The roof bosses covering the intersections of roof timbers and wall plates at St Andrew’s Church, South Tawton, are of exceptional interest. Some of these are relatively modern (from the 19th Century), including those in the chancel and the angels on the carved wall plate in the nave. Most of the carvings are of foliage and flowers and an overview, with roof plan and images of all the bosses (Click on any row of interest to bring up the first boss in that row with the choice of proceeding with next/previous buttons or a table from which to select any boss), can be seen below. .
The roof bosses in the nave and aisles include some of the best medieval carvings in Devon, according to Susan Andrew’s PhD thesis " Late Medieval Roof Bosses in the Churches of Devon" . Sue’s principal focus is on figural bosses (of man or animal). Most of these 24 identified carvings are of heads (including 7 foliate heads, sometimes known as Green Men) and also single bosses carved with an owl, double-headed eagle, sheela na gig, and three hares etc..The key to these identified bosses is given below.
Sue Andrew's complete thesis is in 3 large multiple downloadable pdf files.The pages about South Tawton in Sue's thesis will be found in 2011andrew278657phd3.pdf (pp 992 - 1004) Additional material on interpreting the bosses can be found in Chapter 6 of Sue's thesis 2011andrew278657phd1.pdf (esp. pages 421 - 434). click here to download .
There are 171 major carvings on the ceiling of St Andrew’s church South Tawton. Even on a sunny day, with all the lights on, the bosses are now quite difficult to see due to a modern dark stain applied throughout the roof space. However, in the medieval period, the bosses are likely to have been much more visible than they are now, whether or not the roof was originally plastered. The bosses may well have been lime-washed or painted (medieval evidence exists elsewhere for both) which would have increased their visibility and the roof was, almost certainly, much lighter than it now appears. It is also worth noting that the bosses are now seen in isolation from their medieval decorative context but then the motifs on the bosses would have been familiar and thus easy to recognize; they may have appeared in other media within the church - wall paintings, stained glass etc., or even in the words of the sermon.
Unless one uses scaffolding, it is not possible to photograph most of the bosses ‘head on’, and the photos offered here used a long lens and a flash, standing on the ground. This method introduces its own distortions in terms of shadow, colour and perspective. Another problem is that often it was not possible to see what was being shot until the pictures were edited and ‘auto focus’ had to be used.. This facility can also have difficulty in poor light and some of the shots, particularly the corner ones are not very good quality One added problem seems to be a rather slapdash decorator in some areas and the odd cobweb or two!
After removing the background, the photos have deliberately been clarified by increasing contrast and artificial sharpening. There are quite a few bosses where the nails or nail holes can make something appear as other than was carved, as the holes can look very much like eyes. The original photo as well as the edited version have been shown, in case you prefer to download these (right click – save picture as) and edit them to your own preferences.
In order to view the bosses in St Andrew’s in person, we suggest that you bring a powerful, self-supporting torch (of the rechargeable million candle-power type) and a good pair of binoculars. There may be a mirror-on-a-trolley to wheel around but another way to avoid a badly cricked neck is to lie down in a pew. If in doubt, take off your shoes!
Key to 28 figuaral or special interest bosses (24 identified in Sue Andrews' thesis with further photos of each) CLICK ON ITEM TO VIEW