Decoding church sculptures

While current crime-thriller readers seek the key in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, Malcolm Thurlby, York professor visual arts, takes his readers on an equally breathtaking romp in his book The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture (Logaston Press, 1999). Like The Da Vinci Code, it is littered with references to religion, history, symbolism and the works of master artists.

book cover

However, unlike Brown’s bestselling novel, there is no fiction in Thurlby’s bestseller. He is an art historian, and his book is one of the outcomes of decades of research on Romanesque architecture and sculpture in the British Isles.

In a unique twist, while on the trail of the Herefordshire School of Sculpture this spring, Christopher Somerville, travel writer for The Daily Telegraph in London, longed to know more about the master craftsmen of the school who created the most remarkable collection of church stone carvings – both religious and pagan – anywhere in the British Isles. However, no one seemed able to tell him more until Logaston Press sent him a copy of Thurlby’s illustrated paperback.

“With Thurlby’s book in hand I learnt the symbolism of these figures. I found the key,” noted Somerville in his March 27 travel feature titled “Tall tales captured in stone: The Herefordshire School created some extraordinary church sculpture”.

“In among all the Christian symbolism, the master carvers of the Herefordshire School of Sculpture liked to smuggle the occasional allusion to an even older faith,” explains Somerville. “Best of all, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture pointed me towards dozens of beautiful churches in gorgeous settings, scattered up and down the green woods and red fields of the [Welsh] Borders.”

Thurlby’s engaging prose and illustrations serve both as a guide to the surviving work of the Herefordshire School and a history of the school itself, including the people behind the works – both patrons and carvers. He also compares the surviving work, both in stone and in other materials, in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and beyond, with that of other styles both at home and abroad – Celtic motifs, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon work, as well as sculpture in France and Spain.

The book’s initial print run of 1,500 copies sold out in six months. Now in its third printing, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture has been bought mostly by visitors who pour into these various church sites.

Malcolm Thurlby is an internationally renowned specialist in medieval art and architecture and Canadian architectural history. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, he has published more than 60 articles on aspects of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and sculpture in Britain and 19th-century architecture in Canada. Thurlby has presented over 160 papers at conferences and universities in Canada, the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy.

This story was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena, communications, Faculty of Fine Arts