In the village of Little Comberton is a mysterious design on a tympanum1 – quite possibly unique in Britain – which has so far defied description and interpretation.
Little Comberton is one of a group of settlements nestled at the foot of Bredon Hill – a limestone outlier from the Cotswold escarpment well known to all who live in the Vale for its low whaleback profile on the horizon.
The 12th century Norman tympanum is sheltered by a 17th century porch into whose masonry quoins has been carved (on the right hand – east- side) the date 1639 and (on the left- hand – west – side) ‘AGER;’ believed to be short for ‘AGERATUM’ – meaning ‘not growing old’. Hemsley-Hall (1988:2) mused as to whether this was the mason’s way of saying that the porch was, ‘built to last.’
At the centre of the pedimental carving is a cross with arms of equal length; but it is the eight mysterious ‘swirling’ designs – ordered four either side of the cross – that have evaded both accurate description and definitive interpretation. As part of the inventory for the Victoria County History, Page & Willis-Bund (1924) listed the design as, ‘a plain cross and four whorls on each side’ – a somewhat perfunctory description.
Nikolaus Pevsner (1968: 213) noted that the tympanum possessed a, ‘very strange tympanum with a cross and bulgy whorls, four left and four right (of the cross)’ in his review of the Buildings of Worcestershire. Interesting to note he used the adjective ‘bulgy’ instead of simply ‘high relief’ normally reserved for architecture, but perhaps he was trying to express the way in which the designs seem to be protruding out beyond the surrounding design on the tympanum.
In his magnum opus on tympana Charles Keyser described them as only, ‘eight circular shell-like ornaments surrounding a plain cross‘ (Keyser 1904:282) whilst the CRSBI website describes them as, ‘eight large hemispherical projections, four on each side, each with a central drilled hole surrounded by incised spiraling lines, like whorls’ (CRSBI 2022). Hemsley Hall (1988:2) repeated Pevsner’s description of them as, ‘bulgy whorls with radiating lines’ whilst Hoggard (1999:43) remarked that, ‘the precise symbolism (of the whorls) is unknown.’ The issue, it would appear, is that a ‘whorl’ is neither a spiral nor a concentric circle2
The eight raised motifs have been interpreted variously as beehives, clouds or shells (Hemsley-Hall 1988:2, Hoggard 1999: 43) whilst David Ross of the Britain Express website has suggested, ‘gusts of wind.’ Although each of these interpretations possess some merit, the carvings have remained enigmatic. The Historic England listed designation does not elaborate upon it further except to say that it was the tympanum – along with the other surviving 12th century features – which helped to secure its ‘listed’ designation and which makes the church an important ancient monument (HE 2022).
The church is one of that great host which claim to have been built upon a former site of pagan worship, in this instance on the site of a Roman Temple (Hemsley Hall 1988, Powell 2002). It is uncertain as to when descriptions of the site evolved from it being built (more prosaically) on a “Roman’ site to the more elevated description of it being Roman ‘temple.’
In, ‘Bredon Hill & Its Villages’ the Reverend R H Lloyd (1967)3 stated that pottery and coins (dating to the reign of Julian) had been found in the graveyard. Further evidence of pre-Christian activity as a recent archaeological watching brief in 2016 which uncovered a ditch containing Roman pottery within the bounds of the cemetery (Wilkins, et al 2016) However, any definite or convincing evidence for a ‘temple’ still awaits discovery so, for the moment, this notion has to be consigned to Antiquarian fantasy.
Of the church of St Peter only the north wall and the base of the south chancel are all that survive of the original 12th century building, although it is believed that its general dimensions have remained the same throughout the many phases of re- building (Powell 2022).
In 1264 the Prior of Pershore Abbey ordered that the bodies of all those holding land in the surrounding villages were to be buried in the grounds of the Abbey, whilst those holding no land were to be buried in Little Comberton churchyard (Hemsley Hall 1988:2). By the order of the Prior in 1264, Pershore Abbey ‘respected the wills of the deceased, the principal legacy should be carried before the corpse to the church of Pershore, and, having been valued by the sacristan and the Chaplain of the place to which the dead belonged, half should go to the sacristan and half to the Chaplain (Lloyd 1967:91-92). In 1999, the author presented his field work on the coffin paths which he believed connected the subservient chapels to Pershore Abbey to the Simon de Montfort Society in Evesham4.
