In 2008, conservationists made an incredible discovery at an ancient church dedicated to St. Cadoc in Machen’s native Wales. Removing the lime wash from the interior walls of the church, they uncovered forgotten murals by an unknown hand. Among the painted figures, there emerged a complete mural of St. George, the patron saint of England, in combat against the dragon. Though Reformers undoubtedly intended to blot out the holy image, they only succeeded in preserving it for the future. In its own time and on its own terms, Paradise had returned to the parish of Llancarfan.
How many such wonders lie still hidden among the many holy sites in Britain? No doubt, Machen would have experienced profound joy over such an illuminating discovery. Visiting the little Essex church of this story, he certainly determined traces and shadows of a greater glory for Machen’s careful eye was ever-ready for a glimpse beyond the grey film of this world. His desire for an older tradition and its beauty is palpable in this dispatch for the Evening News of April 24, 1914.
A Glorious Old Church
There is a certain town set on a hill in the highlands of Northern Essex. It is called Thaxted, and here is a very noble and glorious old church, dedicated, I think, to St. John the Baptist.1 It is remarkable for many things, but chiefly for this: that neither the Reformers, nor the Puritans, nor the Restorers have done it any grievous or irreparable damage. Damage, of course, there has been; once, no doubt, a splendid carven rood screen veiled the high altar from the nave; once all the windows were annealed with the stories of the great knights and captains of the Church. Of the rood there is no trace of the painted glass many interesting fragments remain.
Damage has been done, but not fatal damage. The Reformers and the Puritans broke down some of the carved work with their axes and hammers, but not much of it survives; and Thaxted Church is still a medieval church, not a core of stones hidden under the smooth, abominable face of the modern architect’s inventions. There is plenty of ancient surface remaining, plenty of ancient carving and tracery and figures. But the tower that bears up the beautiful fourteenth-century steeple is in a dangerous state, the lead of the roof is almost perished after four centuries of weather, and an appeal to the nation, signed “T. Fowell Buxton,” “Walter Gilbey,” and “Bayleigh,” has been issued, an appeal, not to “beautify” or bedizen or falsify the old work, but to save it from destruction. (pound sign) 5,000 is wanted; with all my heart I hope that it may be found speedily.
Raphaels and Corregios2 are fine things, I suppose; I would do not deny it. But—to be quite frank—I think this goodly old church, fashioned by English hearts and honest English hands as their meet and worthy symbol of the eternal mysteries, is worth more to England than a new Raphael.
It has often been said that the art of our old builders was such that their work seems rather to spring from the soil as an extra-natural growth than to be imposed upon it. I thought of this as I drove up and down steep and narrow lanes in Essex the other day, and saw at last the spire of Thaxted Church from far away. I had come by hedges and trees and woods with the grace of the spring new possessing them.
The spring had put on the hawthorns a vesture of most vivid green, it had brought the blossom of the elms in a mist of faint yellow, the pear-trees in the cottage gardens were white as with sea foam, an enchanting pink was on the apple trees, and in the woods the sheltered branches of the beech trees were flecked and sprayed with a green that is of fairyland. And looking from a height, from amidst all this aspiring growth, far on another height rushed up a spire in stone, a tree, as it were, of a nobler and more perfect growth, scion of an ancient stock from paradise.
There is a great peace in Thaxted-on-the-Hill. It is a town of a winding street; here is the overhanging front of a medieval house, here a row of seventeenth-century buildings, here a comfortable Georgian residence in mellow brick. Many of the houses are adorned with “pargetting”—decorative patterns done when the plaster was wet—not with the richness and fulness of invention that one sees on the house of the wealthy of seventeenth century, but with simple, primitive designs of simple country workmen.
And in the midst of the town rises the great church. I walked about it, and here and there, I think I detected fifteenth-century tracery that belonged rather to 1850-70 than to the late Middle Ages; but for the most part, as I have said you have here the old surfaces, weathered but not destroyed; the stones as the craftsman left it four hundred years ago or more.
The tower and the spire are of the most exalted age of Gothic, but the body of the church and the chancel are utterances of the Gothic on its deathbed. No longer does each window or arch piece upward, striving, as it were, to soar even to the heavens. The splay of the arches and doorways and windows is depressed—some of the Thaxted windows are actually rectangular; the arch has disappeared altogether. The roof is almost flat; the old mounting, air-lifted vault had become too high a matter for the fifteenth century.
Here in London we have excellent examples of the former aspiration and the later declension in Westminster Abbey and the adjacent Henry the Seventh’s chapel.
Thaxted Church, then, is the dying speech of Gothic; and yet it is a speech of a noble eloquence. I do not know how it is, but the mere cusps of our modern imitative Gothic often strike me with the feeling that the craftsman had been skimped and stinted in his stone; and all the window-tracery will therefore look thin, poverty-stricken, shabby-genteel. But here, what generous ogee curves;3 shaped, one would say, out of a full breadth of stone and a full heart, giving pleasure to the craftsman and therefore to the beholder, as long as the stone shall endure.
And all the walls are rich with imagery; the gargoyles with most wonderful grimaces are the overflowing of old English joy into hearty, uproarious mirth. We cannot imagine Advanced Thinkers designing gargoyles. But let us not murmur; the probability is, if we could but see plainly, that Advanced Thinkers are gargoyles; the jests of the Most High.
Within the church there is something of the solemn vastness of a cathedral. The roof of oak and chestnut, unstained, in the mere dress of its antiquity, is borne up by grave carven angels. For those who are not haters of natural things, there is holy water in the stoup by the door; and it seemed as if the memory of incense was in the air.4
Here is one window was an imagery of Adam and Eve in old stained glass, in faint golden, shining colours; here in another window were saints and martyrs broken and defaced, but still triumphant in their clear robes, serene after the storms that had gone over them.
And—thank heaven!—nowhere in the church did I see a trace of modern ecclesiastical furniture. Nowhere was there that horrid brassiness that is turned out by the hundred and vilely apes the old spirit with its smooth machine-made surfaces.
I saw a wooden candelabrum, made, I should think, by the village wheelwright and painted by him in the scarlet which he would put on a cart. It was not beautiful, but it was not a lie.
And the floor in front of the altar was just old bricks—quite rough and uneven and altogether befitting.
Thaxted Church is in good hands; let us help to preserve it as a most worthy and admirable work of our forefathers.
1 The site of an ancient settlement along a Roman road, Thaxted-on-the-Hill is today a community of 3,000 people in the county of Essex. It is situated 38 miles northeast of London. There, one will still find the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist with Our Lady and St. Laurence. (See accompanying image.)
2 Raffaello Sanzio da Urbina (1483-1520) and Antonio da Corregio (1489-1534) were major artists of the Renaissance, each contributing to to the development of sacred and secular art in the West.
3 Similar to an elongated “s,” an ogee curve finds use in architectural components such as moulding and arches.
4 “…it seemed as if the memory of incense was in the air.” This theme reappears in Machen’s novella The Great Return of the following year. (See 2017 Darkly Bright Edition.)