The Church of St Andrew in Alfriston dates from the 14th Century and it is likely that the Easter Sepulchre to the north of the altar is of a similar date.
The Easter Sepulchre was a feature often placed in medieval churches. It represented the tomb of Christ and was used for an elaborate ceremony determined by the Sarum Rite. The sacrament of Maundy Thursday 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. The Sarum Rite also required a ‘Lenten Veil’ to hide the altar during Easter and there is evidence of this at St Andrew’s Church in the form of metal pins where the veil would have been attached.
As easter sepulchres were only used for three days a year, they tended to be temporary structures made of wood. Nearby Littlington and Selmeston Churches have a plain stone one as does St Mary’s Church, Eastbourne, but the sepulchre at Alfriston is rather grand with a canopy decorated with two carvings.
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.” However I suspect that this identification is incorrect and the animal is actually a beaver.
The testicles of a beaver were an ancient source of medicine (Castoreum) and they were hunted for this precious commodity. 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 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 of 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. There is a carving of a curled up beaver on the end of an ancient pew at Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, indeed the beaver actually features on the Beverley coat-of-arms. A misericord at Southwold Minster in Suffolk also depicts a similar animal.
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 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 in Alfriston Church 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.
Tomorrow (Saturday 9th April 2016) sees the launch of the St Andrew’s Church Restoration Appeal and I will be at the church between 10am and 3.30pm to assist. There will be illustrated history talks at 11am and 3pm but church wardens will also be available to show you around and point out some of the other interesting features of the church.
Please come along and say hello and look around this very special place – and look out for the carving – what do you think? Dog or Beaver?