Priceless rood panels stolen from church in Devon
Two late-Medieval religious artworks as rare as a Turner or a Rembrandt have been stolen from a South Devon church.
The unique and priceless 15th-century hand-painted oak panels were prized out of their fittings in the Holy Trinity Church at Torbryan, near Ipplepen, and a third one was damaged during the theft.
The panels, which represent St Victor of Marseilles and Saint Margaret of Antioch, are part of a series of 40 such panels depicting God, Mary, the Apostles and other saints, set in a colourful rood screen inside the church.
A rood screen is a common feature in late medieval church architecture. It is typically an ornate partition between the chancel and nave, of more or less open tracery constructed of wood, stone, or wrought iron.
Arts historian Dr Neil Rushton, from the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after the 15th century Torbryan church, said the panels may have been stolen to order because of their extreme rarity.
He said: "Paintings of God, Mary and the Apostles are two to a penny in English churches, which is why it is possible these thieves targeted lesser saints as they are much rarer.
"This is the best example of this type of late medieval art in the country. They are as unique and priceless as a Turner or a Rembrandt. These panels are irreplaceable. They are intrinsic and indigenous to this church. This theft devalues the whole church."
The 45cm by 15cm colourful panels are believed to have been pushed out of their settings, but a third panel of an unknown female saint was bashed through or punched and left damaged in situ.
Dr Rushton said: "These panels were of cathedral quality. They have been painted by a specially commissioned artist who would have been a top artist of his days.
"They are contemporary to when the church was built. It shows there was a lot of money around here at the time, mostly from the wool trade.
"Unless the damage to one panel was an accident, it is difficult to understand why those who did it bashed it when they did such a delicate job of removing the other two."
Dr Rushton said this kind of art theft was rare in churches because robbers tend to go for roof lead, donation boxes and more moveable items.
It is the not the first time the Torbryan church has been targeted by thieves. Four panels were stolen before the church was taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust in 1997 and three others were ripped off their fittings in 2003 in similar circumstances. None have been recovered.
The crime has now been publicised on the international Art Loss website so antiques dealers, collectors, museums and auction houses around the world will look out for the panels should the two panels come up for sale.
The theft is understood to have happened in the two weeks prior to August 9 at times when the church was open to the public. Holy Trinity remains a consecrated church, which means it still holds services, but is mainly a tourist and historical attraction.
PC Gareth Beynon said: "In a sense it is helpful that the panels are so unique because they will be recognisable."
He added: "It is a shame because we can now see the history of this church disappearing before our eyes."