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It’s beginning to look a lot like…

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Once again, I’ll lead with an update on this week’s mouse score: there are no changes since last week, alive or otherwise. Yaayyy!

This could mean they are mad at us, the honeymoon is over, or—my guess—it’s just too cold to go out hunting. After all, every mouse they have brought us has been found somewhere outdoors—never indoors—and both our charges are excellent mousers in this rural area.

Yep, that white stuff is frost, and we’ve been experiencing freezing temperatures. It’s been enough to send us into a little bit of hibernation ourselves. Accordingly, we haven’t gotten out much.

We did run a few errands in town, and took the opportunity to visit a couple of local parish churches.

First up was the parish church of St. Andrew in Soham. The name Soham is said to derive from the Old English Soegan Hamm, or “swampy settlement.” This church has been a place of Christian worship for over 1,300 years.

According to our historian friend, the Venerable Bede, an individual now known as St. Felix first founded an abbey here in 631 A.D., and he was also the person who introduced Christianity to East Anglia, the world of Sutton Hoo.

Almost all that is known about St. Felix originates from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (“Historia Ecclesiastica”), completed by Bede around 731, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede writes in Historia Ecclesiastica, II.15:

Bishop Felix... came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis).

Bede describes his work with an allusion to the good omen of his name (Felix—meaning happy, fortunate, or joyful), and he praised Felix for delivering “all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness.”

A charming legend describes how Felix once sailed up the River Babingley, which was still navigable then. Whilst seeking a suitable place to land, a violent storm occurred and Felix’s ship foundered in the water. Fortunately for him, together with the rest of the crew, beavers saved everyone on the boat from drowning. Felix consecrated the chief of the beavers by making him a Bishop in gratitude for saving his life and allowing him to deliver Christianity to the region of what became East Anglia. This act is remembered on a village signpost in Babingley, which shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre grasping a crook.

Shortly after his arrival in East Anglia, Bishop Felix likely instructed the entire family of Etheldreda in the Christian faith, baptizing Etheldreda in a stream and following the family as the years passed by. The relationship between Etheldreda and Felix became one of spiritual father and spiritual daughter. Under his guidance, she would have studied the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and Latin, as well as needlecraft and perhaps manuscript copying—and she also met many of the future spiritual leaders of England.

Perhaps Etheldreda also met St. Hilda of Whitby and her spiritual guide, St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, at this time. Through her, it is supposed that—spiritually at least—Bishop Felix was indirectly responsible for the foundation of the monastery at Ely through his daughter in Christ, Etheldreda, the saint honored in Ely Cathedral that I wrote about extensively a couple of weeks ago.

Felix was bishop for 17 years until his death on March 8, around 647/8 A.D. His relics were preserved at Soham, but the “Great Heathen Army” of Vikings overran East Anglia and destroyed the shrine and community in the winter of 869–870 A.D.

An Anglo-Saxon nobleman named Ranulph built a new cathedral and palace at Soham around 900 A.D. Traces of this Saxon cathedral are said to still exist within the current St. Andrew’s church, which dates from the 12th century.

Further additions and alterations were made in the 14th and 15th centuries, including the construction of the bell tower and clerestory. Unfortunately, from here you can’t make out the monkey perched on the exterior transept.

The interior architecture is superb; the 15th century clerestory windows make the church seem light and spacious inside. As you can barely make out, two carved wooden screens are situated at the front of the church! The original screen, moved off to the side during Victorian restoration work, also dates from the 15th century. Its carved tracery is particularly elegant, and plenty of original color survives—rich green and gold and deep crimson—but the beautifully carved wood also stands impressively on its own.

I found the pointed arch to be an interesting and striking feature.

The roof is a wonderful piece of late medieval craftsmanship. In common with many East Anglian churches, it has alternating hammer and tie beams that are ornamented with carved wooden figures of angels. Unfortunately, they: 1. are hard to make out way up there; and 2. are all missing their original wings.

They hypothesize that the roof was the work of the same team of craftsmen responsible for the roof at St. Andrew's church in Isleham, which I introduced you to last week.

