There’s a certain ‘presence’ about kindness. Like the spiritual – or, more likely, as a part of it – the act of unexpected kindness drops into our lives like a messenger from the ‘Gods’.
So it was with our visit to the ancient church of Lythe in the middle of the Friday afternoon of the Keys of Heaven workshop. The village of Lythe lies just north of Whitby and marks the the beginning of the towering cliffs which run northwards as far as Saltburn. Within this landscape, Lythe is set on its own hill and has commanding views all the way to Whitby Abbey in the distance.
It seems rather unfair to call the displayed Viking and medieval stones ‘the best bit’ of St Oswald’s church in Lythe, but in terms of excitement… and for me, at least… they were. I had seen them before…but once is never enough and photographs, of which I have many, are just not the same as being there.So, having done my duty by paying attention to the rest of the church… even if the Tobias window didn’t register… I wandered up to the west end and the display area, passing the medieval stone coffin on the way, complete with its rather practical drainage hole. ( I won’t say ‘for the juices’ because that never seems to go down very well…).
As I mentioned in a previous post, the church here is an old one and there are fragments of carved medieval masonry preserved within the church, the most interesting of which is a rather splendid Green Man. There are three main types of Green Man, or ‘foliate masks’ found in medieval architecture. Some, the ‘foliate heads’, are faces appearing through vegetation. The ‘bloodsucker head’ is the kind where leaves and vines grow from eyes, nose and mouth. Because the vegetation appears to be growing from his mouth, the Lythe mask is, I believe, of a type known as a ‘disgorging head’.
At first glance, it seems a pagan symbol, suggestion fertility and the natural cycles of growth, and yet they are found in even the most decorous of churches. Christianity explains the symbolism in terms of spiritual rebirth and renewal and therefore it becomes a symbol of the resurrection. I have wondered too whether it shows, even in Christian terms, the natural cycle of ‘earth to earth’, where death gives only our flesh back to be taken into the earth, ‘rendering unto Caesar’ what belongs to this realm while what belongs to other realms returns home.
Also medieval, from around the twelfth century, is a rather curious fragment of a tympanum that would once have graced the arch over the church door. Many of the tympanums we have seen seem to incorporate scenes from mythology or pre-Christian tales, though that might simply be that we have lost the keys to unlocking the symbolism they contain since literacy took away the need to understand these images.
This fragment is thought to show Adam in the Garden of Eden, but if so, you have to wonder what he is doing. Is it the weathered remnant of the serpent, a phallus or an umbilical cord that seems to attach him to the Tree? An information board gives a clear outline of the wind-blasted carving and where it would have sat within the door. Who, or what, is the hunched figure… as it does not seem to suggest Eve? And what has been lost from the scene?
Even further back in time we go with the tenth century Cross head. On the reverse there is interlacing and a central boss, on the front, the boss is a face, lacking the halo that would suggest the Christ.
There are other stones from the ninth and tenth centuries; one carved with wrestlers and a beast that looks like a horse with too many legs, suggestive, perhaps of Sleipnir, the horse of Odin…for these are Viking stones, recovered from the burial ground here. Many of them are hogbacks, carved with scales or roof tiles and details from both Norse and Christian stories. The two were not mutually exclusive and we have seen many stones where the symbolism seems to be deliberately merged to show that the Lightbringers of one faith are the same as the gods of another.
One detail on a fragment of a hogback shows a bird. It could be the Dove that represents the Holy Spirit…or one of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, ‘mind’ and ‘memory’. Another hogback is carved with a simplistic ‘gingerbread man’ and two wolf-like creatures. It has been suggested that this could be a portrayal of Ragnarök, the Norse ending of the world before its rebirth, or perhaps the god Tyr whose hand was taken by a wolf. But look a little closer and you notice that the arms of the ‘gingerbread man’ are not in the mouths of the wolves…they are the wolves’ mouths. The lines that form them are one and the same, in a similar fashion to the symbol of the three hares that have six visible ears, but only three are carved. Is this just economy of line on the part of the artist? Or are we looking at something more mysterious?
