My initial recording of church wall paintings focused on Northamptonshire. I realised that a number mentioned in Arthur Mee’s and Nickolas Pevsner‘s books about the county were no longer visible, therefore I decided in 1990 to make a complete record of what remained. Church wall paintings in and beyond the county have remained an interest since then.
Pevsner (1) wrote of Northamptonshire’s wall paintings:
“The absence of Wall Paintings from medieval churches (and indeed houses) is much to be deplored. If we had all that crowded the walls we might like some churches less, but we would understand them better“
The need to understand the full history of churches is echoed by Sir Roy Strong (2) in his Preface to A Little History of the English Country Church:
“Seldom are we ever given a glimpse of the [church] building as the historic microcosm over the centuries of a community……..
We need to develop for a wider public our approach to churches as expressions of past human beings”
Of Leicestershire and Rutland (3) Pesvner merely comments that wall paintings are not frequent.
Eight churches in Leicestershire and Rutland are listed by wall paintings expert Dr E. Clive Rouse (4) as having Pre-Reformation wall paintings and a few others have fragments still visible. Before mentioning these it would be useful to look at the general background to church wall paintings in order to understand what is to be seen.
Location of wall paintings in churches
All Medieval churches were painted; this included woodwork and interior and exterior statues. The church building was seen as a symbol of the universe, with each part of the building being the location for a particular subject or theme as follows:
Roof –Sky or Heaven
Nave – the Earth or Worldly Life
Chancel – Heaven after the Last Day or Adoration
Chancel Arch –Door of Heaven, the Last Judgement or Doom
Lower part of the Chancel Arch –elements of the Creator’s scheme,
The Seasons, Labours of the Month.
The techniques and materials used
On the Continent the fresco technique was used. Pigment was applied to wet plaster. This bonded together to make a surface which lasts well. In Britain the secco technique was used. The plaster was coated with lime putty; this was then dampened before colours were applied. It was a more flexible way of painting than the formal fresco, which had to be done in small sections. It was better suited to the English climate, but less enduring.
The painters mixed their own pigments using easily obtained oxides of iron, copper, lead, and lime wash, lamp black red and yellow ochre. Vermillion and azurite and even gold leaf were used, but usually found only in major churches or royal chapels because they were expensive. In later paintings jewels might be used. Brushes were made from squirrel tails or hogs’ bristles.
The paintings were usually outlined in red or scored into the plaster. Sometimes the painter would use black as an under coat to give depth to the colours, especially the flesh. This can be seen at Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough where wax was initially used to preserve the paintings. It had the result of bringing the black pigment to the surface.
Often the painters were monks or closely associated with the monasteries and there were journeymen painters. As with secular art there were various schools, the main ones being Canterbury, Winchester, Lewes and Norwich. Guides or manuals existed and these set out schemes and conventions for the painters to follow.
There were royal painters such as Hugh of St Albans and the multi-talented Matthew Paris, sacrist of St Albans, who also was a historian, chronicler, goldsmith and illuminator. Some travelled on the Continent and brought back designs. The master painters had apprentices who would work under their direction.
Early wall paintings initially beautified the church and developed into a means of teaching illiterate congregations.
Sir Roy Strong (5) says
“In order to comprehend the importance of images we need to understand the medieval mindset. Today we take reading, writing and visual stimulation for granted. We encounter more images in a day than a medieval villager would have seen in a lifetime. Yet virtually the only images he or she ever saw were displayed in the parish church… The impact of this visual world on the many worshippers who were unable to read or write must have been over-whelming: spelled out before their eyes was the story of Creation and Salvation –and their own place within it”
Symbols and Meanings
Professor E.W.Tristram (6) was the leading expert on English medieval wall paintings during the early twentieth century. He said that the medieval worshipper would have been aware that every aspect of a painting had a meaning; the colours used, the way in which a figure was portrayed, gestures, the type of animals and flowers. White represented purity, green longevity and blue was usually used for the clothing of the Virgin Mary. Halos and fine clothes were associated with good people, hump backs and hook noses with evil people. Crowns, orbs, mitres and swords denoted rank and the Soul is usually a naked figure.
The gestures drawn by the medieval painter are said to originate from the silent ‘speech’ of monks and convey judgement, condemnation, power, wonder. In scenes of the Passion soldiers make mocking or rude gestures. It is easy to identify the wicked Emperor in the St Catherine story because he sits with crossed legs. Crossing of legs interrupts the natural flow of life and only the wicked can do this with impunity.
Saints were often depicted with objects associated with their life or mode of death, for instance St Catherine with a wheel, St. Anne a book, St Peter keys, St Michael with scales (to weigh souls). Lilies and Fleur de Lys were symbols of the Virgin.
