“Splendid in their day – but not now.”

St. Lawrence Church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire – still splendid, in its way.

“Of course, you know this is going to make a stir when the word gets around?” he said. I nodded. “Is there anything anywhere else like it? In the same league?” No, I told him, there wasn’t. Once, yes. But no longer. Croughton, Stoke Orchard, St. Albans, Great Harrowden – they’d all been splendid in their day. But not now.”

Walk into an old village church in England today, and you are likely to be impressed by the austere serenity of limewashed white walls and sunlight streaming onto dark wooden pews.

The Weighing of Souls at Croughton.

This is not the vision our medieval forebears would have seen. In those earlier centuries, the walls were heavily decorated with painted images of heaven, hell, morality tales, and the lives of saints. Devils, angels, and a host of others competed for the churchgoers’ attention, amid ornate textiles, sculpted effigies on tombs, and stained glass.

A Month in the Country describes the labors of Tom Birkin to restore a fourteenth century wall painting of “The Last Judgment.” But he was hardly the only one to climb a ladder and tentatively chip away at layers of limewash. This aspect of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is no fiction.

Take the recent celebration at St. Cadoc’s in Llancarfan, Wales (read about it here), a church founded around 1200 on the site of a seventh century monastery. The discovery of a thin red line at the top of a wall led to a team of experts visiting the church with discoveries and recommendations. Painstaking restoration in the last few years has revealed an stunning series of late fifteenth century paintings, including large and spectacular tableaux of St. George and the Dragon, as well as bold images of the seven deadly sins, a macabre death figure with worms and toads, and the family arms of some of the families who paid for the elaborate paintings.

Doom at Great Harrowden

Church paintings have a long history. Even in Saxon times, stone churches had paintings on their walls, though almost all are gone today. The exceptions include the tenth-century paintings at Stain Andrew’s in Nether Wallop, Hampshire. The earliest paintings at Houghton on the Hill near Swaffham, in Norfolk, may date to the same period (see them here). Most experts, however, date the tradition of wall paintings to the early English churches after the Norman Conquest – for example, St. Peter and St. Paul Church, here, in Pickering, North Yorkshire.

The artists prepared the wall with a coating of casein or a thin layer of lime plaster. They made preliminary sketches on the wall – then they painted. Very rarely did they use the method of Italian fresco, working on a fresh area of wet plaster – an exception are the churches in Ickleton and Copford.

The execution of St. Catherine in Pickering, Yorkshire.

For centuries, the anonymous painters, some itinerant, many local, continued painting the Passion Cycle, the Last Judgment, the Life of the Virgin, scenes from Genesis, and more – not only Biblical themes, but themes from Christian history and legend, as well as scrollwork, flowers, leaves, and vines. In an age that was largely illiterate, these paintings served to convey not only the teachings they would hear from the pulpit within these walls, but a whole civilization. And so the artists continued painting, until the Reformation in the sixteenth century led to iconoclasm and the abolition of whole medieval world, really.

What we have left, even after a successful restoration, are fragile and fragmentary – Tom Birken is right, they’re a shadow of what they once were when they dazzled whole communities. Earlier efforts at restoration often made a bad situation worse, damaging them beyond repair. Most of them have been lost forever, though many English church walls may still hold more secrets than we have yet discovered.

Newcomers to this art form sometimes fault them for their relatively unsophisticated style – some even call them “naive” – but that is to overlook the overwhelming power they have on us, even today. Look at the effect the restoration of the Welsh church had on its village in the 2013 BBC video below.

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