This is the most finely carved part of the church. Compared with it, the carvings on the west front and round the arches inside, appear crude and repetitive. This may be the work of the master mason himself. There are carvings of figures of fantasy and the animal world – centaurs, a merman, a green man, a bird, a sphinx, Samson and the lion, many dragon–like animals biting their tails or their back legs, a king’s head (very realistic), and knights on horseback.
There is very little specifically Christian sculpture here; there are no figures of Christ or the saints, but the subject matter is almost always symbolic, and refers to the animal kingdom. At that period the animal world was much closer to people than it is today, and the understanding of it was mythical rather than scientific. Preachers drew moral lessons from the created world, which they saw as fulfilling God’s plan, and each animal as expressing a religious truth. The king’s head, on the other hand, closely resembles that of Henry II on the silver penny of the time. His hair is cut short because he was so often helmeted for battle.
People have wondered how this fine carving can have been preserved for 800 years. It can partly be explained by the fact that for many centuries there was a porch protecting it. Also it appears to have been carved from Taynton stone, which is harder than that used on the west front, and then, of course, it does not face the prevailing westerly winds.
Even so it is a remarkable survival. Some people suppose that it must have been restored. But there is an engraving by Joseph Skelton made in 1827 which shows the carvings exactly as they are now, except for those at the bottom of the columns, where the figures are rather blurred. This could be explained by erosion caused by damp rising from the ground beneath, which has worn away the stone.
It may be that at the Victorian restoration the man’s head, on the left side towards the bottom, was ‘resurrected’ from the rough stone they found there. A photograph taken before the 1970’s restoration shows blackness that needed to be washed off, but no other change in the carvings.