As some of you will know, I recently had a birthday outing to Shrewsbury (see Vegan Birthday Burgers at O’Joy Wellness Bistro, Shrewsbury – Review). When we had finished lunch, we were so stuffed and had been sitting so long, we needed air and exercise. The skies were heavy and grey, it didn’t look too promising. However, close by the bistro in the town centre stand three medieval churches. We randomly chose to take a look at the redundant Anglican Church of St Mary The Virgin, not knowing anything about it, but once inside it took my breath away. It has the most stunning stained glass windows I have ever seen, which are apparently world-reknowned: it is said that there is no other collection like it.
The Norman Gothic style church dates from Saxon times and has additions dating from the twelfth century onwards. At over 500 years old, the spire atop the tower is reputedly the third tallest in the country, in fact it is so high I couldn’t get it all in the one shot. Unfortunately, the weather was really taking a turn for the worst, the light was awful for taking photographs. I had also forgotten to take my camera so these were taken with my iPhone.
I’ve borrowed a photo from Wikipaedia of the exterior and spire to illustrate its entirety:
These beautiful wooden doors welcome you into the most overwhelmingly imposing building, with sweeping stone arches, a huge ancient carved stone pulpit, a dark wooden organ gallery.
However, you are immediately drawn to the enormous and detailed panels of brightly-hued stained glass in the famous fourteenth century ‘Jesse’ window*, with its panels of portraits of Old Testament Kings and Prophets, as well as a medieval cartoon strip of the life of St Bernard. Much of the glass was originally used for a Franciscan church, then moved to nearby St Chads after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry Vlll. It was rescued after the church went up in flames and reused to dramatic effect here. The rest of the glass came from various parts of Europe.
The photos really don’t do it justice, the light streaming through the intensely-coloured glass left me lost for words. I couldn’t get the right angle to include it all in the best light. The Trinity Chapel on the right, first created in the 1300s, also has brilliantly-lit stained glass panels. These are bolder and more dramatic.
The aisles and chapels have beautiful Victorian tiled floors and the ceilings have intricate fifteenth century oak carvings of animals, angels and birds, that are so high up you have to use the handheld mirrors provided to view their reflection.
I found the whole experience humbling. It was awe-inspiring. I am not a religious person, I just love historic buildings including churches and this was one of the most affecting that I’ve visited. I constantly marvel at the craftmanship, creativity, ingenuity and sheer hard work that went in to building these churches, often not just over decades but centuries too. They survive fire, flood, hell and damnation – in the form of Henry Vlll’s distruction of these fine buildings – and are still here for us to enjoy and to sit in peaceful contemplation. I feel the presence of all those who have gathered here before me, and it is an opportunity to feel close to my dad and my brother who both passed away at this time of year.**
This church is now under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.
Visiting old churches and ruins is my favourite thing to do, Shrewsbury and the surrounding area is awash with them – there will be further posts I’m sure – and all in all I had a very enjoyable day. The weather even held off until we made it back to the car – just – before the deluge arrived!
* A ‘Jesse’ window refers to an artistic rendering of the biblical family tree starting with Jesse of Bethlehem, father of King David.
To read about other historical visits, please see:
For more photos of buildings in a Shrewsbury:
**To read about my dad, please see:
and my brother:
Copyright: Chris McGowan