Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians Contents
Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians
Mermaids of the Cornish church
As shown on the previous page on the Mermaid of Zennor, the Christian message was passed on in the fabric of the Cornish church's. In Blights book "Week in the Lands End" there is the following quote followed by the initials R.S.H. which is presumed, are those of the Rev. R.S. Hawker of Morwenstowe.
fishermen who were the ancestors of the Church, came from the Galilean waters to
haul for men. We, born to God at
the font, are children of the water. Therefore, all the early symbolism of the
Church was of and from the sea. The carvure of the early arches was taken from
the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen, and mermaids abound in the
early types, transferred to wood and stone.” (Ref. 1)
all the churches on the coast of Cornwall were built for fishermen and farm
workers, to whom the superstitions of the mermaid had a familiarity for a creed.
as on ancient rood screens or bench-ends a grotesque three-faced crowned head
was carved as a crude emblem of the Trinity, so the mermaid was carved as an
emblem of Jesus as God and man.
Buryan is a parish in the far west of Cornwall and like Zennor all
the old benches with their ornate carved ends were removed during a
modernization in 1814. Just like
Zennor two were saved and made into
a Litany desk which still survives today. On one of these can be seen
the carving of a mermaid and mermen. It is interesting to note in this sketch by
Churchwarden John Beresford the mermen in this carving are wearing caps similar
to the morverch (sea-maiden) in some Breton stories.
sketch of mermen of St Buryan.
I found this of particular interest and wondered if the craftsman who had carved it had been Breton. The intimate connection between the inhabitants of Brittany and Cornwall is well known. Around 1520 for instance King Henry viii ordered a subsidy to be taken and the resulting rolls shows those who were required to contribute, plus an assessment of their land and goods. The roll for Penwith hundred where St Buryan is situated shows that Bretons made up one sixth of the total tax paying population. They are described as tinners, fishermen, smiths, servants and cooks whilst the occupations of twenty nine of them was not given. (Ref. 2)
A Leaflet in the church at St Buryan, points out that Mathew de Medunta who was appointed as the Dean in 1300AD was a Frenchman belonging to the household of Queen Margaret. He was followed by another Frenchman John De Maunte 1318AD. Strange as it may seem. these two were the only Deans who are known to have definitely visited and lived in the Deanery of St. Buryan between the years 1301 and 1850 the others choosing to take the tithes whilst leaving the church work to monks and curates. It could well be that the St Buryan carving was done in the period when one of these Frenchmen was the incumbent thus the similarity to the French style. (Ref.3) If it is not from that period, then it will most probably be from the late 15th or early 16th century when the church was totally rebuilt. Craftsmen from Brittany came over to Cornwall to work on the wood carvings in a number of churches around this time.
only other carved mermaid I have found to date in Cornwall is in the Church at
Camborne. (see note). But Cornwall's medieval churches also had pictures painted
on the walls and on the 14th of March 1740
Ludgvan uncovered a painting whilst brushing the walls in order to wash them again with lime. The brushing brought
down a thin scale of plaster. The then rector Dr William Borlaise who was
also a well known antiquarian drew a sketch of the
paintings Having completed the drawing Dr. Borlaise ordered the workmen to
cover the painting with a lime wash and in the 19th century modernisation
of the church all the paintings were lost when all the plaster was removed from
the walls. (Ref. 4) Thankfully in 1872 the Rev. W Iago
was going through some of Dr. Borlaise papers and came across the sketch and
made a further copy which is shown below.
Ludgvan painting was not the only one to suffer this fate. It was probably the
norm to have similar paintings in all of Cornwall's churches but many where
either destroyed of lime washed over at the time of the reformation. The
Victorian passion for modernisation meant that almost all were then destroyed
when the wall plaster was removed.
have however found, to date, three Cornish churches with representations of the mermaid
still surviving in medieval wall paintings of St Christopher. The churches are
Breage between Helston and Penzance, Poughill in the north of the County
and St Kevern on the Lizard.
is renowned for its wall paintings. Soon after its completion in 1466, the
church's limewashed walls and window splays were painted with a series of
figures, including St Christopher and Christ of the Trades, which today loom
vaguely at you out of the gloom in softly dappled colours The
identity of the painter of the murals remains a matter of conjecture. The
considerable number of frescoes in Cornish churches would seem to indicate the
existence of local artists. In this
this evidence of Sir William’s views his appointment later as one of three
Cornish commissioners to ensure that Edward VI’s further religious changes
were enforced meant that his parish church at Breage would feel the full force
of the enactments. The three commissioners visited Breage, 23rd April 1549 and ordered the destruction of
the windows because they contained figures of the saints and objects of idolatry
Rood screens and lofts had to be destroyed and all walls whitewashed. This
resulted in the murals being hidden for over 300 years, and so saved from later
destruction during the Commonwealth.
The church authorities are to be congratulated in the way the paintings have been uncovered and once again put on view.
Wall Painting Breage Church
In the Breage painting the mermaid is shown just to the left of St Christopher's left leg as you look at the painting. She is holding a mirror and combing her hair. The colors are fading now but she is still visible although the many visitors to the church will probably not understand her significance.
Poughill in the North of Cornwall is another church famous for its wall paintings and its splendid carved oak bench-ends. The deeply carved ones date probably from the time of Henry VII (1485-1509). Many have emblems and scenes telling, in minute detail, the story of the passion. The other shallow and less expert carvings date from the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1(1558-1603). They are less numerous and are mainly armorial carvings or the sacred initials I.H.C. (Ref.7)
Like the Breage paintings, the St Christopher is one of a pair. The paintings technique is known as secco as opposed to fresco as the paint is applied directly onto wet plaster and had to be carried out at great speed. The Poughill St Christopher was discovered in 1894 beneath the whitewash and carefully restored. It is believed to date from about 1470 The church accounts for Poughill actually record the covering up of the figures' with lime wash in 1550 at the time of the Reformation. (Ref. 8)
In this postcard view of the church from around the 1930's you can see both the ornate bench ends and the wall painting of St Christopher. There is another painting on the opposite wall and this to is of St Christopher. This one, however, does not include the mermaid.
as you or I will choose a wall paper that
is to our liking so the monks chose symbols which would appeal to the
congregation. St Christopher seems to have been popular in Cornwall and this was
probably because according to the legend, he was a heathen giant who, on turning
Christian, was instructed by a holy hermit to carry travelers over a dangerous
ford, and who, one stormy night carried the child Jesus on his shoulder. Cornish
folk-lore is full of stories of giants who lived on the hills and protected the
people of their domain. Giants and mermaids were popular with the story-tellers
and in the Poughill painting the mermaids can be seen in the water between the legs of
Church Wall Painting
The monks of Glasney were aware that the mermaid story was familiar to the local population before they wrote the “Ordinalia” so also did the builders and decorators of the church's. They therefore knew that the explanation of God and man in this way would be accepted.
(Note.) If you are aware of any mermaids in Cornish churches which I have not covered, please e-mail me the details so that I can visit and then add them to the site.
"Week at the Lands End" Blight. "Celtic Christianity in Cornwall" by Thomas Taylor p43.
“The Wickedest Parish in Cornwall”. A St Buryan Parish Church booklet.
Leaflet Ludgvan Parish Church
"Tudor Cornwall" A. L. Rowse.
"Breage & St. Breaca's Church" by Patrick Thorne, Published by Breaca Books, 1996
Leaflet Poughill church.
The Poughill Church Accounts, 1550, Cornwall county record Office.