Saturday, July 02, 2005

The leaves of Southwell

Today I have been to Southwell in Nottinghamshire to visit the Minster, which is one of England's finest cathedrals and certainly the least well known. It stands in a spacious little town that has connections with Lord Byron.

Lord Bonkers writes: In those days many people had connections with Lord Byron.

One of the great things about the East Midlands is how little the region is known. If Southwell were in the Cotswolds it would be crawling with tourists. Here the town caters for visitors but is not swamped by them. The result is that Southwell is a dignified place without being self-important.

The stone carvings in the Chapter House are the glory of the Minster. As its website says:
The carvings known as "The Leaves of Southwell" are world renowned. There are images of animals - goats, hares, birds and fabulous creatures - and human heads in portrait and caricature, combining superstition and fable with religious beliefs. There are also many different types of leaf, all of which would have been found in Sherwood Forest.
There are also carvings of ten "Green Men" who have branches of leaves growing from their mouths or who have heads formed of leaves. The origins of the Green Men are obscure. They are found in mythology long before Christianity came to Britain and are linked to rites of fertility, Spring and new birth. If the Green Men represented new birth and new life then they could, perhaps, also represent the resurrection in the Christian context.
In 1945 Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a short book entitled The Leaves of Southwell. It was published as a King Penguin, with photographs by F. L. Attenborough, the principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Sir Dickie and Sir David.

He makes great claims for the leaves' importance, concluding:
Could these leaves of the English countryside, with all their freshness, move us so deeply if they were not carved in that spirit which filled the saints and poets and thinkers of the thirteenth century, the spirit of religious respect for the loveliness of created nature? The inexhaustible delight in live form that can be touched with worshipping fingers and felt with all senses is ennobled ... by the conviction that so much beauty can exist only because God is an every man and beast, in every herb and stone. The Renaissance in the South two hundred years later was perhaps once again capable of such worship of beauty, but no firm faith was left to strengthen it.
Seen in this light, the leaves of Southwell assume a significance as one of the purest symbols surviving in Britain of Western thought, our thought, in its loftiest mood.
I have come to the conclusion that, much as I love church music and church architecture, they do not mean that Christianity is true. But I am nearer to believing at Southwell than anywhere else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Southwell is a beautiful place and if anywhere can inspire you to spirituality it will be the Minster.