The stones go back even further, and two of the fragments have been dated to the eighth century, which has suggested that there may have been a stone-built church on the site at a similar time to the Synod of Whitby… and which might give credence to the idea that St Cuthbert really did dedicate the church in person to St Oswald.
But that, it seemed, was all we were going to see of the stones. We knew there was a crypt beneath the church where more were stored, but it was kept locked and only opened by arrangement. But Steve, it seemed, had a surprise up his sleeve… and down we went into the crypt… Down the spiral staircase and into a small room…
Between the grave markers carved with the cross pattée, medieval grave slabs and fragments of masonry, the tantalising fragments of hogbacks, some of which seemed to suggest ‘end-beasts’ like the one we had seen, so beautifully preserved, in Brechin, where we had also seen a definite Sleipnir…I felt like a child in a sweet shop! I could have stayed there for hours, poring over the stones and the catalogue…
One stone, in particular, stood out, carved very simply with a cross we have seen in so many places, including Bakewell church where so many new threads began to weave themselves into our adventures. It is called the ‘cross potent’ and is suggestive of four nails, their points meeting at the centre. It is far older than Christianity and was used as far back as Neolithic times. It is also called the Jerusalem Cross, as it formed part of the arms of the crusader state of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, established after the First Crusade by Godfroy de Bouillon… in whose army, it is believed, served one Hugues de Payens, co-founder and first Grand Master of the Knights Templar. But the light outside was fading and we still had another place to visit… so, reluctantly, lingering and last out, we climbed the stairs and locked the door behind us.
Stuart and I had been to Lythe before, some years ago, early in our travels, sent to the little church by a friend. The church is dedicated to St Oswald, a figure we have come upon again and again in recent years. Born around 604, he was king of Northumbria from 634, a reign of a mere eight years… or nine, according to some chroniclers of the time, who assign the one year reign of the previous incumbent to Oswald because he was not a Christian king, whereas Oswald was accounted a saint, even during his lifetime.
It was his kindliness and concern for the poor, as well as his devotion to his faith and his association with St Aidan that had earned him such veneration. Curiously, Steve had begun his Northumbrian workshop at Oswald’s stronghold at Bamburgh, where Stuart and I had also visited the shrine of St Aidan in the church beside the castle. Later, we had all gone on to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island Oswald had given to Aidan who had come to Northumbria to bring his faith to the land. And after Steve’s last workshop in Scotland, Stuart and I had been sidetracked by the wonderful holy well dedicated to the saint in Kirkoswald.
There is something about this saint and his story that keeps drawing us back. Perhaps it has to do with the raven who stole the dead king’s severed arm and dropped it, causing a healing well to spring up from the ground. Perhaps it has to do with the unified land he ruled and served… or the notion of holiness and rulership combined, as in the priest-kings of old. Doubtless, an explanation will come in good time.
For now, though, it was enough to be back in the peaceful little church on the cliffs, with time to spare to explore the building and its treasures. The church itself is a simple one… you get the impression of a ‘no-nonsense’ place, very much in keeping with the character of the local folk. But there is beauty in the solid forms of the structure and in the delicate stained glass of the windows. There has been a place of Christian worship on the site for at least eleven hundred years, and who knows how much longer? The current church is Norman, but so much altered and remodelled in Victorian times that little remains to tell of its age except the ‘feel’ of the place… that quiet but unmistakable aura of sanctity that infuses the very stones of these ancient places of prayer.
A screen, carved in 1910 and upon which perches the organ, separates the aisle from the chancel. Above the altar, which is flanked by four carved angels, wings outstretched, the arched ceiling is painted in brilliant shades… though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I did rather feel like repainting the roses in their proper colour, as the white rose, not the red, is my county’s symbol.
The first panel of the east window shows scenes from the extremes of Jesus’ life… the nativity and the crucifixion. The second panel shows the risen Christ and the promised second coming. In esoteric terms, it could be argued that the Teacher did not become the Christ until the rebirth symbolised by those final moments… in which case, the window ‘bookends’ the human life of the Man at the point where He becomes Divine.
