Being a bench end enthusiast not only means one attracts other folk with weird passions, it also means that old friends feel safer revealing their own odd quirks. My mate Geoff has recently come out of the confessional closet as an obscure-saint-fancier and wondered how much our interests might overlap.
Of all the surprising survivals on pre-Reformation bench ends saints are among the most surprising. Reformers of the 16th century really didn’t think people should be worshipping saints and regularly destroyed images which had previously been venerated. A century or so later the puritan revolution saw the removal of many of those the Reformation iconoclasts had overlooked. Even so, a significant number of bench ends still contain depictions of saints. Identifying saints can be a tricky business, so it seems like a good idea to post a handy guide to saintly bench ends. As I find more I’ll update this page.
Usually depictions of saints include some attribute by which they can be identified, such as Peter’s keys or Catherine’s wheel, but often the same device might be used to identify more than one saint: three of the apostles might be depicted holding a builder’s square, for example. Occasionally saints are depicted without any obvious identifying feature at all and we must assume that the parishioners knew which was which as a matter of local knowledge. Some of the identifications below are therefore tentative, and there are a number of bench ends depicting saints which I have not even tried to identify. High Bickington, for example, has a near-complete set of apostles, but I can only identify five of them with any confidence.
The Blessed Virgin Mary and Joseph.
The Virgin Mary is frequently alluded to symbolically on bench ends, and much more rarely depicted literally. Here at Davidstow she and Joseph are seen together. She can also be seen alone carrying the infant Christ at Yarcombe.
Of all the angels only Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are considered saints. Raphael is not depicted on any bench ends to my knowledge, but Michael and Gabriel can be seen below.
Gabriel is usually depicted with wings and a scroll, and can be seen at Marwood (below), Brent Knoll, and Othery.
Michael is also usually depicted with wings, and smiting a dragon with lance or sword. He often holds scales with which to weigh souls. He can be seen at Lewtrenchard (below) and Othery.
THE TWELVE APOSTLES.
(Some of them)
Saint Andrew, seen here at Tywardreath, is easily recognisable due to his saltire, or ‘St. Andrew’s cross.’
Saint Andrew can also be seen at Golant and High Bickington
Saint Bartholomew is reputed to have carried Christianity to Armenia, where he was martyred at Albanopolis. Tradition has it that he was flayed alive before being crucified upside-down, and he can be recognised by the flaying knife which he carries in most depictions.
This bench end is at High Bickington, others depicting Bartholomew can be seen at Braunton and Golant.
Saint James the Greater, or James son of Zebedee, is associated with the scallop shell badge, seen here on his hat, and his staff.
According to legend he travelled to Spain to spread the Gospel and is the patron saint of that country. The shrine containing relics of St. James at Compostella was one of the most important pilgrimages of the medieval period.
St. James is depicted at High Bickington (left) and Yarcombe.
Saint James the Less, son of Alphaeus, or James the younger. Depicted here at Golant.
This is where the identification of saints gets confusing. There is a tendency for a saint depicted with a square to be identified as James the Less, but the square is also associated with the apostles Jude and Thomas. Where all of the apostles are depicted they can be identified by process of elimination, but where some are missing it’s a matter of speculation and guesswork.
Saint John the Apostle is depicted at Braunton and can be identified by his chalice containing a serpent, relating to a popular but apocryphal tale in which John miraculously turned poison which had been placed in his drink into a serpent, allowing him to drink the wine safely.
Saint John was the brother of Saint James the Greater and in the sixteenth century was believed to be the writer of the Gospel of John and Revelations. He was the last surviving apostle and the only one to die a natural death.
Judas Iscariot is not a saint, and as the personification of treachery is an unlikely subject for bench ends, yet he is depicted more often than several other disciples, either literally or symbolically. At Newlyn East (right) and St. Breward his disembodied head is shown with the bag of coins around his neck.
Although not a saint (though in some traditions he is revered as God’s instrument in bringing about Man’s salvation) I have included him here for the sake of completeness because I don’t anticipate doing another entry on apostles.
Saint Peter is the apostle most often depicted on bench ends and is easily distinguished by the key he holds.
