A Notable ‘Sun Symbol’

An unusual ‘solar’ symbol design from the church of St Lawrence, Caterham, Surrey is evocative of the sculpted ‘whorls’ recently covered on RPM&RP (see link below). This example is about 14cm across and located on the 12th century masonry immediately adjacent to the south door (Plate 1).

Plate 1: Solar symbol, south door, church of St Lawrence, Caterham, Surrey. The motif is beneath layers of plaster and limewash © W Perkins 2020.

The building began in the 11th century as an apsed Norman church to which a south chancel chapel was added in the 12th (Historic England 2022). The building retains a few architectural scars of this transition (Plate 2).

Plate 2: N.B north is to the bottom of this floor plan, the Vestry is at the north.

The graffito is located immediately above a larger (although fragmentary) hexfoil / daisy wheel which has also emerged from under layers of plaster and whitewash (Plate 3).

Plate 3: Six-petal rosette (hexfoil/daisy wheel) below the ‘solar symbol’ (top left) south door © W Perkins 2020.

Variations on the compass-drawn circle are interpreted as possessing an apotropaic function through their association with ancient sun symbolism and due to their spatial distribution – often located at thresholds. There appears to be an almost infinite variety of designs incorporating different elements.

Adjacent to the north door which leads to the Vestry is a simpler compass drawn design (Type 1a) (Champion 2017) (Plates 4 & 5).

Plate 4: North door which leads to the Vestry. the compass-drawn circle is on the east (right) side © W Perkins 2020.
Plate 5: compass -drawn circle on the north door jamb © W Perkins 2020.

The solar design above also recalls the ‘millstone’ graffito recently recorded within a window jamb at Great Chalfield Manor by Tony Hack of the Wiltshire Medieval Graffiti Survey. The design utilised the basic geometry of an 8-sided star of radial lines to divide the millstone grinding facets (harps) into a series of parallel lines1 (Plates 6 & 7).

Plate 6: Millstone pattern similar to the graffito found by the WMGS © Steve Gray 2006.

Although the pattern on the millstone could be viewed as an entirely functional, pragmatic outcome of its principal design requirements, its choice as a subject of graffito marks it out to represent much more than that. Corn is both the colour of the sun and a product of the sun itself; corn was a staple used to survive the winter months so has always been revered as a ‘miracle’ crop. So precious was the harvest that the crops would be blessed on Rogation days (Plate 7).

Plate 7: Woodcut illustration of Pre-Reformation processional order, c. early 16th century. (c) Wikicommons Public Domain

Almost every culture possessed a variation of a ‘corn God’ in recognition of its importance. In the Christian world, bread was a critical component of the ‘Transubstantiation’ and ‘The Parable of the Grain of Wheat‘ was an allegory for resurrection, sacrifice, and ego death, given by Jesus in the New Testament in The Gospel of John.

Some of the examples of mill wheel designs below are evocative of other solar symbols found among graffiti corpora elsewhere (Plate 8). The geometry used to create the ‘solar symbol’ above has been used to create one of the millstone patterns (centre, bottom row). Further work on the geometry and symbolism of the motif is required as more examples come to light and are archaeologically recorded.

Plate 8: Millstone Patterns © Penn State University

Notes

  1. Tony Hack has published widely and conducted a number of large-scale surveys for the WGS

Champion, M (2017) Medieval Graffiti Survey: Volunteer Handbook.

Historic England (2022) The Church of St Lawrence, Caterham, Surrey.

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1377607?section=official-list-entry

Medieval Technology & American History. Penn State University

https://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/projects/millstones.htm

Solar Symbols

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_symbol

Wiltshire Graffiti Survey

https://www.wiltshire-medieval-graffiti-survey.com/

Further Reading

Cocke, T Findlay, D et al (1996) Recording A Church: An Illustrated Glossary. Practical Handbook in Archaeology 7. Council for British Archaeology, York

Foster, R (1981) Discovering Churches. BBC Books, London.

Marchant, S (Ed) (1996) The Country Church Visitor’s Handbook: Discover Great Stories in Stone. Through The Church Door.

Rodwell, W (1981) The Archaeology of the English Church: The Study of Historic Churches & Churchyards. Batsford Books Ltd, London.

Rodwell, W (1989) The English Heritage Book of Church Archaeology. Batsford Books Ltd, London.

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).

Yorke, T (2010) English Churches Explained. Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire.

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