Church of St James the Great

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This is a lovely church with amazing wall paintings, set in the depths of the rural Oxfordshire countryside and feels miles from anywhere.

It is actually just off the A40 to the south east of Witney, reached down a narrow road with passing places. South Leigh is a small scattered settlement of well cared for houses with verges full of daffodils.

It is a simple church with low square battlemented tower, long nave with battlemented side aisles and porch with a small chancel. This has a priest’s door with a carved tympanum with a cross and stylised beakheads. From the outside it just looks like a typical country church.

The church dates from the 12thC but most of it was rebuilt in the 15thC. There was the usual restoration by the Victorians.

The porch has a wood beam roof, old stone benches used in the Middle Ages for communal meetings and a memorial on the wall to the dead of both world wars. In front was an oak door with carved trefoil heads.

We opened the door and walked into the church, completely unprepared for the glories awaiting us. The walls are covered with medieval wall paintings all beautifully restored 1992. If you want to see what a medieval church was like, this is the place to come.

Above the chancel arch and spreading round the sides of the nave is a Doom Painting of the Last Judgement. In the centre, the dead are wakened by trumpeting angels. On the left St Peter welcomes the redeemed into a castle-like Kingdom of Heaven. On the right, the damned are dragged into the mouth of hell propped open by a devil.

On the south wall St Michael, brandishing a sword, weighs souls on a scale with the Virgin interceding by dropping her rosary beads into the dead soul’s pan so that it weighted in his favour. At the bottom right, is the mouth of Hell. This is 15thC and has a wide border with leaves. look closely and you can make out the remains of an earlier painting beneath.

Round the base of the of the chancel arch beneath the Doom is a ‘William Morris’ design with birds an leaves, which is in fact a Victorian over painting of a medieval design.

On the west end of the north wall is the remains of a painting of the Seven Deadly Sins. A many headed monster with a figure representing one of the sins arises out of the mouth of Hell. This is the only painting that hasn’t been restored. To the east of this is a painting of St Clement of Rome set in a pinnacled archway. He was martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. Angels built him a tomb on the sea-bed.

In the chancel to the right of the east window is a painting of the Virgin Mary holding a lily, with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, above her.

There are the remains of later inscriptions painted on the walls.

The rest of the church is pleasant, but probably not exceptional. There are carved corbels under the beams on the nave roof and brass memorials under the south window in the nave.

The rood screen is 15thC but was heavily restored by the Victorians. It has a small painted crucifix at the centre with the Virgin and St John on either side and a row of candles along the top. The screen to the north is 15thC.

The pulpit is Jacobean and John Wesley preached his first sermon here in 1725. Next to it is a modern wooden lectern of St michael holding a book.

Glass in the east window is Victorian. At the top are eight angels holding symbols of the passion. Below is Christ holding a banner proclaiming “Ecce Agnes Dei” and preaching to women, children and a Roman centurion.

At the back of the west wall is a tiny wooden door leads to the tower staircase. It is mended with clenched nails, a Saxon technique.

The church is at the far end of the village. The only sound was birdsong, wren, chiffchaff, goldfinch…. It is open during daylight hours and there is plenty of parking in the village hall. The church is fully accessible. Disabled visitors can be dropped off by the church and there are no steps into the church.

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