It may come as a surprise that what might be the finest Baroque church in Britain will be found, not in some great city, but in rural Worcestershire. This is Great Witley Church. It dates from 1735, when it replaced an earlier medieval parish church that had stood nearby. The new church was built by the then owners of neighbouring Witley Court, the Foleys, for their convenience, but not as a private chapel; it has always been a parish church.
Dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, Great Witley Church began as a relatively modest brick affair with a plain interior and clear glass windows. Later, the exterior received limestone cladding and fancy balustrades and finials. It has a clock tower with a natty-looking gilded dome cupola, topped off with a golden orb and cross. In 1747, the interior underwent a massive make-over with the installation of decorations taken from the chapel at Canons, a palatial house built for the 1st Duke of Chandos in Edgware, near London. Canons is reputed to have been amazing, but had a very short life. It was built between 1713 and 1724 from the wealth Chandos had amassed as paymaster-general to the Duke of Marlborough. But the family fortune was lost and, in 1747, Canons was demolished, its contents sold, and some of the chapel’s decorations and its organ were bought by the 2nd Baron Foley. The impact on St Michael and All Angels, Great Witley, is quite astonishing. In fact, unless you’re prepared for it, I can tell you from personal experience that opening the door and stepping inside is a jaw-dropping moment. This is the kind of church interior you expect to see in Austria or Italy, not in dull old Puritan Britain.
Entering Great Witley Church is like being surrounded by sections of decorated icing from a large and over-elaborate wedding cake. Clearly, the instructions were to leave no surface unadorned. There are ten painted glass windows depicting the life of Christ and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. They were created by Joshua and William Price and date from 1719. Three large oil on canvas ceiling paintings by the Italian artist Antonio Bellucci (1654 -1726) depict the Descent from the Cross, the Ascension and the Nativity. Ten small paintings of cherubs surround the three main paintings and there are further paintings over the windows. Ornate gilded ceiling and wall decorations are made of papier-mâché, using moulds taken of the original plasterwork at Canons.
Great Witley Church also boasts one of the tallest funerary monuments in the country, the 26 feet (8 metre) high Foley Monument. Let’s face it, it’s not everyone that can claim any sort of funerary monument, let alone one of the tallest in the Land. The Foley Monument dates from 1737 and portrays the first Lord Foley, Thomas, and his wife, Mary, with five of their children who predeceased them. The monument was designed and sculpted by the Flemish artist John Michael Rysbrack.
Now, call me a Philistine*, but I confess to finding all of this Baroque bling a bit much. It is, of course, undeniably skilfully executed, and it certainly makes a statement. Gosh, yes. But it is like too much make-up and a revealing dress at a funeral. In short, whilst there is much to admire, even some beauty, it is excessively immoderate and a just a little disconcerting. I’m sure God is impressed, though.
We may disagree. Either way, Great Witley Church is certainly worth going out of your way for; of course it is. Particularly when you discover it also has a crypt, still occupied by lead coffins and served by a coffin chute. The mind boggles; I don’t know how I missed that.
Anyway, you have to visit Witley Court next door and you can calm down afterwards in the lovely tea room next door. The people are charming and serve buns!
* “Mike, you’re a Philistine.”