Peter is often alluded to symbolically on bench ends in the form of the keys of Heaven, but is also depicted literally at High Bickington (left), Braddock, Combeinteignhead, Stockleigh Pomeroy, and Yarcombe.
Saint Thomas is another ambiguous apostle in the matter of identification. The spear he holds at Golant (right) is a symbol of his martyrdom, but might also be interpreted as the lance sometimes associated with St. Matthew the Apostle. However, in the sixteenth century Matthew the Apostle was believed to be the same person as the evangelist of that name, so is usually depicted with a book in iconography of the period. Thomas might also be depicted with a square, leading him to be confused with James the Less or Jude.
Saint Agnes, a young Roman noblewoman martyred for her faith, is usually depicted with a lamb – a symbol of her innocence and a play on her name (Agnus = lamb in Latin).
She is depicted here at Combeinteignhead.
Saint Barbara was an early Greek Christian martyr who spent her early years locked in a tower by her pagan father. She is therefore usually depicted, as at Moreton, right, with a tower. She is also depicted at Braunton.
For his part in her torture and execution Barbara’s father was struck by lightning and consumed with flames, as a result of which she is the patron saint of artillerymen, among other things.
The West Country is home to a large number of saints who are virtually unknown outside the region, including Saint Brannoc of Braunton. Saint Brannoc was a sixth-century Welsh missionary who founded an abbey at Braunton.
Below the depiction of Brannoc at Braunton (left) there is depicted a cow, relating to a miracle story in which a neighbour stole and cooked one of Brannoc’s herd. When Brannoc called for the cow it came back to life and returned to him.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria is most famous now for the wheel which bears her name, and with which she is depicted on a bench end in Combeinteignhead.
Saint Genest, or Genesius was a Roman comic actor who performed in plays written to mock the rites of the early Christian church. During a mock baptism Genest experienced a vision of angels and converted to Christianity, for which he was tortured and martyred.
Genest is usually dressed as a fool, so it is difficult to differentiate depictions of the saint from depictions of secular fools. However, at Combeinteignhead the fool is surrounded by other saints so it is reasonable to suppose Genest is depicted.
Saint George, the patron saint of England, is surprisingly uncommon on bench ends. He is depicted at Hatch Beauchamp (right) and Combeinteignhead. George is usually depicted as an armoured man slaying a dragon.
Saint Hubert was out hunting a stag when he saw a vision of a crucifix between the stag’s antlers and subsequently converted to Christianity and eventually became Bishop of Maastricht.
He is usually depicted as a hunter, though the same attributes might also be used to signify Saint Eustace.
Saint John the Baptist is most commonly depicted as a disembodied head on a platter, and can be seen in that form at Braunton, Coldridge, Mortehoe, and Weare Giffard.
When depicted pre-mortem John the Baptist can often be distinguished by his holding and pointing at a lamb and his camel-skin coat, as at Hatch Beauchamp (right) and Yarcombe.
Saint Mary Magdalene, seen at Combeinteignhead, is one of the most enigmatic figures of the New Testament. She is mentioned more often in the Gospels than most of the Apostles, and yet Biblical scholars and armchair enthusiasts are deeply divided over her role in Christ’s life.
She can be identified by the pot of ointment she carries with which to anoint Christ’s feet.
Saint Paul, like Saint Peter, is often depicted symbolically and the two are often depicted together.
Literal depictions of Saint Paul usually show him holding a sword and often a book. He is depicted at Braddock (right), Combeinteignhead, and Stockleigh Pomeroy.
Saint Sidwell, or Sativola, of Exeter was one of the most widely revered local saints in the West Country before the Reformation. She was the sister of Saint Juthwara (who has a brilliant story involving cheeses – look it up) and was beheaded by a reaper. Where her head fell a well sprang from the ground and its waters were said to have healing properties.
She is depicted here at Braddock and, rather oddly, has two heads.
Saint Tudwal was a Breton prince, son of King Hoel, who travelled to Ireland to learn Christianity and eventually returned to Brittany by way of a sojourn in Wales to become on of the seven principle Breton saints. Close association between Brittany and the West Country has led to a number of Breton saints being commemorated in the region, including this depiction of Tudwal at North Cadbury.
Saint Tudwal is depicted as a bishop (though with an odd hat) with a dragon.