Happy San Martino!
November 11 marks the Feast Day of St Martin of Tours, a really rather fascinating saint known for his charity (he famously divided his cloak to clothe a naked beggar) and humility, and a saint especially popular on the European Continent. St Martin is certainly a very busy patron saint, looking after – in no particular order – horsemen and horses, tailors and beggars, the poor and injured, barrel makers and drunks, but also curing alcoholics and cuckolded husbands.
In Italy, San Martino marks the day when the first tastes can be had of the new wine, chestnuts are roasted and, certainly in Venice, San Martino cakes are scoffed. In my little home parish in Germany, St. Martin’s would be celebrated as a festival of lights. At dusk, St Martin would ride through the streets, meet the beggar at the door of the church, divide his cloak, and then we children would follow St Martin – and the horse! – to the parish hall, lighting the lanterns we had built for the occasion.
During the middle ages, St Martin’s Day was the last big feast before a period of fasting commenced in preparation for Christmas. So, in many ways, the Feast Day of St. Martin marks a threshold between autumn and Christmas. To mark this occasion, let me introduce you to a rather amazing church dedicated to this saint within close vicinity of the University of Nottingham Campus. Let me take you into a veritable Aladin’s Cave of treasures….
Doorways and thresholds are quite amazing spaces, liminal spaces actually, that mark the transition between inside and outside. They imply movement between two locations as few of us linger at a threshold, tending, rather, to step smartly across and through.
Now, it could be argued that St. Martin’s in Bilborough, Nottingham, has little to tempt a visitor across its threshold and inside. First impressions, of blocked sky lights and coils of barbed wire are not all that good. But then, step inside and gradually, the hidden treasures of this amazing church come into sharp focus. Its well worth crossing over this threshold because inside this little gem of a local church lurk some real art historical treasures.
Any village church that merits a mention in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England (1951) does well, but the famous architectural historian does not seem to have lingered long. He mentions the very handsome porch and the nice medieval tower, and that’s it. I have previously, in another blog post talked of Pevsner’s superficial engagement with Nottingham’s great medieval churches. This time, Pevsner seems to have paid enough attention to the OUTSIDE of the medieval heritage of the church but I really am not convincedf that he ever went inside. He was on the way to Strelley’s All Saints with its wonderful tombs, I suspect, and little St. Martin’s was not going to delay him…But then, maybe Pevsner missed a gem, because by failing to linger and look, he omitted something of much interest that was visible in 1951 but has since been hidden: Evelyn Gibbs’ great Annunciation mural from 1946. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us: look properly! Because you never know what you might miss.
In the case of St. Martin’s, the renewed attention focussed on Evelyn Gibbs’ great mural is certainly worth thinking about. It all started with a chance discovery some years ago when some electricians working in the rafters of St. Martin’s noticed the Annunciation.
The mural was presumed to have been destroyed in the 1970s when the church was extended. Pauline Lucas, Gibbs’ biographer, described the St. Martin’s painting as destroyed in her book on Gibbs, but has happily been able to correct that part of her studies! The Annunciation mural may well be the only remaining example of a substantial body of work that Gibbs produced in and around Nottingham during WWII, and is a valuable example of Gibbs’ concern with using art as a means to connect local communities to their surroundings. Until 4 years ago, when this hidden treasure of St. Martin’s was found, ALL of Gibbs’ work in the area had been presumed destroyed.
So, in the spirit of St Martin, this particular one may be ready to start offering up its treasures old and new. Trip to Bilborough anyone?