St. Mary the Virgin is a fine example of late Romanesque architecture built in the 1160s by the Clinton family whose castle was at Kenilworth. There is evidence of female patronage in the design and subsequent gift of the church to Kenilworth Priory, which was founded by the Clintons. The complexity of the symbolism throughout the church, including the geometry of the design, suggests educated and pious patrons. Apart from the early thirteenth century extension at the east end, the church is substantially as originally built.
The Romanesque Church
The sumptuous sculpted decoration and the quality of the materials brought to the site for the building, including Tournai marble shafts from present day Belgium, demonstrate that the building was designed to make a statement in this world as well as to God.
The church in its position set above the River Thames, has an elaborate façade recalling a city gate, and would have dominated the surrounding landscape and the nearby village. The facade is in substantially its original form, although the apex of the gable end was largely rebuilt in the nineteenth century, as was the circular ‘eye of God’ window, which was based on surviving elements of the original design.
The top stage of the magnificent central bell tower, with a highly decorated window on its southwest side, was refaced in the 1970s although substantially respecting the original design. After this drastic ‘restoration’, a new strategy was employed for the west front and the south door, both of which have sheltercoats to protect the original sculptures against further erosion.
The great west doorway (1) is a superb example of continuous beakhead ornament, a notable feature of sculptural decoration at this period in this part of England. Above, there are symbols of the Dove of the Holy Spirit at the apex, followed to the south side by the symbols of the four evangelists, the lion of St Mark, the ox of St Luke, the eagle of St. John and the man of St. Matthew. An angel appears between the symbols of St. Luke and St. John. To the north side there are Zodiac symbols, the water carrier of Aquarius, the fishes of Pisces and Virgo. The sculptures of the doorway allude to visions of the Almighty by Ezekiel and in the Book of Revelation. This doorway, emphasising the spiritual life, was the entrance for the priest and for specific liturgies, including Palm Sunday when the priest’s entry symbolised Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. It would also have been the entry for baptisms and the symbols on the doorway are often found on fonts of this period.
The south doorway (2) was the usual entry for the laity and is richly decorated with symbols. On the east side the bird attacking a snake is an ancient symbol of the victory of good over evil, adopted as symbolising Christ’s incarnation to save the world. The figure on the capital astride a lion is David or Samson and symbolises Christ’s destruction of the gates of Hell and victory over death. To the west, we see a saddled horse gored by a beast, contrasting with the knights on the east capital riding together. The metaphor of the horse representing the body and the rider the soul, as referred to in the Epistle of James, was commonplace in the ancient and medieval worlds. These images, as also the centaur family and the merman, allude to the continuous fight against temptation and the need to bridle one’s passions, successfully on the east side, unsuccessfully to the west. As the doorway of this world, rather than of the spiritual world, it was here that marriages were contracted, a civil ceremony and legal contract at this time, to be followed by a celebration of a nuptial mass in the church.
The north doorway (3) is relatively undecorated, perhaps because it was through this that the funeral cortege left the church to the burial ground.
The three doorways all provide access to and from the baptistery. As the site of a Christian’s initiation into the church, the baptistery is found at the west end of churches from early Christian times into the Middle Ages. The plain black Tournai marble font resting on a central pier with three original spiral columns and a thirteenth century replacement, dominates this area. The design ensured that every time a person entered the church, he or she would be reminded of the sacrament of baptism and the baptismal vows made at that time, before turning right towards the sanctuary.
Beyond the baptistery, which was probably separated from the nave by a timber partition (4), there is a step up to the nave where the lay congregation attended the mass, after which there is a further step up under the great tower, which would have housed bells, emphasising the elite status of the patrons and for use especially at funerals. Immediately before the western tower arch there were two late medieval side altars, one facing north, the other south, within niches in the church walls. The church became sacred through the dedication service performed by the bishop, including the blessing of twelve consecration crosses on the walls, four of which survive in the nave and the tower. The tower arches feature octagonal Tournai marble shafts with elaborate vegetal decoration and chevron or zig-zag ornament.
