Tour of the Church

This is a very interesting piece that points out lovely details around the church, most of which would easily be overlooked otherwise. Please feel free to print out this page, the text was written by the late Rev’d Claes Selim M.A. B.D. (Vicar of St. Matthews and Rector of Ste. Marie du Castel from 2002 to 2012) – take an hour or so to wander around the church, taking note of each point of interest that Claes brings to your attention.

Starting at the lychgate. The word can either be spelt with a “y” or an “i”, and it is an old Saxon word that means “corpse”. At funerals the gate is where the coffin was met, and preceded into the church by the crucifer, the sexton and the priest. The lychgate is a grandiose opening in the boundary wall and signals the fact that we are now entering the hallowed ground of the graveyard. There are a few lychgates in Guernsey, but they are not common.

The west gable of St Matthew’s Church is a good place to see the various ornamentation that are typical on this kind of church. St Matthew’s was built in the Romanesque style, which is identified and signified by the round arches, and in the three main windows can be seen three arches. One could speculate as to why there are three arches, and it is possibly a reference to the Holy Trinity. On the stonework is a motif, which is usually called a dog’s tooth motif, which is repeated throughout the church. There are the pillars and the small palm leaves too, which are not so common in this kind of architecture. On the top most rounded window, there is a repeat of the dog’s tooth motif, together with the pillars and surmounted by a cross, which is inscribed in a circle, which is typical for the church.

The traditional entrance to the church in the middle ages was from the west, but that did not suit the northern lands, with their prevailing westerly winds, hence they had the main entrance facing south, opening to the light and sunshine. At St. Matthew’s there is a porch. Sometimes porches were used to divest armour, but here it is mostly used for the reception of the bride, where she can compose herself before the ordeal that awaits her! The ornamentation of the stonework is similar to that of the west gable, but the cross is somewhat coarser.

Continuing around the west side of the church, there is a small tourelle near the door, which forms the outside of the pulpit. At the peak of the apse at the eastern end of the church is the striking feature of a little white face looking eastwards, and which is protected by a wooden construction. At this place in a medieval church there could have been an angel looking eastwards, or a Christ figure looking eastwards to the final day. The identity is a mystery. The bell turret towers on top, with two bells and two crosses; one on top of the apse and one on top of the turret. The bells can be rung from the lobby inside the vestry, and are operated by a lever and pulley system.

The excellent stonework of the church, with the rich detailed decoration, were made and constructed by Daniel de Putron in 1854.

On the northerly side is the outside of the vestry, with the continuing dog tooth ornamentation, together with an intricately constructed chimney, which is repeated at the west end of the north wall. They are in the form of small turrets, with little openings to prevent too much draft passing down the flue.

The main door is inside the porch and has some beautiful iron ornamentation, similar in detail to that found on Viking stones. This gives an idea of the design beauty surviving from the Viking age. The original large lock and key compliment the beautiful door.

It is typical that the plan of a Romanesque church forms as a progression; at the entrance is the font, where there is the beginning of Christian life. Up the nave are the altar and sanctuary, which symbolise the end of life and the perfection of heaven. The travel up the nave is a progression towards heaven.

The apse is a striking feature; it is half of a sphere, the sphere being the embodiment of perfection. In the original basilicas, built in the styles which inspired the first Christian churches, the Emperor had his throne at the back centre of the apse. Bishops now have seats in the apse, which is dominated by the altar, which represents the fullness of God’s promises and eternity. The nave (Latin for ship) reminds us that the church itself is thought of like Noah’s Ark; a ship that is braving the waves of this world, until it reaches its destination. We are all aboard this ship. Our baptism is where we are taken aboard, in the nave we are on our way. The idea of the church as a ship has been taken up by the architect John Johnson, especially in the roof of the chancel, which is exactly in the form of boat construction. On the north side of the chancel is the sanctuary.

There are three objects which define the church; the font, the altar and the pulpit. The font is a piece of imported stone, and consists of a square base, with the signs of one of the four evangelists on each side. Our faith is rooted in what the evangelists told us about Christ. The emblems of the four are fitted into circles, and the first one facing the door is the emblem of St. Matthew, the man, the human being. Facing up the chancel is the lion emblem, representing St. Mark. The third emblem of an ox represents St. Luke, and the eagle on the fourth side, St. John. The key to these symbols is found in the first chapter of Ezekiel, where we are told about the beings of the creatures that are about God’s throne. Ezekiel sees light in his vision, and there is some attribution to the various evangelists. St. Matthew begins with the originality of Christ, centring on his human origin, and going back to David, it is seen fit that he should be represented by the man. He has sometimes been represented by the angel, but it should really be a human being. St. Luke begins his gospel by telling of the sacrifice and one of the main sacrificial animals is an ox — it is his emblem. St. John is the high flier among the evangelists , especially as demonstrated in the first fourteen verses of his gospel, and hence the eagle that flies higher than all other birds is seen as his emblem, Finally, St. Mark who is represented by the lion. As Mark tells us about John the Baptist, who is the voice crying the wilderness, deemed to be almost akin to the roaring of the lion. These are the ideas of why the evangelists have been symbolised in such a way from very early times in Christian art. On top of the base of the font is the actual basin itself. It follows a medieval pattern. It is as large as it is because during medieval times, and still in the orthodox church, the infant was immersed in the water, symbolising the fact that we die with Christ and we arise with Christ. That is what St. Paul talks about as the meaning of baptism, and that was made very clear as the child was first immersed into the water and then taken up and got the white robe. There is a pattern on the basin of the actual font of fleur de lys, which is a symbols of eternal life.

