Two faces carved on adjoining misericord seats. They appear to converse across the void. The one on the right – severe, ascetic – speaks urgently; the one on the left, eyes lost in concentration, (a milder, gentler face I think) listens thoughtfully. Or that is how I see them.
No doubt clerics, momentarily distracted during evensong, have spun alternative stories to ease the chill of a November dusk. The characters, the dialogue, the plot constantly vary. Our two faces are actors in a never-ending play that is performed differently every night. But here’s the thing: we are compelled to write that play. We need a story – we demand a story – to explain, to make sense of these two adjacent figures.
And stepping out of the chancel – we are struck by the richness of narrative around us. For this is a place of stories. Some are artfully told; others whispered without knowing. The faded red and ochre of muted and half-erased wall-paintings tell of saints, apostles, judgement and salvation. The three living and the three dead emerge in the half-light: macabre strip cartoons relishing in the cadaverous decay of worldly beauty and wealth. Their story is an admonitory one: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be.
Everywhere you look – from the roof bosses portraying mysteries in the life of Christ to the brasses embedded in the stone floor – stories are revealed at every turn. And there are stories that turn on other stories. In Salle church, you will see the Four Great Doctors of the Church painted on the rood panels. Each has their own history; their own story. But if you look carefully at Pope Gregory, you will see his eyes have been violently scratched out – the paint flaked deliberately from the wood. This raises another tale – one of a Cromwellian soldier vandalising the panel bitter with reformational zeal. And the reason for doing so? Why, that’s yet another story concealed within like a Russian doll of enfolded narratives. For to look into the eyes of a Pope was to risk instant conversion: never stare in the eyes of a gorgon (or a Pope).
But should this incessant and vibrant storytelling surprise us. For a church is a liminal place. It shelters every significant rite of passage: baptism, marriage, death. Each stage on life’s journey is witnessed here. And those multiple memories and experiences attach themselves to what Augé describes as this anthropological place “of identity, of relations and of history” (Augé, p. 43). So surely it is fitting that such transformation and reinvention, such never-ending twists in the plot, are consecrated in a place of multiple stories: biblical, social, historical and personal.
Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.