Last week I gave an illustrated talk at Seaford Museum entitled “An A-Z of Sussex Churches” (if you read my column last week I think you can guess who the letter Z was represented by). After the talk a lady approached me about the Easter Sepulchre at St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston. She had a rather odd theory about it.
An Easter Sepulchre was a feature often placed in medieval churches, to the left of the altar. It represented the tomb of Christ and was used for a ceremony common in the old English Church. The sacrament would be placed in it on Good Friday and removed on Easter Day. During this time the sepulchre (another name for ‘tomb’) was covered with fine cloths, lit with candles day and night and guarded by parishioners.
As easter sepulchres were only used for three days a year, they tended to be temporary structures made of wood. Selmeston Church has a plain stone one, but the sepulchre at Alfriston is rather grand with a canopy decorated with two carvings. It dates from the 14th century when the church was built.
The carving on the right is that of a woman with a nasty gash on her head – this is presumed to be Saint Lewenna, a local girl who was martyred for her Christian beliefs in the seventh century. The figure on the left is an animal. The church guide, written by the historian Alfred Cecil Piper (1883-1973) refers to it as an “animal rather like a dog with its head between its hind legs”, but the lady at the museum has a different theory in that the animal is actually a beaver.
Now I know this sounds far-fetched but I suspect there is something in this. The testicles of a beaver were an ancient source of medicine and they were hunted for this. It was widely believed that when cornered by hunters, the beaver would bite off its own testicles and leave them in order to escape.
Medieval bestiaries (a sort of illustrated animal dictionary) explained that because of this supposed act of self-sacrifice, the beaver was a Christian symbol for chastity. As many medieval artists would have not seen a beaver, the accompanying illustrations show a dog-like creature with its head between its hind legs, some are almost identical to the stone animal at Alfriston Church.
The Victorian artist and author Thomas Tindall Wildridge (1858-1928) wrote a book in 1898 called “Animals of the Church in Wood, Stone and Bronze”. He writes: “The beaver when met in church work is generally found in a curled up attitude”.
He goes on to say that, because of its self-sacrifice the beaver is a symbol of Christ and that there is a carving of a curled up beaver on the end of an ancient pew at Beverley Minster, Yorkshire. I am not sure if there were beavers in Yorkshire in the fourteenth century but the beaver actually features on the Beverley coat-of-arms.
I have checked this theory on-line, although some web-sites are a little coy with their words. Amusingly one says... “In Christian symbolism the beaver represents chastity, self-discipline, and the willingness to sacrifice anything that hinders one’s walk with Christ. This is because people once thought that the beaver had a precious medicine bag which it would bite off and throw away as excess baggage if pursued.”
Another old book says “The beaver is a symbol of vigilance and self-sacrifice and was often used in heraldry as a symbol of protection and dedication”.
I think it is highly likely that the animal depicted at Alfriston is indeed a beaver. It either indicates the chastity of St Lewenna or, as it is on the easter sepulchre, the self-sacrifice of Christ. For many years, visitors to the church have been told that it is St Lewenna’s dog but when I show people around the church in the future I will give another explanation – what do you think? Dog or beaver?