The pulpit is from which holy scripture is explained, and hopefully made relevant to the congregation. In this church one needs to say that the altar and the pulpit need to be seen together. The altar is a beautiful construction of fine oak, which is thought to be of local origin. The motif of the rounded arch is displayed both on the pulpit and the altar, and there is the dog’s tooth as well, so that these two things are held together.

In the chancel, especially in the sanctuary of the church, there are some neutral acoustic tiles. The blue ones in the sanctuary are worth mentioning, and there we see the lamb at the very middle as the priest and the people go up to the altar. The lamb is seen as the sacrificial Iamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, and he is carrying the flag, symbolising the resurrection. It is the lamb who was killed, and who gave his own life for the benefit of the congregation. That is what it says. He is flanked on both sides by the symbols of the evangelists. The other tiles show symbolic features with the fleur de lys again, and up the steps nearest to the altar, the vine. Going round in the apse is a beautiful granite cornice.

In the nave, the altar goes just up to this semi-circular cornice. The table that is beautifully made was probably carved by local craftsmen in Guernsey, and was a later gift from St Barnabas Church. It shows two archangels with their hands crossed and they are celebrating and emphasising God’s love as the eucharist is being celebrated.

The windows in the apse are the oldest and were made to Johnson’s design. They are made in such a way that they have two parts to each window, with an upper part and a lower part. The upper part starting reading from left to right represents the main annual festivals of the church year. Beginning from the door to the vestry, we have got the birth. We see a child lying and Mary and Joseph around him. We can even see the ox and possibly we can see the donkey as well, and that commemorates Christmas Day. In the next one, there are the three kings. They acknowledge Christ, and that is for Epiphany. Following on we get the whole window which commemorates Easter. Starting from the bottom is Good Friday with Christ on the cross, and with Mary and John the Divine.

In the middle with have the Iamb of Christ again. For Easter Sunday is shown the bursting of the tomb, with the soldiers asleep and under them fright on the resurrection of Christ. Moving further to the right there is Christ pointing upwards and the disciples following his glance. This is Ascension Day. The final one we see fire coming down from Heaven and the dove which is Pentecost. The lower panels are more loosely connected. First we have Jesus and the children. “Let the children come onto me”. We see them flocking at Christ’s feet. The next one is the baptism of Christ. The baptism of Christ certainly also has a place as the Sunday after the Epiphany. Under the Ascension we have got representation of the last meal, which again can be seen as making Christ present at all times, and he is present also at our meals of the holy supper. Finally, after Pentecost there is Christ ordaining Peter to catch men instead of fish.

The first window in the north of the nave was made by an important factory which made stained glass, and that window has been commissioned by the family and friends of Lieutenant Governor Michael Elkington, whose grave is in the churchyard. Not surprisingly then it represents Archangel Michael, the leader of God’s heavenly host, and who is likened to God. It is a magnificent window all in burnished gold and yellow. It is fitted into what again can be seen as a Romanesque arch. He is in fully armoured with his sword and his shield.

The next one is the, extremely well made again, from the well known factory in London, goes back to Holman Hunt’s, very famous picture. I The whole of the door knock?, I understand the life of Christ.] In 1854, the same year as this church was built, Holman Hunt exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy. It was met with enormous acclaim and has been perhaps the most recognised religious painting in the world. It represents Christ standing with a lantern, outside a door to a house that is totally neglected. It has been overgrown with briars and thistle and weed. He is standing surrounded by the phantoms of the nights, represented by a bat, but we can see that winter morning is approaching. The door cannot be opened other than from inside. This tells that Christ never ventures into our souls unless we want him.

This very important religious point is very poignantly made. There are some apples on the ground, indicating that the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve ate, is now restored and made whole. Christ is waiting for our response, because he is not looking at the door. He is looking at us, the beholder of the picture.

Finally, nearest to the door, we have got “Come onto me”, that is again a very famous representation of Christ surrounded by the Lady? of Eternal Life. And also the the that has the same meaning and he is standing inviting us to come. A typical Victoria picture. On the other side, moving from the organ downwards is a, I think that must have been dated amongst the last paintings, the stain glassed paintings, probably in the 1950s. It represents Mary and Anne. The caption underneath is cleverly made as Mary Anne looks similar to Marianne Carey, who was the instigator of the building of this church. It is a famous iconography. It is Anne her mother, teaching her daughter, Mary to read and to pray. She is holding a prayer book and Anne is supervising the efforts and blessing her success. Down here to the window “Come Unto Me” “Suffer Little Children to come onto me” again. Emphasising the fact why we baptise little ones that can’t speak for themselves. We do so because Christ has given us an example of dealing with the children of his time.

Further down we have got another window, of Christ as the good shepherd.

Finally, as we enter into the Church we have in front of us the representation of St Matthew the evangelist, about the same date I would have thought as the Mary and Anne window. He has got his purse, to remind us of his business, he has now happily left behind. He is now portrayed as the great evangelist writing the gospel with his quill. He is facing us as we enter the church.

Finally, we have at the west end of the church some quite old windows, probably original to the church. Especially in the late afternoon, before Evensong and with the sunlight streaming through the west windows, we see this beautiful representation of the Ascension. Christ in the middle pointing upwards to remind us that we shall not seek his presence in the( hmm, he is above.] From there he makes himself known in the ordinary events of our time. He is surrounded on either side by two angels again pointing upwards to the skies. I think that this has a French origin, but of course that is only a surmise.

That will be all I think.

– Rev’d Claes Selim