In the original church, there was a rood beam across the eastern tower arch (5); this would have carried a wooden crucifix probably between figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John, framed by the chancel arch and with a wooden tympanum. The rood may have been like the wooden figure of Christ on the cross, fragments of which were found walled up in South Cerney church, Gloucestershire, and are now in the British Museum. The supports for the beam can be seen on the north and south walls. With further steps up, the greater elaboration of the eastern arch denotes its importance as the gateway to the sanctuary, which symbolised the Heavenly City; a bird in its nest (6) on the south side recalls psalm 84: ‘How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! Even the sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young’.
The altar would have stood in the centre of the domical rib-vaulted sanctuary (7) beneath a boss displaying a winged serpent and pinecones. The vault may refer distantly to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and to the practice of covering the ‘Holy of Holies’ with a ciborium or canopy. The serpent symbolises Christ crucified, recalling Christ’s saying in St. John’s Gospel, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up’. The eucharist celebrated at the altar endlessly repeated the sacrifice. Pinecones are an ancient symbol for fountains or rivers and are a symbol for the four rivers of Paradise, which flow from Christ. This is based on visions described by both Ezekiel and St John.
The Romanesque church probably had an apse at the east end (8) approached by further steps up. This area seems to have been for the priest’s use but may also have been designed to display relics.
The sculptures and the general design including the narrowing of the church and the rising floor levels as one moves towards the east end, which is 1.16 metres above the level of the great west doorway, may be seen as a metaphor of life’s pilgrimage to our heavenly home.
The Thirteenth Century Sanctuary
In the 1220s or 1230s, the fine early Gothic east end (9) was constructed. The altar was moved to the East wall to allow for changes in the liturgy of the mass related to the developing concept of transubstantiation. The new east end may have been financed by a major local family, the St. Valerys, in connection with the erection of an anchoress cell (10) at Iffley for Annora, whose mother was a St. Valery. An anchoress was walled up in a cell, ina liturgy alluding to burial to this life and spiritual marriage with Christ. Annora’s cell was probably on the south side of the new sanctuary. She lived here as an anchoress from about 1232 to 1242. The blocked arch visible in the wall outside would have contained a window for her to attend the mass. Perhaps Annora chose to have her cell at Iffley because of its background in female piety; her maternal grandfather had witnessed the charter confirming the Clinton family’s acquisition of Iffley. After Annora’s death, a fine late thirteenth century sedilia (11) for priests was built against the south wall.The windows in the original sanctuary were enlarged in this period with plate tracery.
Late Middle Ages
In the late middle ages, the rood beam was further developed with a screen below and a rood loft, perhaps for singers especially on Palm Sunday; thiswas accessed through a new stairway in the south wall. Further developments included large fifteenth century perpendicular windows for further light, in which there are remnants of beautiful stained glass, including the arms of John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and patron of the Donnington Hospital Trust, which owned land in the parish.
Outside in the burial ground, a preaching cross was set up with a depiction of the Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, in the centre of the Cross of Life. The medieval crosshead (12) is now in the sanctuary on the north wall. Processions to the church, especially on Palm Sunday, would have stoppedat the cross for a gospel reading or a sermon, which is why such crosses were often called palm or preaching crosses.
After the Reformation, worship changed substantially, from the liturgy of the mass to the liturgy of the Word; this resulted in a change of emphasis from the altar to the pulpit, as can be seen in prints and pictures of the church.
The Nineteenth Century to the Present Day
Sensitive restoration of the fabric in the nineteenth century was combined with a return to greater emphasis on Holy Communion and therefore the altar. The nave roof was heightened, a new organ installed, blocking the former south door, and most of the internal woodwork was swept away. The church furnishings today are substantially the result of these alterations, with more recent seating in the baptistery and the Romanesque sanctuary. Stained glass was inserted in the thirteenth-century windows at the east end and the eye of God window at the west end.
During the last twenty five years, two magnificent windows have been installed in the baptistery, one by John Piper related to Christ’s birth (13), and the other by Roger Wagner depicting the ‘Flowering Tree’ (14). He and Nicholas Mynheer have designed the new font cover and Nicholas Mynheer also designed the new aumbry (15) to the south of the altar.
Text and images from St Mary’s Iffley. History, Design & Symbolism. An Introduction
Text: © Mark Phythian-Adams and Geoffrey Tyack, 2018
Photo: © Robert Farrands, Figure Ground Photography, 2018
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Further information on the conservation of the historic west and south doorways can be found here.