THERE could be many reasons to visit Southwell Minster, where the medieval archbishops of York built a palace on the ruins of a substantial Roman villa.
For the émigré German Jewish Lutheran architectural student Nikolaus Pevsner, it was the Leaves of Southwell that first drew him to the heart of Nottinghamshire and gave him the title of his 1945 book. The foliate carvings of the Chapter House are among the most famous Romanesque sculptures in Europe.
“Is not the balance of Southwell something deeper too than a balance of nature and style or of the imitative and the decorative?” he mused. “Is it not perhaps also a balance of God and World, the invisible and the visible? Could these leaves of the English countryside, with all their freshness, move us so deeply if they were not carved in that spirit which filled the saints and poets and thinkers of the thirteenth century, the spirit of religious respect for the loveliness of created nature?”
As at York, there is no central pier to support the polygonal roof. Rather, the eight-sided drum rests on bowers of oak leaves, hawthorn, potentilla, vine, ivy, hop, rose and briony, each carefully observed and recognisable to the botanist. Maybe it is this concern for nature that has prompted the heritage authorities of our day to give a significant grant for restoration and refurbishment.
Others may choose to come to see the great eagle lectern of 1510, dredged up from the lake at Newstead Priory, where it had been abandoned at the Reformation for Lord Byron. It is one of a series crafted in East Anglia; other brass lecterns from the same workshop can be found in Lowestoft, Coventry, Newcastle, Southampton, and as far afield as Dundee and Urbino.
southwell minsterSculpture by Peter Eugene BallA more recent, and compelling, reason to come to Southwell would be to see the great war-memorial window undertaken by Nicholas Mynheer to mark the First World War and the devastating effect on the lives of those left behind. We are invited to love, pray, and to remember, as miners dig for coal in a prop pit all too prescient of the trenches in which they would serve, while a shire horse ploughs a furrow in fields opposite the Minster.
To reach the final major exhibition of sculpture by Peter Eugene Ball, held in the Chapter House, I travelled by way of Newark, where the wool merchants and clothiers built St Mary Magdalene’s. As you enter the 14th-century south aisle, you are greeted by the figure of Christ high on one of the side pillars, his hands lowered at his side, his palms gently facing us, a truly “Welcoming Christ”.
I imagine it would be possible to come and go 100 times and more and simply not notice Ball’s sculpture, waiting patiently to receive us, but not forcing himself upon us. Whether or not the artist himself is pleased with the work, it occupies a singular space in one of the 30 or so grandest parish churches of England.
Then across to Southwell, 132 miles from London, as a milestone still set in the side of The Saracen’s Head coaching house proudly states, and the farthest I have travelled in more than 14 months. At the end of the 318-foot-long nave, some fifty feet up, stands the figure of a Christus Rex which Ball undertook in 1987, the first of several commissions here. Even in such an exalted position, it is understated, as if his kingship is in some ways veiled.
The sculpture show, staged by the sculptor’s wife, occupies both the Chapter House and the cloister leading to it. Figures, both sacred and profane, abound playfully and contemplatively, sculpted in found wood, repurposed and renewed. Much of it is driftwood, while an old gatepost furnishes a standing Madonna, the iron hinges offering votive pricket stands.
southwell minsterSculpture by Peter Eugene BallAt three cardinal points (the west opens out into the corridor), Jane Ball has grouped figures that suggest the Calvary.
In one such grouping, the weeping Virgin and St John have become a washboard figure of a soldier, one of the Old Contemptibles, bowler-hatted and with miniature medals, standing solemnly, while on the other side of the Crucified is an airman, with propeller wings like some visiting angel: playfulness and the deadly serious side by side in our material world.
The Church of Saint Pierre du Bois on Guernsey has taken a Madonna and Child in which the Christ Child, tentatively an adult, stands on his mother’s lap. Although her hands enfold him, they do not hold him, as he stands, independently aware of his destiny. It is Byzantine in its richness, and the simplicity of the figures is deeply moving.
Another is moulded from the timber of an oak tree felled in 1361 to build the local belfry at All Saints’, Hawton. In this, Christ sits on the Virgin’s left arm, turning towards us to enjoin our prayer, his eyes magisterially closed.
And then there are the secular figures, among them the heads of Tristan and Isolde caught up in a crook of love, and a Shakespeare centaur.
A ferry man and a work entitled On the Rocks reflect quietly on our current preoccupation with seabound migrants in the Mediterranean and crossing the Channel. The elegant sway of the body of a fool (“A godly fool, I think”) echoes Sir Henry Raeburn’s Skater as playfully as the stone-cut faces and animals that inhabit the surrounding leaves of Southwell.
“Farewell to All That” runs until 12 September. southwellminster.org