I long to haul in a cherry-picker and zoom around in the rafters so I can enjoy all the carvings and details up there. (This complaint will be repeated shortly, x2.)

The chancel with its altar is surrounded by marvelous wood carving—carving that is continued throughout the entire church.

Not only beautiful medallions and flourishes were seen here, but carved texts appear behind the altar.

I was mesmerized by this intricate carving of The Lord’s Prayer and had to restrain myself from trying to read every bit of the raised text (the reader in me is insistent!).

It is worth reminding myself (and everyone else) that these walls—now whitewashed—at one time would have been covered in colorful murals, not unlike the murals in Troodos, Cyprus, which I described in a previous newsletter. Click here to see what I mean:

The only remaining mural is this sad, faded one, which they hypothesize is a painting of St. Felix.

Other charming details were encountered in this church, such as a small row of misericords dating to the 15th century.

All of them were as simple as this one—not as ornate as others I have photographed elsewhere. I don’t know whether these carvers were less enthusiastic, or whether they are of an earlier, more austere style. (The misericord “shelf” is smaller as well.)

The pews in the nave featured a variety of “poppy heads,” with most of them betraying dreadful wear and tear—unsurprising, since one can hardly resist reaching out and touching them.

I thought this one looked like a rabbit, but they also featured angels, bishops (some playing instruments), and fantastical looking beasts (a dragon is rumored to be near the front door, but I didn’t see it).

Hidden in the back, inside what’s being used as a storage room and staging area, are a couple of windows studded with fragments of medieval glass.

My eyes were drawn to the highest light in this one, which features a blue circular glass containing an emblem of three feet in a circular pattern. I needed that cherry-picker to get up there and take a good picture of it (and I also need to use a high quality camera, sigh). It piqued my interest, given the research I’ve conducted this past year in preparation for my presentation/paper on “The Trimorphic Ethoi of Psychological Types.”

The motif of three is common, and Jung considered the arrangement of deities into triplets an archetype in the history of religion. It is said that triple deities connote a threefold articulation underlying all created things, and each iteration features three apparent forms that function as a singular whole, such as with Christianity’s Holy Trinity.

…So do these three feet represent the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Is so, what a curious symbol! I wonder what it is supposed to mean. Google was of no help to me, and I have lodged inquiries with the church and with a historian I know. Stay tuned!

Afterwards, we drove a short distance to visit another parish church nearby. (I got smart and put on my black “Abominable Snowman” coat to keep warm.)

St. Mary's Church at Burwell is one of the finest perpendicular churches in Britain—a symphony in stone and a wonderful example of 15th century architecture. A church has been here since at least the 12th century.

While bits of Norman work survive in the tower, the bulk of the building seen today is 15th century, with soaring piers and a window filled clerestory. Hints of the influence of Ely Cathedral are seen in the octagonal-shaped top of the tower, topped by an unusual 18th century spirelet.

Unfortunately, you can’t make out the charming carved stone wodesmen decorating the front of the entry porch that beckon one within.

Upon entering, I was struck even more by a similarity to Ely Cathedral—the high stone pillars looked far more suitable for a cathedral than a modest parish church. I immediately observed how high and light it was. This is partly due to the light-colored building material and partly due to its tall, elegant windows, most of which are glazed with plain glass.

These slender pillars draw the eye upwards to the carved roof, where you might spot a menagerie of exotic beasts: birds, bears, griffins, elephants, tigers, camels, eagles, and foxes, as well as angels and little images of the Annunciation and the emblems of the evangelists (and I could barely make out any of them). Once again, I hungered for that swooping cherry-picker.

