somerset/>
[iv] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 709-718.
[v] de Voragine, pp. 709-718.
[vi] ‘Nature> The great flood of 1607: could it happen again?’ BBC,
de Voragine, Jacobus, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012)
Wade, G. W., J. H. Wade, Somerset (London: Methuen & Co, 1929