Monday, 13 July 2015

A Monument

Over the weekend I enjoyed an afternoon's walking in Kent.
 'Kent, sir - everybody knows Kent - apples, cherries, hops and women' (as Mr Jingle so succinctly put it) - and indeed a providential punnet of fresh-picked cherries from a roadside stall was one of the highlights of this walk, through gently rolling orchard and arable country west of Faversham. But the grand climax came, fittingly, at the end, in the picturesque village of Lynsted. The parish church of St Peter and St Paul is an imposing, rather muddled flint building - a patchwork of various periods - that happens to contain one of England's greatest church monuments.
  The monument to Christopher Roper, 2nd Lord Teynham (died 1622), is a rare example of a signed work by that elusive genius Epiphanius Evesham. It stands in the South chapel of the church, and it's apparent at a glance that this is a work of startling originality, displaying a level of craftsmanship infinitely superior to the provincial Jacobean monuments around it. The composition is quite extraordinary, combining two standard monumental forms of the period - the reclining effigy and the kneeling mourner at prayer - and breathing dramatic life into them. These are entirely convincing naturalistic likenesses of individual human beings, not emblematic figures frozen in conventional hieratic gestures.
 Lord Teynham reclines as if asleep, his beautifully moulded right hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, his open but unseeing eyes turned to a point somewhere between the altar and the expected Heaven. His widow (who commissioned the monument) kneels behind and above him, praying at a priedieu - and grieving. This is no conventional 'mourning figure' but a woman of flesh and blood and soul, bravely enduring the agony of loss. The face is quite startling, even unsettling, in its lifelike expressiveness. It is hard to turn away from her.
 Those two figures alone would be enough to make this a most remarkable monument, but there are wonders below, in the form of two exquisitely carved alabaster panels depicting Lord Teynham's offspring. On most Jacobean monuments these are little more than a row of kneeling ninepins distinguished from each other only by conventional emblems of status. But here Evesham has carved individual, naturalistic portraits of each - the two sons on the right, turning their backs on hawk and hound to mourn their father, and the five daughters on the left, openly grieving (while still attended by their lapdogs). Each panel is beautifully composed and carved with quite extraordinary delicacy and skill, and each figure lives.
It is surely one of the great wonders of England that an obscure parish church can contain such a masterpiece.