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Friday, 4 October 2013

Links to the 'Matthew' in St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol. A treasure brought back from the original voyage and a more recent model

St Mary Redcliffe is a parish church in Bristol, near to the harbour. Much of it was built between 1292 and 1370, although there were earlier churches on the same site.


The church is so grand that it looks a bit like a Cathedral, thanks to donations by wealthy Bristolians (particularly William Canynges) who would have masses said for their souls there in return. Queen Elizabeth I is supposed to have said of St Mary Redcliffe that  it was "the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England."


Two items held within the church were of particular interest to me because of their links with the 'Matthew' figurehead project. One is held high up on a stone corbel in a side chapel:


This is a whale rib bone reputedly brought back by John Cabot from the land that he discovered, what is now Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. I don't know of any other surviving artifacts from that original voyage in 1497. This may be the first thing brought by anyone from the New World back to Europe (assuming that the Vikings and St Brendan didn't return with anything).

Another item linked to the Matthew is above the door from the North Porch into the church. It is a model of the replica ship (the one currently in the harbour) which was given to the church to be blessed for luck, in the same way that the owner of a new ship in medieval times would do. 


There is a famous original medieval model used as a blessing object still in existence. It is called the 'Coca de Mataro' and is now in a museum in the Netherlands. It seems appropriate to have the nautical artifacts in this church, as the crew of the original Matthew may well have prayed here for a safe voyage and would have navigated back into the harbour using it as a reference point (although the current spire only dates to the nineteenth century).

St Mary Redcliffe is full of interesting things. Here is the memorial to the poet Thomas Chatterton, who spent a lot of time in here. You might notice that the memorial next to it commemorates a distiller:


Some of the most interesting things in St Mary Redcliffe are the stone carvings, despite the attentions of Oliver Cromwell's miserable Puritans. The roof bosses are amazing, but you may need binoculars to see some of them!



 I like the grotesques carved around the North porch as well. The stone masons must have enjoyed carving these odd characters:








There are intricate carvings running around inside the porch. It's been suggested that they might show panels in a story, but no one seems to know what that story is any more.


There are also lots and lots of 'green man' figures hidden away in carvings. There is even a very unusual 'green dog' figure here, but unfortunately the Chapel of St John the Baptist, where it is found, was too dark to get a photo:




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