Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past. As the saying goes, “a picture paints a thousand words”. But which words? Understanding our past determines actively, our ability to understand the present. So how do we write our own histories, personal and cultural, and therefore define ourselves?
The Church of St Mary and St David is a Church of England parish church at Kilpeck in the English county of Herefordshire, about 5 miles from the border with Monmouthshire, Wales. Pevsner describes Kilpeck as “one of the most perfect Norman churches in England”. Famous for its stone carvings, the church is a Grade I listed building.
The history of the church is quite sketchy. In 1086 a castle was built of wood adjacent to the church and later fortified with stone and a defensive wall.
The church was built around 1140, and almost certainly before 1143 when it was given to the Abbey of Gloucester. It may have replaced an earlier Saxon church at the same site, and the oval raised form of the churchyard is typical of even older Celtic foundations.
By around 1259 Kilpeck possessed a weekly market and annual fair. The population of the village is unknown but was likely to be as many as 600.
The plan of the church, with a nave, chancel, and semi-circular apse, is typical for the time of its construction in the Norman period. It was originally dedicated to a St David, probably a local Celtic holy man and later acquired an additional dedication to St Mary from the chapel at Kilpeck Castle after it had fallen into disrepair. At the time the current church was built the area around Kilpeck, known as Archenfield, was relatively prosperous and strategically important in the heart of the Welsh Marches. The economic decline of the area after the 14th century may have helped preserve features which would have been removed elsewhere. However, it is unclear why the carvings were not defaced by Puritans in the 17th century. The church was substantially repaired in 1864, 1898 and 1962, and its unique features were protected and maintained.
Little is known about the famous door of the church. Speculation suggests it’s about the battle between good and evil. However, it is worth noting that opinion and speculation can be biased by a person’s culture, age, race, gender, religion, sexuality, background, upbringing, education and their own belief system. We can attribute our own characteristics to others, particularly when we see the past as a foreign place.
Above the doorway we have the Tree of Life that is growing out of water. The zigzag below is typical and almost certainly represents flowing water. Above the tree of life there is an angel. Angels are said to be the intermediaries between God and the living world, messengers. They are there to help mortals by guiding and guarding them.
Looking around the doorway we see a line of snakes. Head up on the right, head down on the left. Possibly not the snakes of the garden of Eden, they may represent Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Ouroboros represents cyclical natural life, or the eternal cycle of things. It may also represent the cyclical nature of things and the idea of a constant and eternal return, life, and death.
At the top of the right column is a green man. The Green Man is a legendary being primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in a sculpture, or other representation of a face which is made of, or completely surrounded by, leaves.
Midway down the right-hand side of the doorway is the symbol of Indalo or the Rainbow Man. Indalo is a prehistoric magical symbol of Spanish origin said to ward away bad luck and even the evil eye, and as a symbol of protection and wellbeing. Legend has it that the Indalo was a ghost that could hold and carry a rainbow in his hands in an apparent pact of protection with man.
Interestingly, in this setting we seem to see below Indalo chaos, no pattern or order in the carvings. Above it we can see there is a pattern or order. Some interpret this as that even among the chaos of the world, there is still hope.
On the left-hand side, we see two figures who are possibly warriors. If we look at the shape of the headwear, we could speculate they are wearing a Phrygian or Liberty cap. This is associated in antiquity with several peoples in Eastern Europe and Anatolia, including the Persians, Thrace and in Phrygia, where the name originated. The oldest depiction of the Phrygian cap is from Persepolis in Iran.
Both figures are wearing trousers. This is quite unusual and may indicate they are probably warriors from the Middle East. It has been suggested that the founder of the church, Hugh de Kilpeck, lived at the time when warriors frequently went to the Holy Land in the time of the Crusades. It is not certain if Hugh de Kilpeck was a crusader, but there are a number of indications elsewhere on the church that he may have been.
Other Symbols at Kilpeck
The carving on the archways above the door and the rest of the church are a combination of creatures, but we can only speculate as to their meanings. Most certainly the one object that seems to attract most attention is the Sheela Na Gig.
Sheela Na Gigs are quasi-erotic stone carvings of a female figure usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches. They consist of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva, a fairly strange thing to find on a church. The carvings are old and often do not seem to be part of the church but have been taken from a previous older, usually Romanesque, building. Even though the image is overtly sexual the representation is always grotesque, sometimes even comical. They are usually associated with hags or old women.
The Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig is one of a series of corbels each of which are examples of sculptural motifs repeated throughout western European churches. This Sheela Na Gig is just another of those motifs, a very memorable one agreed, but just another motif. Possibly its origin is firmly rooted in medieval Christianity rather than it being some archaic survival of a goddess figure from antiquity.
A symbol is a self-proclaimed voice from the past. The social meanings of symbols are rarely fixed and certain and are frequently ‘contested’ by different social groups. A symbol is a type of object either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of past events. Symbolic objects are also often designed to convey historical or political information.
Symbols are the foundation of oral histories. With a significant proportion of the population being illiterate up until recent times, our past has been maintained as oral stories, passed from generation to generation. To make our past more memorable and to give it emotional potency, oral stories are indeed colourful and emotional. In the same way biblical stories are told in the churches’ stained glass windows, religious and oral stories can be told in the form of objects and symbols.
The village of Kilpeck was once a thriving marketplace and community, but in the 14th century it suffered a significant market decline, and the village and castle were abandoned. With the loss of a population, there would have been a loss of a local culture.
Cultural norms are the standards we live by. They are the shared expectations and rules that guide the behaviour of people within social groups. Cultural norms are learned and reinforced from parents, friends, teachers, the church and others whilst growing up in a society.
Norms often differ across cultures, contributing to cross-cultural misunderstandings. Thus, a range of additional meanings and significance can be evoked. Everyday words, objects, symbols and even concepts often have more than a single meaning. Across time, certain aspects of everyday life and experience evolve in meaning and associated significance, making them symbols of something besides what they actually are or were.
So, with loss of a local culture at Kilpeck, was the oral story lost in time too, and with it, the symbolic meaning of the objects found in and around the church?
It has been suggested that the symbol of Indalo or the Rainbow Man could represent the story of Noah’s Ark.
In Genesis 9:12-17, after the floods have gone down, God says he will make a covenant with human beings and that the rainbow will be a sign of it: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between man and the earth… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
We also see what appears to be two doves at the base below the symbol of Indalo.
In Genesis 8:8-9: “Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him.” The dove returned with no indication that a place had been found to alight.
A week later, in Genesis 8:10-11, Noah sent the dove again: “He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So, Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” Things had begun to grow once again; the earth was becoming more habitable.
Subsequently, below the symbol of Indalo we see chaos and disorder while above we see order.