In the central panel of the window in the Lady Chapel, Mary the Mother holds her Child. To the right is Oswald, king and saint, who was killed in battle and dismembered. On the left is St Cuthbert, a holy man, reluctantly made a bishop of Lindisfarne, upon whose tiny island retreat we had ended our Northumbrian weekend, serenaded by seals. In his hands, he holds the severed head of St Oswald that he is thought to have carried back to the north; Oswald’s relics were once held in the ruined chapel within the castle walls of Bamburgh.
Cuthbert was one of those who attended the Synod at Whitby Abbey and would probably have passed through Lythe on his journey. It is thought that Cuthbert himself may have dedicated an earlier church on the site to Oswald. Somehow, because of how many times we have ‘fallen over’ Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert, it all seems rather personal, as if we are missing something still…
Another window shows Richard I of England carrying the cross of St George to the Crusades and a red-gloved figure who is probably St Nicholas, because there are the three bags of money he secretly gave as dowries for the daughters of a poor neighbour, to prevent them being unmarried and cast out. For a Christmas workshop, that would be appropriate. There was also a ‘Tobias and the Angel’ window, a rare subject for stained glass, which I duly photographed but which, somehow, completely failed to register… which is odd as his story plays a part in our latest book, which I had just been editing…
My favourite window, though, just for the colours alone, has to be the St Michael, with the blue dragon rearing at his feet, even though it looks as if the serene archangel has skewered the dragon, through the mouth to the throat. It still doesn’t explain why an archangel should need beatification though… and the official line that all ‘good’ angels are saints, because ‘saint’ comes from sanctus, which means ‘holy’, does not explain why only Gabriel, Raphael and Michael commonly bear that title. But, much as there was to ponder in the church, it was the stones at the west end that had drawn us here…
Several years ago, Stuart and I braved the bitter, biting winds of January to visit the Church of St Oswald at Lythe. There were, a friend had told us, stones…carved stones that we would want to see…and that trip had been all about the stones as we drove through England, did a Welsh border raid and up into Scotland discovering Albion. We were frozen, tired and hungry and barely did the church justice, so it was wonderful to know that our first stop on the Whitby workshop would be St Oswald’s.
I knew the way and recognised the church and its parking spot with no problem. In spite of the same backdrop of winter skies, the church looked different; both Stuart and I remembered the tower as simply square…minus the squat little spire that was added a century ago. Which was odd, especially as, looking back at the photos we had taken at the time, they are almost identical to the ones I took that day.
It was, however, considerably warmer so this time we would be able to explore outside the church, as well as within. There has been a church here for at least eleven hundred years, with the original wooden building being replaced by stone eight hundred years ago. The churchyard was once an important burial ground for the invading Vikings, whose adoption of Christianity did not divorce them from their ancestral faith, but added a new layer to an already rich and ancient mythology.
The churchyard no longer holds signs of the Viking burials, but, perched upon its wind-blasted clifftop above the sea, it is still an interesting place to wander. Many of the headstones are carved with anchors and other maritime symbols, acknowledging the role of the sea in the lives and faith of the locals for so many generations. You can understand, when you know those cold and stormy waters, why those who sailed and fished there have always invoked the protection of higher powers, since long before Christianity came to the north.
Beside the porch is a memorial to the men of the parish who served and lost their lives in war. The stone is carved around with the symbols of the instruments of the crucifixion, which seems appropriate, for the suffering of these men and that of their families as they waited for news must have seemed like torture.
Behind the church, looking out across the bay towards the once-great Abbey of Whitby is the ornate Victorian monument to the Buchannan family, who were linked by marriage to the Cholmleys who had built the seventeenth-century house beside the Abbey that now houses a museum. Each face of the memorial bears a scene of the Christ in relief and it is a fabulous testament to the craft of the stonemason who carved it.
But what we had really come to revisit was inside the church and, although I was determined to take notice this time of the church itself, there were the old stones inside…