Discoveries from the current restoration of St Mary’s

The recent season of Epiphany at St Mary’s brought revelations on the restoration front. With the scaffolding up, master stonemason Matthias Garn and his team were able to closely examine the badly-eroded stonework of the south nave clerestory. The works to restore this part of the church, and to safeguard its main worship space, began in the winter of 2020, with support from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Seen from close up and with the glazing removed, it soon became apparent that the tracery in a number of the windows was in a parlous condition – at risk of collapse, and requiring more extensive repair than had been previously anticipated. It was, therefore, a huge relief to receive the wonderful news last week that the trustees of the Headley Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, have granted £36,000 towards the restoration of this elevation. Those funds will make a valuable contribution towards these urgent works.

For the first time in living memory, the fine details of the carvings high up on this side of St Mary’s have also been revealed. We can now see that nine of the label stops are angels carrying the ‘Arma Christi’ (or the ‘Instruments of the Passion’) – objects associated with the Passion of Jesus Christ.

As part of the conservation of the south nave clerestory, these striking carvings, blackened by centuries of grime, are being cleaned carefully by hand.

The instruments in the set at St Mary’s include:

  • the crown of thorns
  • the seamless robe of Jesus
  • the pillar, where Jesus was whipped
  • the cross
  • the hammer used to drive the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet
  • the holy sponge, set on a reed, with which gall and vinegar were offered up to Jesus on the cross
  • the pincers used to remove the nails
  • the ladder used for the removal of Christ’s body from the cross for burial

We also find the Veil of Veronica, which features in one of the Tudor roof bosses in the ceiling of the choir vestry.

The ‘Arma Christi’ have a long tradition in Christian iconography dating back to the 9th century, although the prime member, the Cross, had been introduced to Christian art as early as the 4th century as the crux invicta, a symbol of victory.

St Mary’s nave was rebuilt in the 1520s, following the fall of the tower. Only decades later, the English Reformation rejected many traditions of Catholic art, and destroyed much of it. But at 15 metres up, these carvings were out of reach! And maybe there was little enthusiasm to tear down these powerful works of art.

As we prepare for the forthcoming journey through Lent and Holy Week to Easter, these arresting carvings remind us of Christ’s sufferings and his death on the cross. And we pray for strength, comfort, peace, forgiveness and healing in our world.

We have also discovered some much smaller carvings on the blind tracery beneath the clerestory windows! Whereas the carving at this level on the north side of St Mary’s is of foliage and vines, on the south we have uncovered creatures including a bear and a dog. Again, this stonework is being cleaned and we look forward to sharing further photos of work in progress and the finished job in due course.