Here there is the same narrowness that perplexed us on the outside, and the same loftiness, but our eyes are drawn towards the great arches that support the tower. Originally there will have been no pews in the church, and so the arches will have been seen clearly in their full height, and been even more stunning. They are better proportioned than other Romanesque chancel arches in English country churches.
At the time when the church was built, which was at the very end of the Romanesque period, there was a strong desire to follow the precepts of the ancient Roman world. The Roman architect Vitruvius had written in the first century BC about the importance of proportion in architecture, and some of his work was known in the twelfth century. It seems that the master mason in Iffley was influenced by this, because the arches are pure semi-circles, and the distance between the capitals is the same as the height of the columns, and this is why they are so satisfying to the eye. The bold lines of the Roman arch have been softened with somewhat crude carvings, making a mysterious beauty. Around and underneath the arches there is a wealth of chevron ornament, which emphasises their strength and depth, and above there is a band of fruit or flower decoration that I have not seen anywhere else in England. Perhaps it shows the influence of St. Bernard, who protested against grotesque carvings, preferring fruit and flowers instead. Could it be grapes and vine leaves crudely carved?
Set against the columns are marble pillars from Tournai, which emphasise the upward thrust of each arch. These too may show classical influence – the Romans used marble for pillars in their official buildings. They are the earliest such black marble pillars in English parish churches, but soon after their installation, similar pillars made of Purbeck (not Tournai) marble were placed in many cathedrals, and they became remarkably popular in England.
These arches do not evoke the aspiring spirituality of Gothic churches and cathedrals, but they emphasise the groundedness of religion, its grandeur and solemnity and they uncover the roots of our civilisation in classical antiquity.
Under the Tower
To the right of the second arch there is a stone staircase that was cut out of the thickness of the wall in the fifteenth century. This will be explained later, but there is a small stone shelf jutting out at the top of the staircase, and there is an identical one on the opposite side of the arch. These seem to be contemporary with the original building, and may have supported a huge oak beam, running across the church, on which there will have been a crucifix, or ‘rood’ as it was called.
The Consecration Crosses
Around the walls of the church there are four darkly painted circles with lighter marks of paint in the centre. These are the remains of twelve crosses, painted to mark the places where the bishop anointed the walls with holy oil at the time of consecration. They were put there to serve as a guarantee that the church had been duly consecrated.