Fragment of a medieval wall painting at Ashby St. Ledger, England
For visitors entering an English village church, possibly for the first time, it would not be surprising if they were not impressed. Not because of the building’s lack of historical merit, or its size, or for the interesting artefacts to be found inside; for example an ancient church chest, a Norman or Saxon baptismal font, or an intricately carved Poppy Head; but for the fact that the walls are, to say the least, austere. During the Middle Ages however, those same visitors would have been astonished and in awe of the vibrant and colourful walls that surrounded them.
Things have changed dramatically since 604 AD when St. Gregory the Great, who personally appointed St. Augustine as a missionary to spread the word of Christianity throughout Britain, declared that every church was to be decorated with brightly painted murals. To this end, small groups of professional illustrators travelled from village to village covering the bare walls with scenes from the Bible.
The illustrators’ tools were simple but effective. Pigments for the paint came from iron oxides to produce red, brown, yellow and purple. Black came from candle soot, Malachite came from the green carbonate of copper, and by the same process, azurite from blue carbonate of copper.
The brushes they used were also basic. Large areas were painted with brushes made from hog’s hair, while the smaller, more detailed areas were painted with finer brushes made from squirrel-tail hair.
To the illiterate, uneducated inhabitants of a village who throughout their entire lives would probably never travel farther than the fields that surrounded their community, they would have been amazed to see the plain walls of their little church slowly transformed into vivid scenes from the bible. However, as beautiful as those works of art were, those same naïve villagers would have been unaware that the paintings were also used to instil fear and obedience, thereby trapping them in the poverty of the feudal system in which they lived.
Above the heads of the congregation, at the altar end of the church, would be a large Doom painting depicting the Last Judgement. The scene showed Christ presiding over a gathering as the souls of the dead rose from their graves. Near to Christ would be St. Michael holding a set of weighing scales in his hand to evaluate the amount of sin each soul had committed during its time on earth. The ‘weight’ of an individual’s sins determined whether that soul would be received into Heaven by the angels present, or forked by devils into the gaping mouth of Hell.
Satan would also be on hand, eager for more tormented souls to add to his numbers. Those unfortunate enough to be damned to eternal purgatory by St. Michael were dealt with in a number of terrifying ways. Confined by heavy chains, they would then be hung by the neck from a tree or gibbet before finally being boiled in huge cauldrons. Transportation to Hell in wheelbarrows and farm carts would be the conclusion.
In the hope of avoiding all this damnation, while at the same time aspiring to a guaranteed place in heaven, those of a wealthier disposition often donated money to the church, joined a crusade, or went on a lengthy pilgrimage to a holy shrine. The poor however, did not have such opportunities to improve their prospect of going to heaven, though there was a glimmer of hope for them in the shape of St. Christopher.
A mural of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, the most popular of all the medieval wall paintings, was usually placed on a wall opposite the main door to the church. People in the Middle-Ages believed that whoever looked upon the painting of the saint, would be free from sudden death that day; thereby giving them the opportunity for redemption. If nothing else it was a sure and certain way to get people into the church each day.
Another popular painting of the time was ‘The Three Living and The Three Dead’, which focused on the vanity of life. Three rich kings on a hunting trip, find that they are encircled by large numbers of flies, beetles and maggots which will one day devour them as they lay in their graves. Also present are three skeletons reminding them of how they will end up regardless of how rich and powerful they may be…“As you are, so once we were. As we are, so shall ye be”.
St. George and the Dragon was a popular English church illustration as was, predictably, the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’.
Pride, the painting conveys, is the root of all of the sins and is usually portrayed as a tree or a human figure rising from Hell. From this a number of scrolls curl upwards into the jaws of seven fiery dragons. Each dragon is represented as Pride, Anger, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust. In contrast to this the ‘Seven Works of Mercy’ often appeared; Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Housing the Stranger, Visiting the Sick, Comforting the Prisoner and Burying the Dead.
So why did these beautiful works of art not survive the successive centuries when so many other church artefacts did?
The answer to this question is basically three-fold. Firstly, the demise of the medieval wall paintings began in the wake of the Reformation, brought about initially following the divorce of Catherine of Aragon by King Henry VIII; secondly as a result of the English Civil War of 1644 and thirdly as a consequence of Victorian church ‘restoration’ fever.
In 1547, the year of the death of Henry VIII, the government ordered the ‘obliteration of all popish and superstitious images from wall to wall’. Although a number of paintings were totally destroyed, the majority for the sake of expediency were simply covered over with layers of whitewash. Ironically, this whitewashing is believed by many historians to have actually protected the paintings, enabling preservationists’ centuries later to attempt their restoration.
During the 1644 English Civil War, parliamentary authorities appointed a ‘Commissioner for the Destruction of Images’. The actions of this Commission caused considerately more damage than that inflicted in 1547; in many instances the damage was permanent.
The late Middle-Ages saw a considerable increase of church window installation, resulting in the loss of additional illustrations and further fragmentation of those that had survived. Added to this was the considerable damage exacted during the widespread fever for church restoration in Victorian times. It was, therefore, predictable that the era of the medieval wall painting would come to an end.
Fortunately, regardless of the damage inflicted down the centuries, approximately 2,000 fragments of the beautiful paintings that once adorned the walls of churches still survive throughout the British Isles.
For more information and useful links about the history of the English Parish Church, please visit the English Parish Churches website.
Further church-related articles by Charles Moorhen:
Autobiographical stories of the 1950’s and 1960’s by Charles Moorhen: