Friday 21 May 2021

The wonders of medieval wall paintings by Carolyn Hughes

Recently, I read a book that I was surprised I hadn't read before, as it was absolutely my kind of book: A Month in the Country, by J L Carr. The central story concerns a young man, Tom Birkin, who, in the aftermath of the First World War – from which he has returned damaged, mentally as well as physically – has been engaged by a church in Yorkshire to uncover a medieval wall painting. The book was written in 1980. It is quite a short book, so a quick read but, for me, a thoroughly enjoyable one. 

The essence of the book is not really the uncovering of the painting, interesting as that is (and more about medieval wall paintings in a moment…). The narrator, Tom, is looking back on that summer of 1920 from the standpoint of his old age. The story explores pain and loss, as experienced by Tom both in the trenches of the First World War and in his failed marriage, but also the joy that can be found in simple pleasures and the bonds of friendship, even if they are temporary or fleeting.

It is a gentle read, but a thoughtful one, and I do recommend it.

The story of A Month in the Country aside, I was originally drawn to the book partly because of Tom’s commission to uncover the medieval wall painting. The painting that Tom uncovers does seem to be of that most popular of subjects, the harrowing of hell, of which more below.

The story is set in the village of “Oxgodsby”, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the area where Carr grew up. There is a real village called Osgodby in the south of the area, but I can’t identify that it has a church, let alone one with wall paintings. However, forty miles or so to the northeast is the little town of Pickering, whose church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is famous for its collection of medieval wall paintings.

They are thought to date from 1450 but were apparently covered over in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation. They were discovered accidently in the 19th century but, unfortunately the vicar of the time didn’t like them – well, I suppose they are very “graphic”! He had them covered over again, though he did also arrange for them to be sketched before they were whitewashed over. However, twenty years later, a more enlightened vicar had them once more uncovered, and restored. And what a wonder they are! 

They cover the majority of the nave walls, above the pillared arches that run down either side of the church. They depict scenes from saints’ lives, the seven acts of mercy, the passion and resurrection of Christ, and also that favourite topic, the harrowing of hell.

I had hoped to be able to tell you that I had seen them “in the flesh” for, earlier this month, we went for a short break to Yorkshire, and stayed close to Pickering. I had thought we might be able to visit the church but, sadly, it had not yet opened again to visitors following COVID restrictions. So I have to make do with photographs sourced online…

But even the photographs show how remarkable the paintings are for the vibrancy of their colour and the energy of the images. Of course they were restored in the 19th century, so they haven’t, so to speak, survived in this wonderful condition for nearly six centuries, though one imagines that the colours are indeed as they would have been in the 15th century.

Let me show you four of them. They are all pretty gruesome, intended no doubt both to terrify and teach the pious folk of Pickering…

First, the death of Saint Catherine. I’m not sure which Catherine this is but I think it may be Catherine of Alexandria, a young devotee of Christianity in the 4th century, who was persecuted by the Emperor of Alexandria, Maxentius. She was condemned to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but it shattered at her touch, and so she was then beheaded. She was only 18 years old.

By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217634)

Next, the martyrdom of Saint Edmund, a 9th century East Anglian king who defied the invading Danes and was shot with arrows and then beheaded.

By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61453320)

Now, the beheading of John the Baptist, who was beheaded by Herod Antipas in the 1st century, for rebuking Herod for marrying Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Mark’s gospel says that Herodias’s daughter danced before her stepfather, who was pleased and offered her a reward. The girl – who was, some say, called Salome – asked her mother for advice on what to ask for, and Herodias told her to demand the head of John the Baptist. Herod was apparently reluctant to kill John, knowing he was a holy man, but nonetheless ordered his death, and his head was delivered to Salome on a plate. In this painting, John’s head appears to be both on the floor and on the plate…

By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217626)

And, finally, the “harrowing of hell”, which refers to the descent of Christ into Hell between his Crucifixion and his Resurrection, when he triumphantly granted salvation to the righteous who had previously died. I assume that, in this painting, Christ is the larger clothed figure on the left giving his blessing to all those poor naked souls being surrounded by the fiery furnace.

By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217627)

Much older than the Pickering paintings are those in a little church very close to where I live, in the tiny village of Corhampton. The subjects of the paintings are considerably less gory than those in Pickering, though saints are still to the fore…

Here is a short extract from a blog post that I wrote in 2018 about the church: 

“Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.

Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!”


Corhampton Church wall painting © David Hughes

Corhampton Church wall painting © David Hughes

If you’d like to read more about this lovely little church, the whole blog post is here:

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