On one side of the nave, a pair of tigers with a mirror is featured. According to medieval bestiaries, this was the way to catch a tiger's cubs—here is a somewhat heartbreaking translation from the Aberdeen Bestiary:

When [the thief] sees the tigress drawing close, he throws down a glass sphere [mirror]. The tigress is deceived by her own image in the glass and thinks it is her stolen cub. She abandons the chase, eager to gather up her young. Delayed by the illusion, she tries once again with all her might to overtake the rider and, urged on by her anger, quickly threatens the fleeing man. Again he holds up her pursuit by throwing down a sphere. The memory of the trick does not banish the mother's devotion. She turns over the empty likeness and settles down as if she were about to suckle her cub. And thus, trapped by the intensity of her sense of duty, she loses both her revenge and her child. (Translation & Transcription Copyright 1995 © Colin McLaren & Aberdeen University Library.)

It is said of these roof carvings that—although the carpenters were undoubtedly highly skilled—in 15th century Burwell they had little idea what all these exotic animals looked like, and most of them bear a strong resemblance to horses and cows!

With my aging vision, I could barely make them out, and may need to get a decent set of lightweight travel binoculars that enhance (rather than detract from) my visual experience.

I admired the stained glass rose window embedded in the intricate stone carving overhead, and the rood screen was also beautifully carved, beckoning us into the glowing green chancel.

Apparently my sense of this magical lighting is not universally shared, since one visitor complained that “the glass in the clerestory and chancel is green, which filled the church with a glutinous submarine light.” These “dreadful green glass” windows were inserted in the 19th century during a Victorian restoration, which may help to explain the animosity.

Green glass glow notwithstanding, the dainty mosaics featuring St. Mary in the reredos behind the altar are charming, with hints of the Pre-Raphaelite about them.

The empty canopied niches in the chancel are particularly haunting, perhaps because of one’s proximity to them in this confined space.

The story goes that during the English Civil War in the 17th century, a Suffolk puritan named William Dowsing visited hundreds of parish churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk to remove and destroy stained glass and other “superstitious imagery,” including monumental brass inscriptions and statues of saints and angels. Apparently he visited Burwell one January afternoon and the many empty niches are testimony to the items he removed. Only some carved angels high up in the roof survived, presumably because the meager candles provided by the churchwardens cast insufficient light to illuminate those high corners on that winter’s day.

I might audaciously suggest it is a missed opportunity not to refill those many niches with some new carvings of church art, akin to what I admired at St. Mary’s in Kidlington (shown below):

They could feature new artists—perhaps hold a contest—and make those niches even more meaningful than ever before, and thereby transmit some holy energy rather than ghostly, disappointed, empty, iconoclastic energy. Well, that’s my un-asked-for opinion anyway.

On the chancel ceiling one can reportedly find a monkey with a urine flask as a satire of the medical profession. (I didn’t spot it.)

In an anteroom that appears to be used as the children’s playroom we found some of these fabled carvings much closer to the ground, and enjoyed the bits of angel roof and elaborate animal carvings.

I especially liked the two figures on the left surrounding the head of a crowned, bearded man, which are easily visible.

Out in the nave once more, we found a colorful mural of St. Christopher, whose club is apparent but the Christ child is difficult to see (if I saw him at all).

My spirits always lift when I see St. Christopher, since I have rather adopted him (or vice versa?) as our patron saint for this crazy journey we’ve embarked on.

It seemed to me there was confusion about its location: one source claimed they put him here by the door so pilgrims would see him when they leave, but another source says his location just proves that people originally entered the church from the other side so that St. Christopher would be the first thing they would see (the latter being more traditional). It remains a mystery.

The rest of the week we mostly hibernated and bashed away at our various projects. Robin got an urge to cook vegetables and rustled up a batch of my favorite roasted brussels sprouts and garlic dish. If you’re interested, his recipe can be found here:

I’m continuing my Symbolon training. I’m impressed at how multilingual everyone is but me—wow. It’s quite humbling. I’m excited to be moving into the certification phase shortly.

Would you like a taste of it? Take a moment and gaze at this Advent calendar: Where in the picture would you like to be and what makes you happy?

(© Richard Sellmer Verlag)

Next ask: what does that say about you?

If you want help interpreting your “result,” you know where to find me! I’ll be in Isleham, taking care of these two love buckets:

They are a joy, a delight, and they make my heart sing.

Happy holiday time!

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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