Worship with teeth in it: pictures of Iffley church

The New Zealand thread has sparked up again, which is one of the many signs one might adduce that I haven’t updated for longer than is good for the blog. In terms of backlog I appear to have now reached Leeds 2012, whose blogging feels rather redundant at such a remove, but which I will probably still do in summary form. The week before Leeds, though, I had a friend staying and took the opportunity to go and explore what is almost my local parish church, that of Saint Mary the Virgin, Iffley.1 Iffley church has had a lot of attention because it is a largely unaltered building of the 1160-1170s and is really rather splendid.2 As a result of this, there are already plenty of pictures of it on the web, most of whose photographers were more concerned with overall aspect than I was, of which perhaps this is the most complete.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley

The photographer of that and many of the others also had better light, but since when has that stopped me? Because the thing about this church that really jumps out for me is the west portal and its ornament.

West façade of church of St Mary The Virgin, Iffley

West façade

It has teeth! Well, more accurately they’re beakheads, as getting close up makes clear, but that doesn’t make it less striking, disturbing or faintly like Gaudí. He probably wouldn’t have used Zodiacal figures with quite the same abandon, but only for having too much other stuff on his palette he wanted to fit in of course. The main feature of the scheme is ranks of serried chevrons, though, and that much is repeated on the other doors and on the arches of the original nave, though they all have their own special qualities.

North portal of church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley

North portal

South portal of church of St Mary the Virgin Iffley, showing nearby windows and ornament

South portal in context

Interior of church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, seen from the entry to the chancel looking east

Interior of the church seen from the entry to the chancel looking east

There’s all kinds of other little features of interest in this rather lovely building, and it feels much less likely to peck you apart on the inside, where you can find crosses marked on the wall that are supposed to go back to the building’s consecration, a huge marble font, a newer chancel with a beautiful but slightly bowed cross-vault and details of where exactly to find the marks on the outside that are supposed to indicate the site of a dismantled cell made for an anchoress by the name of Annora who lived here between 1232 and 1241. I have looked for this and I can’t distinguish it, but I may yet go again. Certainly if you’re in the area you should, and you should let me know. Hopefully the photos explain why…

1. I think that I am actually in the parish of St Nicholas Littlemore, but it must be a close-run thing. Aha: in fact, this handy tool reminds me about St James the Apostle, Cowley, rather closer. Isn’t the web marvellous?

2. The architectural and historical details here are coming substantially from Ruth Nineham, Church of St, Mary the Virgin, Iffley: historical guide (Iffley 2006), which is available for purchase in the church and is a fairly reasonable twenty pages for your money, especially given that the money presumably goes to keeping up the building. The Gaudí allusion and the fear of being eaten by the architecture, however, are mine alone.

22 responses to “Worship with teeth in it: pictures of Iffley church

  1. Thanks Jonathan: this is one I haven’t see pictures of before. Have you seen the chancel arch at St. Peter’s, Tickencote? Wonderful, and yet it too has something of a Carcharodon smile — quite disproportionate to the scale of the church in this case.

    • No, I haven’t; it must go on the list. This being the sort of list that, if it physically existed, should exist as tags stuck into a well-thumbed copy of Pevsner…

  2. Here’s picture: the gaping chancel arch is a little way down the page…

    • Wow, that’s quite impressive. The ‘restyling’ of the exterior is kind of bad for the head of anyone to whom geometric proportions are important, but that façade looks as if no-one told them to stop decorating so they just put storey after storey in, shrinking each one to fit in all their ideas.

  3. A medieval church with teeth at its gate? Just imagine what Dan Brown could have made of this! Surely, it must have been built by the Secret Order of the Denticulati ;-)

    On a more serious note: Yes, this definitely has to go on my list of things to see the next time I’m in Oxford…

  4. meltoncarbury

    I remember loving this church when I saw it, but I think the upper part of the west facade was re-built in the nineteenth century. The sculptured capitals on the south facade are a highlight too.

  5. Iffley church is so lovely. It’s probably my favourite Oxford church. St Peter in the East (nowadays St Edmund Hall’s library) has a similar style of portal but not as elaborate. A bit of a shame it’s not accessible to the public (I was lucky and they were open on the Oxford Open Days last year).

    Btw, your directions in the last photo is wrong – you are looking west… (unless you mean that it’s the chancel that’s looks east).

    • Drat it, I knew I hadn’t corrected my confusion properly there, will edit, thankyou, and also for the comments. I also haven’t managed to get into St Peter in the East, even though I teach for St Edmund’s, must remedy that…

  6. highlyeccentric

    TEETH. You should’ve taken me to see the teefs.

  7. Hi! I live on the uni estate next door to the church, and notice that you mention the site of the cell off the chancel. The doorway can be seen on the photo here:, to the left of the window. The break in the stonework at the bottom shows the width, and the arch for the top of the doorway is level with the bottom of the window. I don’t know if this helps!

  8. Michael Jacobs

    Long been a favourite church of mine. Question: how common is it to find zodiac symbols on a 12c church?

  9. Not sure about the situation in Britain, but on the continent representations of the zodiac symbols and/or the Labours of the Months are extremely common on church portals of the 12th and 13th century – famous examples being the Portail Royal of Chartres Cathedral and, closer to the usual subject area of this blog, the Pórtico of Santa María de Ripoll, both of which date from the mid-12th century.

    • Bugger, this was supposed to be in reply to Michael Jacobs’ comment. Talking of errant… ;-)

    • Michael Jacobs

      Many thanks for examples. I had assumed some tension between zodiac and Christian iconography. At least regarding England churches, I don’t recall mention of other instances of zodiac decor. If there was a difference in practice between England and continent, would this suggest differences in habit or aesthetics rather than doctrine?

    • Oh go on, show me up! Some day I will actually get to Santa Maria de Ripoll before they shut the church… :-)

  10. Pingback: Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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