I have a thing about medieval wall paintings. That probably wont come as a great surprise to you. I also have a thing about the medieval marginalia as regularly tweeted by Medieval Manuscripts and Bibliophilia, but the wall paintings in churches have a special place in my heart. I think it's because they exist in the place they were created. They are part of the fabric of a community, a place and its people. This was art for the many not the few, and it’s impossible to look at them without thinking of the thousands of others who have looked at them before.
I was in Rochester a few days ago - nothing to do with the upcoming by-election, though I did dodge Nigel Farage on the pavement and heard a man saying indignantly to his friends, ‘it was the Huguenots that made Kent anyway!’ I was there for the castle, the cathedral and the bookshops. They are all excellent, by the way. I added to my collection of 'Highways and Byways' in Baggins Book Bazaar and picked up a fantastic little book on hop pickers a bit further along the High Street, and the castle is still pretty intimidating, but my highlight was a partial 13th century wall painting of the wheel of fortune, featuring Fortuna herself and some scrambling citizens. The best image I can find of it is here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lysander2/3938405986/in/photostream/
The painting survived because for centuries it was hidden from the reformation by a pulpit and when that was removed, it was discovered looking almost as fresh as the day it was painted.
I know where my wall painting thing comes from. When I got married a couple of years ago, Ned and I made quite a meal of the occasion and had three weddings. We had a legal ceremony in Peckham, our real wedding in a Sussex barn, and then another party the following week in Darlington, my home town.
We spent part of our between weddings week in Richmond, North Yorkshire (in a slightly dazed state and a damp cottage), and while we were there wandered down to Easby Abbey and the adjoining church of St Agatha where we saw this:
I went to Easby Abbey many times as a child, but perhaps because we always had the family dog with us, we never went into the parish church, so the paintings were a new discovery. It is a small church, and not very distinguished looking from the outside but it was built before the magnificent Easby Abbey, which now lies in ruins around it. The paintings are mid 13th century and are wonderfully preserved (whitewashed during reformation, rediscovered during Victorian restoration). They are extensive, but I like in particular these surviving Labours of the Month designs in the window splays. Were they portraits of individuals? I hope so. Anyway, as I stood in the chancel with my new husband they cast a particular spell.
I haven’t become religious, but I find I’ve been visiting churches a lot more since then. I find them fascinating. Each one is a palimpsest; unique, made over generations as a reflection of the community around it and of those that have visited that community, scored by the times lived through. Standing there I felt like one ghost among thousands - the ghosts of those who had been there to worship, celebrate, mourn or just look, and those that were still to come. Our feet polishing the stones, our hands resting on the woodwork, we were like water moving over a riverbed. We were part of the movement of time passing through this still point.
Many medieval wall paintings have survived reformation and restoration in churches and cathedrals all over the country. The best guide to the subject I’ve found is Roger Rosewell’s Medieval Wall Paintings. Looking at the book now, I find that illustrations of Rochester and Easby are on facing pages, which I find strangely pleasing.
I highly recommend the book and I’ll end with a quote from it: ‘In a physical sense they [the wall paintings] belonged to every parish. They were part of its inherited tradition, its history, the kinship of men and women who worshipped beside them, before them and beneath them… They were a peoples’ art for a peoples’ faith.’