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Minerva's Shrine, Chester

It’s a wet Saturday in Chester, and the rain hangs low over the city as it persistently drenches the crowds of people who still throng the ancient streets in spite of the weather.

On the opposite side of the river Dee in Handbridge is a small park known as Edgar’s Field, where out of the soaked grassy banks rises an arresting outcrop of red sandstone, part of a quarry from Roman times; there are layers of rock, red, white and grey, laid one atop another and weathering at differing rates. At one point the strata are buckled and folded like an unmade bed, the layers laid down almost 400 million years ago revealing themselves through the actions of time and weather over millennia. There is a shelf like formation littered with shattered fragments of paler stone that have fallen from a weaker layer higher up, while strands of leafy foliage hang downwards.

Into the side of this rocky prominence is a carved representation of the Graeco-Roman goddess Minerva, created by Roman workers at some point, so it is believed, during the early 2nd century. It faces obliquely towards the river, beside what was originally the route of the original main road into Chester from the South, offering protection and inspiration to those passing by.

The last two thousand years have not been kind to Minerva, and today it is difficult to make out any details within her blurry outline. She is very weathered and worn, her condition due not only to the passage of years, but also a combination of neglect and vandalism; astonishingly at some point in the 19th century it was used as a target for rifle practice.

Earlier descriptions of the figure describe her as armed with a sword and shield, with the owl of wisdom at her shoulder, but it takes a great deal of imagination to picture this today. The engraving shown here depicts it as it appeared prior to 1886, although how much of this is the product of a certain degree of Victorian artistic license is difficult to say, given that during the medieval period it was thought to be a depiction of the Virgin Mary, and a writer of 1810 decided it was definitely a “male warrior”. This worn and enigmatic figure seems to have presented a tempting blank canvas onto which any number of interpretations might be projected.

On the day I visited, the shrine looked rather neglected, with water leaching down one side from above, and it looks very vulnerable to damage, the stone friable and unprotected. It is difficult to imagine it as it must have appeared when first created, standing out from the rock face in bold relief against the sandstone quarry walls.

Today it looks ghostly and indistinct in its pedimented niche, as it looks out over the river towards Chester under a veil of fine rain and a grey sky.

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