The Tympanum - St James' Church - Little Paxton

The Tympanum at St James' Church, Little Paxton


The term Tympanum refers to the shaped stone between the lintel and the semi-circular arch above main entrance door. It has a unique carved design for each church of the period and would often reflect the character of the locality. Sadly, it has been eroded by earlier exposure to the elements when in its previous position.


The Tympanum at St James' Church

The Tympanum at St James' Church


David Broad (in his 1989 book “The History of Little Paxton”) describes it as follows:

“A local historian suggests that the carving is crude, but clearly depicts a shepherd with a staff, cross or crook next to a sheep or lamb. This epitomises the long-standing status of Paxton as a district for grazing. Indeed Pachestone has been said to mean "sheep's town" with Paches for sheep or Pachydermata being a term used for non-ruminatory animals such as horses or pigs. On the other side of the design is a large rampant animal with a smaller one below. To some, it depicts a horse with a dog or boar and a hunting scene to reveal a different local activity of the Normans. Others have interpreted the larger animal as a wolf attacking a rather poorly drawn lamb as a further reinforcement of the Good Shepherd tableau. The visitor can pause on the way into church and form a personal opinion as there can be no definitive answer because of the crude nature of the figures. Between the two scenes is a large cross inset and circumscribed with a circle to provide the Christian symbol beneath which worshippers have passed for the last nine centuries.”

However, Keyser in “A List of Norman Tympana and Lintels” (1927), identifies the standing figure on the Tympanum as an archbishop with his hand extended over an animal prostrated at the foot of the cross. For him the object above his head is “probably the hand of the Almighty”. The upper figure on the sinister (left) side he identifies as “perhaps the Agnus Dei”. Stone, quoted by Keyser, found the iconography of this and similar tympana “highly obscure”. He attributed this fact to illiterate sculptors who tended to muddle and distort the symbols. The only sign that is beyond doubt is the central cross, which is now reproduced on the glass screen into the Vestry. One possibility for the remainder depends on the identification of the smaller beast on the sinister side as a centaur. This is a senseless animal with the form of a man and used by the compilers of Bestiaries to symbolise people who behave like beasts and are deceived by the allurements of the world. (Baxter: Bestiaries and their Uses in the Middle Ages, 1998). If this is accepted, then their fate as prey stands in contrast to the care lavished on the sheep like creature on the dexter by the Good Shepherd figure. The meaning of “dexter” is “right-handed” and is also the opposite of “sinister”. This might refer to when men carried swords and shields.


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