Yesterday I set out on a trip to visit the small North Yorkshire town of Thirsk (once ‘Threske‘ as noted in the memorial brass to one Robert of Threske located in the south aisle) to see one of the grandest perpendicular churches of its kind in the county. From York it takes 15 minutes by train to Thirsk, heading towards either Middlesborough or Newcastle and its an easy mile walk from the station to see St. Mary’s church, a truly spectacular building with a rich history that springs into life during the 15th century; evidence of an earlier church on the site of the present building, built between 1430 and 1460, is few and far between.
From the road heading out of the town center it is an unmissable landmark, as you would expect any great, perpendicular gothic church building to be. A church with a grand clerestory will always give me butterflies. I believe it is my weakness in church architecture. To see a heightened nave from the outside with two tiers of windows, the top tier set back above the aisle windows over the center of the nave is, for lack of a better word, dreamy. I’ll try not to bring up this sensitive matter again at the risk of boring you.
It is however an inspection of the clerestory I want to stick with for the purpose of this article, not with regards to an exterior view but instead an inspection of the interior. The great height of the elevated medieval ceiling (restored in 1953), pushed upwards by the clerestory is overwhelming, as it is in other great parish churches of this type. I sometimes find it hard in a very open and spacious church where to begin looking around and St. Mary’s was one such instance where I was immediately at a loss for what to do first.
If you take your eyes on a journey up the nave arcades on either the North or South sides (it doesn’t strictly matter since either side is adorned with largely the same features) you notice they are interrupted on occasion by some hatchment boards. In the clerestory above are some wall paintings, believed to be 17th century in date (I have yet to learn the reason for this dating), of the Apostles. I did not notice them at all until the Rector, who noticed me with my tripod and camera, pointed them out and asked if I could photograph them for him. He told me that few people believed they were worthy of documenting since their state of preservation is considerably fragile and they are indeed tired. A quick online search has lead to very little in the way of any recording or mention of them. Perhaps it might be worth checking the parish records to see if there is any mention of them being paid for and commissioned.
Time has exhausted the figures beyond belief and it is nearly impossible to determine facial features or recognisable figural detail. It is important to state that between each clerestory window, a figure is not always painted and it does not look in some slots between the windows that there may have ever been the presence of a painted figure. Presently there are only 7 discernible Apostolic figures in the clerestory of St. Mary’s. What remains clear across the seven figures are two main pigments used in their design, red and blue, used to paint their clothes. Other coloured pigments have certainly faded at an earlier point in time. I have noticed that at the feet of each figure (those which are not covered by the tops of hatchment boards) is a short band of white text, perhaps giving the name of the Apostle depicted. None of these bands of text remain complete, but the first figure in the sequence I put together above (the most easterly figure on the south wall) does appear to have an identity, or certainly he’s the only one I could identify on the spot, and perhaps still incorrectly.
I believe this figure is St. Andrews. The remains of his ‘X’ can be seen behind him and the white strip of text beneath him, although largely worn away appears to read “__. A(N?)___”.
I hope to show these images to the Rector at Thirsk and that I might be able to continue in assisting his research is something I’m quite excited about.