Posted on 9 December 2013
Innovative research into the Victorian rebuilding of Ryedale’s parish churches by York Archaeology PhD student Dav Smith has shed light on one of the country’s richest treasuries of twelfth-century sculpture, and has also had direct impact on assessments of the church’s heritage value. The parish church of St Michael and All Angels, Barton-le-Street, was completed in 1871 by the Leeds architects, Perkin & Son, replacing a medieval church on the same site. The church was designated in 1954 at Grade II, reflecting its status as a small nineteenth-century church by a minor architect. However, Dav’s research was submitted as evidence for a regrade request in 2012, and English Heritage has recently announced that Barton-le-Street is to be re-designated at Grade I. The highest designation, Grade I status represents the top 5% of listed structures in England, and is reserved for buildings of outstanding interest. Dav has also written two interpretation panels and a church guidebook for Barton-le-Street reflecting the new findings.
This Victorian church at Barton contains a treasury of twelfth-century sculpture, reused from the medieval church. Removed from its original context, this Romanesque sculpture had received little attention from modern scholars. Dav’s research, which was published in Church Archaeology (Vol.14, 2010), involved a detailed archaeological survey and investigation of the church. His work identified over 250 individual pieces of reused sculpture incorporated into the Victorian fabric. By combining documentary evidence with existing plans, drawings and photographs, Dav digitally reconstructed the medieval church prior to its Victorian rebuilding, returning most of the sculpture to its original location. This revealed that the extensive twelfth-century decorative scheme of sculpture was largely preserved within the Victorian church, with the only missing element being the chancel arch, which had been lost in the post-medieval period (although the present arch is based on a twelfth-century fragment found during the demolition of the medieval church). Furthermore, this reconstruction demonstrated that although the sculpture had been repositioned, the Victorian rebuilding had preserved its original positional hierarchy within the church.
The exceptional quality of the surviving Romanesque sculpture was also highlighted in Dav’s research, with several elements having no known parallel in England. For example, the corbel table found in the porch and chancel is sumptuously decorated, and features additional carved heads within each arch. The closest parallel for this corbel table is to be found on the church of Notre Dame la Grande, in Poitiers, France. Dav said: “This highlights both the exceptional quality of the sculpture at Barton-le-Street, as well as the fascinating mix of local and international artistic influences to be found in Yorkshire’s Romanesque sculpture. The carvings at Barton-le-Street, which date to around 1160, show a blending Anglo-Scandinavian, Western French and anachronistic manuscript artistic styles.”
Dav said “There has often been a presumption that Victorian restorers had little regard for, or understanding of, medieval church fabric; however an archaeological approach to studying these churches reveals a much richer and more complex story than previously assumed. It is extremely exciting to see the results of this research directly influencing our understanding of the significance of these churches.” This is the second church within Dav’s project to be re-evaluated by English Heritage, with the neighbouring church of All Saints, Slingsby, being upgraded to Grade II* in 2011, reflecting its archaeological Victorian reconstruction.