The West Front

The West Facade

The West Facade

The west door

The west door

 

This is a bold façade such as is not often found on English parish churches, but is more reminiscent of parish churches in northern France. It makes a significant statement about the importance of the building. The great doorway is a structure in itself. Its shape is unusual: most doorways in Romanesque churches have columns on either side with capitals on which the arch sits, but this one has ornamentation that simply rolls over from one side to the other. (cf. other Oxford churches, notably St. Peter in the East). There are rows and rows of chevron, or zigzag, ornament, followed by two rows of beakheads.

Beakheads and other detail around the south door

Beakheads and other detail around the south door

Chevron is the most typical late Romanesque ornament and is seen throughout England, around arches, doorways and windows and along rib vaulting. Its function seems to be to accentuate and add richness and depth to the notable features of a building. Norman masons revelled in it. The beakheads are more puzzling.  Perhaps they are composed of lions’ heads and eagles’ beaks-symbols of Christ’s power and victory.  Apparently they were first used in Reading Abbey and then copied throughout Berkshire and Oxfordshire. These rows of decoration on the doorway lead one’s eye to the outer ring of carvings, contained in a beaded interlacing chain. Here there are several signs of the zodiac – Aquarius – a woman carrying a bucket, Pisces – two fish, and Virgo. There are also the symbols of the evangelists – a winged lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, a man with wings for Matthew, and for John a flying eagle. (See Rev.4 vv.6-7). Other contemporary churches have such symbols round their doorways, and their original intention may have been to represent the universality of the Gospel throughout time.

On either side of the door there are plain blind arches such as there are in churches in Normandy near where the patron of the church, Robert de S. Remy came from.
Above, there is a circular window. This is a Victorian remaking of the original, which had been replaced by a Perpendicular Gothic one in the fifteenth century. It is technically not a rose window, because it has no tracery. It is an “Oculus” or Eye of God window.

Higher up the façade there are three more windows, the centre one rising up towards the apex of the roof. Sitting in the apex itself is a blind arch. Altogether the façade is a tour de force. It is a little narrow for its height perhaps, but all the more striking for that.

There is an abundance of decoration on this west front. But it is all set in a highly structured framework and the decoration nowhere exceeds its boundaries. The local masons exploited their own traditions of ornament, but kept them restrained within a disciplined pattern, so reinforcing rather than obscuring its visual effect.  Romanesque architecture is admired for its rhythm, monumentality and sense of order. Here we have a prime example of it. There is the rhythm of the two sets of openings – above and below a swirling circle, there is the monumentality of the windows and doorway, reminiscent of the triumphal arches of ancient Rome; and all of this is set in a composition of perfect order.  The design is unique in England.  It may have been inspired by the central part of the west front of S. Denis outside Paris.