Today we are not necessarily familiar with the symbolic meaning of the animals portrayed. Greed was symbolised by a fox, pig or bittern, piety by a pelican, lust by a goat and sloth by an ass.
Dating wall paintings
According to Professor Tristram the style and subject of a wall painting give clues as to when it was painted. Details such as eyes, hair and hands changed over time. As an example in the twelfth century eyes had equal curvature of upper and lower lids, in the thirteenth the lids were straight and in the fourteenth century the lower lid was quite straight and the upper lid markedly arched and slightly lifted. In Lubenham church there is painting of a female face, now hidden by the panel of the pulpit, which is probably sixteenth century in date. The upper eyelids are arched, almost creating a caricature, and it may have been repainted.
Early painting tended to be decorative, simple floral motifs, scrolls and outlining of masonry. Great Casterton church has an example of this by the north- east window of the North Aisle. It consists of a motif of flowers with five petals and outlines of stone blocks. Empingham church has similar designs in the South Transept and that area provides an example of the way all available space was painted in medieval times. Small pieces of floral decoration remain on the north wall of the Nave at Ayston.
Later the Bible stories, particularly the life of Christ and the Passion were painted from ceiling to floor. At Braunston there are remains of 14th or 15th wall paintings on the east end and the south wall of the South Aisle. The painting at the east end was intended as a reredos to an altar with a central niche for a statue. There was possibly a figure of Christ in Majesty with angels either side. On the left are symbols of the Passion.
The Tree of Jesse was another topic, as were wheels. The Wheel of Life and the Wheel of the Five Senses are often depicted. Dr E.Clive Rouse suggested the large circular painting at Braunston on the south wall might represent the Seven Sacraments, although he had not seen anything similar.
By the middle of the medieval period individual saints, such as St Christopher and St Catherine were depicted. The choice depended on the dominance of the cult of a saint or the preference of the benefactor of the church. Guilds often had altars in churches and their patron saint would be chosen as a subject. At Cold Overton the paintings of John the Baptist on the south wall and of St Catherine on the east wall of the church are the most easily seen of all the remains of paintings in the church. Catherine was tortured on the Wheel and this can be seen in the painting. She wears a crown denoting she is a princess and holds a book to indicate she had academic knowledge.
Beside the pulpit in Lyddington church is a painting of Edward the Confessor. He bequeathed part of Rutland to Westminster Abbey on his death in 1042. Stoke Dry church is dedicated to St Andrew and a painting of him is on the left hand side of Chancel window. On the right is a painting of the Virgin and Child. These are dated as 14th century. There are also scrolls and a tree like decoration in the window splays.
In the Chantry Chapel are two 13th century paintings. One is of St Edmund, King of East Anglia being martyred by arrows. This painting has given rise to conjecture that because the figures in this painting appear to be wearing feather head dresses the artist was aware of Native Americans. The other painting is of St Christopher, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulder.
St Christopher was popular from the late 13th century. In 16th century the Council of Trent tried to suppress his cult and in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed him from the church calendar. Today there are still items associated with travel that bear his picture.
Using the painting the medieval priest would have been able to illustrate the story of the saint’s life and draw morals from it. Opherus was a giant who wanted to serve the greatest king there was. The first king he found feared the devil, so Opherus searched for the devil. He found a band of robbers, one of whom declared himself to be the devil, and decided to serve him. However, when he saw his new master avoided a cross because he feared Christ, Opherus left him and tried to find Christ. He met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Opherus agreed to use his size and strength to serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river.
A little child asked Opherus to take him across the river. The current was strong and the child seemed as heavy as lead. When he finally reached the other side Opherus was perplexed at why the child had weighed so much. The child said: "You had the whole world on your shoulders and Him who made it. I am Christ your king”. Opherus would not believe the child was Christ. To prove he was the child told him to plant his staff in the ground and it would flower the next day. This happened and Opherus accepted the power of Christianity and took the name Christopher.
Christopher later visited the city of Lycia where Christians were being martyred. Brought before the local king, he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. The king tried to win him by riches and by sending two beautiful women to tempt him. Christopher converted the women and thousands of others in the city to Christianity. The king ordered him to be killed. Various attempts failed, but finally Christopher was decapitated.
Early paintings depict the Saint with a staff, carrying the child who holds an orb. Other paintings include the hermit with his lantern. Fish impede Christopher’s progress, symbolising the tribulations of life. Later paintings can be more elaborate with two staffs, one flowering, and with mermaids symbolising the women sent to tempt him.
