Look, no hands

WE VISITED TWO churches in Suffolk, and inside them we spotted three things that particularly interested us. The first church is in Cavendish, The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. Standing on a hill above the village, its construction dates from 1300 and was largely completed by 1485. Some restoration work was carried out in the 19th century. One of the two things that fascinated us in this church is affixed to the inside of the north wall. It is a bas-relief depicting the Crucifixion. It is a reredos of Flemmish make, created in the 16th century. It is framed in a Victorian surround designed by Ninian Comper (1864-1960) in 1895. The sculpted reredos was brought to the church from the private chapel of the hymn writer Athelstan Riley (1858-1945) in London, following his death.

Cavendish church

The other curiosity in this church, which has memorials to the philanthropists and local parishioners Baroness Sue Ryder and Baron Leonard Cheshire, is on a wall just behind the 19th century wooden pulpit within arm’s reach of the preacher. It is an hourglass, looking like a large egg-timer, which the priest could use to time his sermon. I had never seen such a thing in a church. Less curious but also fairly unusual are the 13 wooden crucifixes on the interior walls of the bell tower. These were made from wood salvaged from the Western Front during WW1 and each one commemorates one of the men from Cavendish who were killed in the conflict.

The other church we visited on our recent trip to Suffolk was St Mary in Stoke by Nayland, which was sometimes painted by John Constable (1776-1837), who was born nearby in East Bergholt. Built in Perpendicular Gothic style between 1300 and 1481 it is very majestic, like a small cathedral. The church is full of interesting monuments including many fine brasses. It was one of the funerary monuments that particularly intrigued us: the Lady Anne Windsor monument. Anne lived from about 1568 until 1615. A stone carving depicts her lying with her head on a pillow. At her feet, there is a carving of a kneeling man, Anne’s son. By her head, two carvings depict a pair of kneeling women, Anne’s daughters. Look closely at this pair and you will notice that their hands have been broken off. Their arms are merely amputated stumps. What is going on here?

Stoke by Nayland church

The answer is that in 1643, Parliamentary Commissioners visited the church in Stoke by Nayland and destroyed 100 religious images and 7 funerary items. Part of this over-zealous iconoclastic behaviour was the removal of the four hands of the two women on Lady Anne’s monument, as well as those of the recumbent figure of the deceased. All the hands of females on the monument were removed but those of the kneeling male figure were left untouched. Apparently, the female hands were removed because the Commissioners considered them to have been in “a superstitious attitude of prayer”, whatever that meant during the Reformation.

The three items I have described are but a few of the things worth seeing in the two churches. I have chosen to describe them because I have not seen such things in the many other parish churches I have visited in England.

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