• Michael Smith, printmaker, Mythical Britain

The church of St John the Baptist, Barnack, Cambridgeshire – an astonishing Anglo-Saxon survival


Of all the churches and mediaeval ancient monuments I have visited in Britain, I must say that the church of St John the Baptist at Barnack, Cambridgeshire, is one of the most memorable and impressive I have ever come across.

As many of my followers know, I have a particular interest in simpler forms of architecture; in particular, a style known as Romanesque. At St John the Baptist, we are rewarded with an even earlier mediaeval style (at least in England): Anglo-Saxon long-and-short work. But that’s not all, we also see Norman Romanesque; a 12th Century spire; a fourteenth century chancel and a fabulous Lady Chapel of the late fifteenth century.

Barnack was a key source of building stone in this area in the Middle Ages; much of the church glows with its soft golden hue. Looking the church form the outside, it is hard to know where to start with the riches which confront us.

The tower is a remarkably well-preserved Anglo-Saxon edifice, helped in no small part by its capping with a twelfth century spire. Consequently, the tower below can be read and understood almost as originally intended.

Saxon Tower

Resembling in style a timber-framed building, the tower is pierced by characteristic triangular-headed openings on the west face, while on the south face we have a Saxon doorway (with a capstone which draws to mind the strange animal-like feature above the door at Deerhurst).

We can also see an unusual Saxon sundial and intricately carved stone featuring a bird, and a fascinating triangular-headed window containing a complex basket-work design. The north face is less complex yet still retains characteristic Anglo-Saxon openings.

Rich exterior of various centuries

At some stage following the Norman invasion, the nave was rebuilt and gradually, so too, the church itself. The thirteenth century porch of unusual design resembles the spire of the church in terms of its squat form and solid design; it leads to a Romanesque doorway. Much of the nave and chancel exterior is perhaps what we might view as a typical mediaeval church although the Lady Chapel on the south side has some fine carved work around the battlemented parapet.

Stunning interior survivals

Yet even if the exterior might excite, it is the rich legacy within the church which also makes a visit one of the most rewarding available. The arch connecting the nave to the tower is particularly interesting, with strange decoration resembling something like a beef burger; I’ve not see this before on my travels.

Elsewhere, wonderful Norman capitals and arches separate the northern aisle from the nave; there is a beautiful thirteenth century font; in the vestry we find twelfth century effigies (including a knight from the period of the Norman church); and we also find some fine carved faces in strange and unusual places.

Wonderful Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel contains even more wonders, not least of which are the two late fifteenth century carved niches, one of which contains an exquisite and unusual statue of the Conception of Christ, bearing the inscription Jesus Maria in contemplacione sua. The other niche, containing a modern statue is no less impressive; a small sculpture of an eagle is immediately engaging.

Elsewhere in the Lady Chapel is a particularly fascinating survivor, a mesmerising Saxon/Scandinavian tomb lid in the fluid Urnes style. Seeing this, and contemplating its heritage from the fjords, the visitor is immediately transfixed by the enormous and varied legacy which this church contains.

One more jewel in the crown of Barnack

Yet, despite all these wonders, St John the Baptist has one more up its sleeve which I believe really sets the church apart. In the north aisle is a carved effigy of Christ in the finest Romanesque style which, until the 1930s, was hidden beneath the floor of this remarkable church.

Exquisitely well preserved, this sculpture has a deeply moving simplicity. It is so perfect, one wonders how it has survived; it is possible that it was buried during the Civil War to save it from the iconoclasts. Whoever had the forethought to bury this effigy was truly someone of deep spiritual and cultural merit.

Sitting in front of this statue, surrounded by art and architecture of so many periods, one is almost pushed to the floor in emotion.

A truly beautiful, spiritual and blessed place. Visit, be becalmed and leave in a more tranquil state of mind. I did; it is a place I shall always remember.

About the author.

Michael Smith is a British author, translator and printmaker.

His new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has just been published by Unbound.

He is also currently crowdfunding his new translation of King Arthur's Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure) of c.1400 - if you would like to pledge support (and have your name in the back as a patron,), please pledge here.

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© 2020, Michael Smith, all rights reserved

Original linocut prints, books  and greetings cards featuring a range of mediaeval themes including: the Battle of Agincourt; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; King Arthur;;Stonehenge; Viking art; Saxon art; the Sutton Hoo helmet; medieval animals; castles; medieval myths and legends; historic monuments and so much more!

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