St Senara Church in the village of Zennor approximately six miles west of St. Ives is famous for a carved medieval chair, or bench end, displayed in the south side chapel. The carving is generally dated to between 1400-1500. The carving shows a mermaid carrying a comb and mirror. The pose is similar to classical depictions of the goddess Aphrodite. In the classical tradition, Aphrodite carries a quince (sometimes called a love apple).
Through history the quince has become a mirror, a symbol of vanity, which rather twists the original meaning. In the medieval period, it was a common Cornish custom to perform 'miracle plays', in which the mermaid was used to represent the dual nature of Christ; just as the mermaid was both fish and human, Christ was both God and man.
In other Cornish churches, such as the one at Breage, You can still see medieval wall paintings of mermaids, but Zennor has the only surviving medieval mermaid carving.
The Mermaid Legend
Matthew Trewhella sang in the church. A mermaid named Morveren, hearing his beautiful voice, came to the church every Sunday in the guise of a woman to listen. She and Matthew fell in love and not bearing to lose him Morveren lured Matthew into the sea at nearby Pendour Cove.
He never returned, and on warm summer evenings it is said that their voices can be heard joined in song, emanating from beneath the waves.
I have always loved and admired the largely unknown poem TO THE MERMAID OF ZENNOR by John Heath Stubb’s who lived in Zennor for a while In 1947 and thought of it as the end of the earth. Other famous literary residents of West Cornwall include D.H. Lawrence who lived there during the First World War and Virginia Woolf who thought it “the loveliest place in the world”;
Reading Stubb’s words as a child (by chance I might add. It was certainly not on my Cornish school curriculum) I was mesmerised by the a marvellously malevolent image of the Mermaid he conjures.. She is selfish and sinister, intent on luring fishermen and sailors to their death, just like my protagonist, Carly Taylor in A SISTERHOOD OF SILENCE. ‘Half fish , half fallen angel.’
The Mermaid at Zennor
Half fish, half fallen angel, none of you Human at all - cease your lust's Cold and insatiate crying from the tangled bay; Nor, sea-hag, here Stretch webbed and skinny fingers for your prey.
This is a hideous and a wicked country, Sloping to hateful sunsets and the end of time, Hollow with mine-shafts, naked with granite, fanatic With sorrow. Abortions of the past Hop through these bogs; black-faced, the villagers Remember burnings by the hewn stones.
Only the saints, Drifting on oak-leaves over the Irish Sea, To sing like pipits from their crannied cells With a thin stream of praise; who hear the Jennifer Sob for her sins in a purgatory of foam - Only these holy men Can send you slithering from the chancel steps, And wriggling back to your sunken paradise Among the hollow-eyed and the capsized.
-John Heath Stubbs
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