So far, academic enquiry has yet to prove a satisfactory explanation for the carvings so maybe one has to look to early-Medieval Christian symbolism and imagery for an answer. In Christian Biblical Numerology, the number 888 is sometimes used to represent Jesus, or sometimes more specifically Christ the Redeemer. The number 8 also refers to new life, ‘resurrection’ or a new beginning. The ‘octavo dies’ was the eighth day or the last ‘everlasting’ day in heaven (Stemp 2010). Conversely, the ‘whorl’ motifs could also be interpreted as ‘solar symbols’ and early Christian representations of Christ often associated him with a solar deity.
However, all of this is supposition and there is always the danger that one might try to ‘project’ a meaning onto the work. Perhaps it is best left as an enigma so that we can enjoy the mystery for a little while longer.
N.B. The graffito on the tympanum and around the entranceway noted above is just one motif of a large corpus gathered from the church by the author – they will be the subject of a separate article.
- A tympanum is that space below the span of the archivolt and above the horizontal door lintel known as a pediment. Tympana are often believed to be a decorative device instigated by the Saxons in the earliest stone churches, an architectural and decorative device which was then heavily elaborated upon by the Norman masons.
- Whorl – a pattern of spirals or concentric circles
plural noun: whorls
a pattern of spirals or concentric circles. Similar: Loop,coil,hoop,ring,turn,curl,twirl,twist,spiral,helix,lap, tier, lock convolution
each of the turns or convolutions in the shell of a gastropod or ammonoid mollusc.
a set of leaves, flowers, or branches springing from the stem at the same level and encircling it.
(in a flower) each of the sets of organs, especially the petals and sepals, arranged concentrically round the receptacle.
a complete circle in a fingerprint.
a small wheel or pulley in a spinning wheel, spinning machine, or spindle.
3rd person present: whorls
spiral or move in a twisted and convoluted fashion.
late Middle English (denoting a small flywheel): apparently a variant of whirl, influenced by Old English wharve ‘whorl of a spindle’.
3. This was the standard work on Bredon Hill until Brian Hoggard presented his own (updated) survey in 1999. The author had the privilege of accompanying Brian on part of that survey and whilst I cannot make any great claims for any contribution to that book, I did at least use my walking stick to clear the stinging nettles away from the ‘Grafton Stone’ for it to be photographed (p.12).
4. This was a somewhat naive affair but was based on actual fieldwork along the coffin paths themselves which mixed archaeology, folklore and historical records together. I think that it is stored on a floppy disc somewhere….
Cocke, T Findlay, D et al (1996) Recording A Church: An Illustrated Glossary. Practical Handbook in Archaeology 7. Council for British Archaeology, York
Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain & Ireland
Foster, R (1981) Discovering Churches. BBC Books, London.
Harris, R (2000)‘Discovering Timber-Framed Buildings.’ Shire Publications Ltd, Princes Risborough.
Hemsley-Hall, H (1988) St Peter’s Church, Little Comberton. Church leaflet.
Historic England (2022) Church of St Peter, little Comberton. Grade II* Listed
Hoggard, B (1999) Bredon Hill: A Guide to its Archaeology, History, Folklore & Villages. Logaston Press, Herefordshire.
Keyser, C E (1904) ‘A list of Norman Tympana and Lintels : with Figure or Symbolical Sculpture still or till recently Existing in the churches of Great Britain.’ Elliot Stock, London.
Lloyd, Rev RH (1967) Bredon Hill & Its Villages. Self published booklet.
Marchant, S (Ed) (1996) The Country Church Visitor’s Handbook: Discover Great Stories in Stone. Through The Church Door.
Page, W & Willis-Bund, JW (1924) ‘Parishes: Little Comberton’, in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4, (London, 1924), pp. 60-65. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/worcs/vol4/pp60-65
[accessed 17 April 2022]
Pevsner, N (1968) The Buildings of England: Worcestershire. Penguin Books, London.
Powell, E ( 2022 ) St Peter’s Church Little Comberton Church of England
Rodwell, W (1981) The Archaeology of the English Church: The Study of Historic Churches & Churchyards. Batsford Books Ltd, London.
Rodwell, W (1989) The English Heriage Book of Church Archaeology. Batsford Books Ltd, London.
Ross, D (2022) Little Comberton, St Peter’s Church. Britain Express website.
Stemp, R (2010) The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Chritianity’s Holy Buildings. Duncan Baird Publishers, London
Taylor, R (2004 ) How to read A Church. Random House, London (2nd Ed).
Wilkins, J,Hedge, R,Vaughan, T M,Pearson, E (2016) Archaeological Watching Brief at St Peter’s Church, Little Comberton, Worcestershire. Worcestershire Archaeology: Worcester.
Yorke, T (2010) English Churches Explained. Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire.
Worcestershire & Dudley Historic Churches