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Medieval Wall Paintings The Painted Church

Report of the lecture
given by Roger Rosewell
on March 26th 2014

Vividly coloured representations of Christ and the Virgin, birds, dragons, saints, soaring angels, panoplied knights on horseback, ships, fish, flowers, trees, skeletons, devils with bared teeth; all tumbled across the walls of the medieval church.  The faded ghosts of these paintings which we see on the white walls of our churches today give us only a hint of their glories, but in a time when the nights were dark and demons lurked behind every tree, to a superstitious illiterate peasant standing in a crowded segregated and noisy church these paintings must have been a source of both solace in their beauty and terror in their contemplation of the afterlife.  Our lecturer Roger Rosewell described this experience as “Shock and awe.  Awe and wonderment” and a restored church in St. Fagan's museum in Wales shows what a church would have looked like 500 years ago on the cusp of the Reformation.  It is startling in its use of colour.

The first example we have of a wall painting is from a Roman house church in Lullingstone, Kent.  Very few Anglo Saxon paintings have survived but in the Anglo-Norman period some excellent local examples have survived, especially those of the Lewes group, painted between 1100 and 1120.  They were so called because it is believed they were commissioned by the Cluniac Monastery at Lewes and were probably done by the same group of artists.  These can be seen at Hardham, Clayton and Coombes.  Further local examples can be seen at Charlwood, West Chiltington, Bramley, Slapton, Ford, Godalming and Witley.  There is also a wonderful ‘Ladder of Salvation’ in Chaldon.

Hardham Church is particularly impressive.  Paintings cover every wall and give us some idea of how breath taking it must have looked 900 years ago especially by flickering candle light.  Residual lettering suggests textual accompaniment, implying theological knowledge and artists of some rank, unsurprising in that the commissioning agent was the monastery.

Artists were generally indigenous and peripatetic and often a family group but occasionally rich patrons of churches employed more sophisticated artists from larger centres of population and in the 15th century Flemish artists began to arrive.  The artists had pattern books with ideas derived from illuminated manuscripts, drawings of other paintings they had seen and original ideas.  Paintings were mapped out on a grid system and blown up from working drawings.

Originally, paintings were executed on wet lime plaster, as in the Lewes group, but this caused problems in our wet climate so later the secco method of painting on dry plaster was used which meant artists could work at a slower pace and use a wider selection of pigments.

Walls painted in a brick pattern in red and surfaces imitating fabric, often serving as a backdrop behind altars, and stencils were often used as background.  There are few paintings of parables and miracles except in early churches but, as one would expect, representations of Christ and the Virgin Mary are numerous.  Other subjects include stories from the Bible, Saints, the seven deadly sins, virtues and sacraments, death and judgement.  A commonly found theme was that of three rich young men who encounter three skeletons in a forest who say to them, “As you are, so were we: As we are, so you will become.”

Dooms, so called because they depicted the Last Judgement, appeared on chancel arches in terrifying detail, many appearing at the time of the Black Death which wiped out two thirds of the population.  It is difficult to conceive of or understand their thoughts at this remove, but to the medieval mind the Dooms must have been a timely reminder of man's mortality and sins in what would have appeared to be apocalyptic times.

Paintings of St. Christopher, often sited opposite the church door, serve a different purpose in that they were talismanic and it was believed that even a quick glance through the open church door at the depiction of St. Christopher would protect you for 24 hours if undertaking a journey.

The purpose of the wall paintings could be simply to decorate and beautify, to act as a devotional and instructional aid when both priest and parishioners were likely to be illiterate, or to reflect the elevated position of the patron who, after all, footed the bill.  Wall paintings have been described as books for the illiterate and, to quote another source, one picture is worth a thousand words.

At the time of Henry VIII and the Reformation, fired by Protestant teachings, large scale destruction of these paintings occurred.  Depictions of St. Thomas-a-Becket were a particular target as King Henry perceived him to be a traitor and rebel, not a saint.  One church cleverly concealed his image by adapting it to look like a woman.  Walls were over-painted, pictures were defaced or even hacked out.  Many more were destroyed in the reign of Edward VI and some in the Civil War by radical Puritans.  Much nearer our own time, Victorians, in the mistaken belief that early church walls would have been bare and devoid of plaster, caused great damage by hacking it away, destroying many of the remaining paintings.

We have lost a huge proportion of many of these amazing paintings through time, neglect and vandalism, but many still continue to be discovered hidden and preserved behind layers of whitewash waiting to be found by accident or during the renovation or repair of churches.  The act of whitewashing may even have contributed to their survival.

A fuller account of this fascinating subject can be found in an erudite and beautifully illustrated book by our lecturer, Roger Rosewell, called “Medieval Wall Paintings.”

Ann Brookes

Related Link (opens in new window):

Roger Rosewell's website

Enthusiastic members gather round author and lecturer, Roger Rosewell,
as he signs copies of his books