Although Christopher was powerful his humble origins meant ordinary people could identify with him. He was asked to protect them against sudden, unshriven death. Not to be absolved from sin was viewed as a terrible end by people in medieval times. That is why his image is usually found above the church door- the last one to be seen before leaving the church.
A further 14th century painting at Stoke Dry is positioned in the window splay near to St Edmund. This is of St Margaret of Antioch, who spent much of her life in severe penance and nursed the sick poor. Unfortunately, another painting on the opposite splay is not decipherable nor is the painting on the north wall of the chapel. I think there might be crossed legs in the latter.
The lives of saints and in particular of the Virgin Mary were subjects from the 1400s. There is a painting of the Virgin in the window splay of the South Transept in Empingham church. In the North Transept is part of a painting of her parents- St Joachim and St Anne. At Great Bowden the fragment of a head of a female with a dove on the east wall of the South Chapel could depict The Virgin. One of the paintings at Cold Overton might be the Gathering of the Apostles at the Funeral of the Virgin, which is a rare topic.
Moralities were usual in the late medieval period. These include the Doom or Last Judgement, the Weighing of Souls, the Three Living and the Three Dead and warnings against Pride and Idle Gossip.
Both Lutterworth and Great Bowden have Last Judgement paintings which are slightly unusual. Lutterworth’s is in the traditional position over the Chancel Arch, but was heavily restored in Victorian times with vivid colour. The lower part of the painting is probably more true to the 15th century original, but without the usual devils and vivid scenes of Hell that serve to intimidate worshippers. The Great Bowden Last Judgement is on wall of the North Chapel so lacks the impact that a position above the Chancel Arch gives the topic. However, its position does allow for closer scrutiny than is normally possible and Hell and Paradise are easily seen.
A small section of Paradise is visible on the north side of the Chancel Arch at Ayston. The rest of the Doom painting has been obscured by The Royal Coat of Arms (post-Reformation) and then by whitewash. The indistinct painting over the Chancel Arch at Lyddington is said to be a Last Judgement.
Professor Tristram (7) says the 14th century Three Living and the Three Dead at Lutterworth was misinterpreted by the Victorians because they painted the central figure as a queen, rather than the usual king. The skeletons of the Three Dead are not easy to see.
The moral drawn from the painting is as follows. Three finely dressed, self-important kings were enjoying the pleasures of hunting when they came across three skeletons in a foul place. They were revolted by the skeletons. The latter said “as you are now so were we, as we are now so shall you be”.
There are remains of another painting of a cardinal and a cleric incorporated into the right hand side of the Three Living, which I think is of later date.
Why are there so few today?
There are a number of factors that have led to the loss of wall paintings. The Reformation meant that the centres of learning and art –the monasteries- were disbanded. Anything in a church that had Catholic connections was destroyed or painted out. The paintings of figures on the Rood Screen at Lyddington were scratched out, but in good light can still be seen. If paintings escaped destruction then, or during The Commonwealth, they were often lost, or re-interpreted, in the restorations of the mid-nineteenth century, as mentioned in respect of the Lutterworth paintings. The restoration in 1886-7 of Great Bowden church destroyed most of its paintings. Other paintings have been whitewashed over after being recorded more recently, either to try to preserve them, or because they are too damaged. I was told that at Great Casterton there are paintings under the whitewash.
As stained glass became more extensively used wall paintings were less dominant and stained glass was more resilient than painted images. The various plagues also meant smaller congregations and less money for the upkeep of the church interior. Of course finance is still an issue today and funding of basic repairs to the fabric is difficult, let alone preservation of wall paintings.
Poor preservation techniques can result in damage. Layers of paintings are usual and inevitably some are lost during investigation of earlier work.
Vibration from heavy traffic or aircraft can threaten paintings. In the days of Concorde the wall paintings in Poundstock church, Cornwall were remounted on fresh plaster and framed to protect them against its sonic booms. Damage can also be done by bats.
Images were painted in churches at various times after the Reformation but a discussion of such later wall paintings lies outside the scope of this article.
1. Nikolaus Pesvner The Buildings of Northamptonshire 2nd Edition 1973 Introduction p 43
2. Sir Roy Strong A Little History of the English Country Church
2007 Preface p 2
3. Nikolaus Pesvner The Buildings of Leicestershire and Rutland 1960
4. E.Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings 4th Edition 1991 Shire Publications
5. Sir Roy Strong A Little History of the English Country Church
2007 p 24
6. Professor E.W. Tristram English Medieval Wall –painting- The Twelfth Century 1944 and
7. English Wall -painting of the Fourteenth Century 1955 p221