It is almost unfair to all the other churches in Cornwall to include St Germans as a parish church for it is genuinely in a different league. Once the site of Cornwall’s first cathedral and for five hundred years a thriving Augustinian priory, it is much more ‘English’ than Cornish in so many ways.
It is impossible to argue with Simon Jenkins’ three stars, given for the Norman exterior, the Rysbrack monument and the Burne-Jones window. We might quibble with the reasons but not the stars, nor its importance.
Situated in a slightly unreal landscape of great house, landscaped park and ‘estate village’, the church looks an odd mixture from the south. The non-matching twin towers (cf Jumieges in France on a much larger scale), dominate the west end.
The four bays of the south aisle are solidly perpendicular with the chancel appearing to be earlier. What we are seeing is the for-shortened remnants of the original priory.
The instant surprise inside is the enormous Norman west door which seems to suck you in. This shock is further emphasised when stepping inside for we are back in the Norman period with wonderful solid and circular columns holding up a gently-pointed arcade.
The tall ceiling and windows allow a wonderful sense of space and light in a space which seems rather too short for its width. The original canons’ chancel would have spread a further fifty feet to the east.
It would be a wonderful architectural and cultural detective adventure to unscramble the various parts and work out how they all fit together, for St Germans is anything but coherent as a single design. The Norman rubs shoulders with the C18 with the C19 with ease.
Three features are most often mentioned. The earliest is the wonderful C14 carved misericord, of Dando and his dogs. A wayward monk spent too much time hunting and was eventually whisked off by a mystery figure, never to be seen again. This produced great piety in his friends.
Here he is, with his dogs and what the books describe as his crossbow over his shoulder which looks to us more like a stick with his hunting trophy. It is as vibrant as the day it was carved by someone who obviously loved dogs.
Then there is the early Rysbrack monument to Edward Eliot d1722. This is just the sort of thing that Simon Jenkins enjoys and, on this occasion, rightly for it is a tour de force, our hero clad in classical dress and fainting away as the putti watch over him.
Unfortunately it is tucked away in the north west tower lobby, behind an iron fence, obscured by some stacked tables and unlit where it is difficult to see the full effect of it.
The last of the three great glories is a really a double joy: the great east window designed by Burne-Jones and executed by William Morris, and its accompanying south window in the south aisle.
These are really lovely. Burne-Jones made the best of some fairly dominant fenestration to create windows of lightness and colour. If only the other C19 window designers had produced this style of work instead of the heavy stuff that obscures so many church windows.
The detail is lovely and one’s eye travels to the tiny angels elegantly squished into some of the lights.
The choice of subjects is interesting too. The top row reads: The Centurion; St Mary sister of Lazarus; Jesus Christ; St Mary; St Paul. Then Ss Matthew, Mark, Stephen (the first martyr), Luke and John.
The Lady Chapel window carries personifications of Joy, Justice, Faith; Hope, Charity and Praise: all fine Arts and Crafts virtues.
And then there is the rather solid late Norman font which has a rather chequered history and the C13 stone coffin in the porch.