"Ridiculous Monstrosities" of Oxford, England
Beneath this turf the Dean’s dog Fred
Without his master, goes to Earth, stone dead.
But on the tower, stone Dean and Fred together
Enjoy the sunshine and endure bad weather.
This epitaph for Fred is on a plaque several feet beneath the carving of himself and his master --a caricature carving of an Oxford Dean and his dog that adorns the roof of the ancient church of St. Peter-in-the-East, now the library of St. Edmund Hall at Oxford University in Oxford, England.
Oxford, the university city of ‘dreaming spires,’ has nurtured politicians, clerics, poets, philosophers, authors, scientists, and not to be overshadowed: stone carvers! From the 12th century it became popular to decorate cathedrals with carvings of a most unusual nature. Sometimes they were comic, scary, bizarre or bawdy -- sometimes in combination. In 1125 an abbott called them, "ridiculous monstrosities." Not everyone approved of these carvings!
Because the earliest Oxford University buildings evolved from monastic cloisters, they have been decorated with carvings of all kinds - mostly heads and upper bodies of people, angels, demons, monstors and animals - that adorn the facades, roof tops and spires of the pale yellow sand-coloured buildings with ornamented spires. This practice continues today as old carvings are restored or new carvings added.
Taking a walk around Oxford focusing on the carvings is an interesting way to view this fascinating university town in the heart of England. There are mainly four types of carvings: Gargoyles, Grotesques, Drainheads, and Green Men.
Gargoyles are useful. They take the rain from the gutter behind it and spew the water through its mouth. Marvelous 100 year-old gargoyles -winged beasts and cowled human figures -decorate The Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street. They are best viewed from the Tower Gallery in the church -- quite a climb, but worth the effort.
Drainheads, also functional, take the water from the gutter and pass it into the top of the drainpipe beneath. A wonderfully funny example of a drainhead is a monkey on Magdelan College’s facade on High Street.
Grotesques are carvings with exaggerated expressions. Our dog Fred’s owner was one of the many heads of people that were carved in the 1960’s when these people were converting the church to a library. The carver of these heads was Michael Groser and his face is in the middle of the facade that faces New College.
Merton College below:
Around the bell tower of New College you can see the carvings that represent the seven virtues and seven deadly sins. Can you find the heads that match their virtue or sin? (patience, generosity, charity, prayerfulness, innocent love, enthusiastic joy and justice, or anger, gluttony, envy, pride, lust, sloth and greed) Tip: a good view can be had from "Helen’s Passage" - enter the alley by the Bridge of Sighs off New College Lane and take a rest at one of the oldest pubs in Oxford, The Turf Tavern.
One of the eeriest displays of grotesques is in the marvelous cloistered quad Magdalen College. Twenty- two were installed in 1508. They are called ‘heiroglyphicals’ because no one knows what they stand for or why were they carved. One creature has a face in its belly, another is a dinosaur-type statue sitting and holding a head and an owl. Each one defies description.
You pass through the oldest quad in Oxford when you head for Merton College’s chapel. At the bottom of the pillars along each side of the chancel are carvings that date from the end of the thirteenth century. Don’t forget to look up when you first enter Merton College. A 15th century plaque is there depicting a woodland scene.
Some of the most photographed and famous heads are those that are on the fence that protect the entrance to the Shedonian Theatre, the first building designed by Christopher Wren (also architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London). These ‘Sheldonian Herms’ were first carved in 1662-9. The original building notes describe the heads as ‘termains,’ which link them to the Roman god Terminus who guarded boundaries or to the Greek Hermes, god of doorways. These heads were destroyed by weather and new heads were carved and installed in 1868. These heads, probably faces of the carvers, were blank and pitted by the 1960’s. Michael Black carved 13 new heads between 1970 and 1972 with the aim of getting to as near as possible to the originals by studying an enlarged engraving of the Sheldonian that was published in 1675. The heads are crowned with ivy - look for the bird nesting in one. Note the beards: moving outward from the centre heads, the beards are at first unkempt then more trimmed - a history of beards.
Green Men are heads surrounded by leaves and branches that were used as decoration in medieval churches. They perhaps show the continuity of nature - the branches emerge from and return to the mouths and faces. In the 700’s, Saxon Princess Frideswide was said to have founded a monastery where Oxford now stands. In 1121 Christ Church was built on that site and she is known as the Patron Saint of Oxford. Her tomb is in the chapel and there are Green Men adorning it. You can also spot green men in Merton and Magdalen Colleges.
If you want lots more information and a guided walk to follow, buy (3 pounds) at any bookstore in Oxford: "Oxford’s Gargoyles and Grotesques" by John Blackwood. Otherwise, just get out your binoculars and spend an afternoon wandering around, inspecting the colleges (open from 2 pm to 5 pm), and enjoying and wondering about all the fascinating carvings.