A History of Art in England (4): Wall Paintings (i)

“From literary sources we gather that [wall] painting was common. In 574, Wilfred, the great Archbishop of York, caused the walls, capitals of the columns and the sacrarium arch of his church to be decorated with histories, images and figures carved in relief in stone and with great variety of pictures and colours” writes Rothenstein.

“[Indeed], the Venerable Bede tells us that in 678 Benedict Biscop brought back from Rome paintings of the Virgin and Child, of scenes from the Gospels and the Apocalypse, to adorn his Church of St Peter… [However] except for a few examples… we have no materials for a history of English painting… dated farther back than the twelfth century.”

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Of the 12th –century wall paintings, St Gabriel’s Chapel, Canterbury is a fabulous example – saved thankfully from the Reformation having been boarded up until the late 19th century. It includes this panel painting of John the Evangelist, which can be related to contemporary illuminated manuscripts, and there’s a larger section of wall-painting:

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which gives a much more generous sense of how colourful chapels and churches would have been, from the crowded scenes of apostles and angels to the decoration and ornamentation of the arches.

Again, I can’t help but imagine this all glowing in the candlelight.

Rothenstein goes on to distinguish these examples at Canterbury “in which the Norman influence is apparent” and the wall-paintings undertaken at Winchester where “Saxon characteristics predominate”.

He explains: the Norman line is firm and decisive (static and monumental), the Saxon nervous and sinuous (dynamic and airy); Norman colour is splendid, Saxon colour sober.

And as a contrast to the Canterbury example, he tells of St. Mary’s at Kempley in Gloucestershire which is now looked after by English Heritage. If you scroll down the St Mary’s page to the “Read more about the history…” and the information sheets, there are images such as the Chancel below) which whilst it is of “sober” ochre colours, certainly has the sense of Saxon dynamism Rothenstein describes.

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It’s a glorious thought, as Simon Jenkins writes in his review of “Medieval Wall Paintings” by Roger Rosewell (Boydell Press, 2008), that:

Wall painting was once the national gallery of England. The imprinting of natural colours into moist plaster defied the passage of time. Kempley’s colours seem to glow even more vividly when the walls become moist. Churches were entirely coated in these messages, telling stories, recording pilgrimages, terrifying the wicked, saluting St Christopher, the saint of travellers, or just graffiti celebrating life on Earth.

For a longer, more ‘academic’ exploration of ornament, clothing, colour and light in the 9th-century church of St Mary, in Deerhurst, see Maggie Kneen’s “An Exploration of Colour” (page 18 of “Glevensis” The Gloucestershire Archaeology Annual Review, No.48, 2015) in which she tells of the Anglo-Saxon love of colour and contrast evoking an interior scene of wall-painting, manuscript, clerical garments, stained glass, tapestry and embroidery all rich in colour and texture.

It’s hard to imagine – but imagine we have to – what it would have been like to be a field worker, a baker or fisherman; life would have been extremely tough and drab for medieval men and women, and the local church, with its colourful walls and illuminated books must have been awe-inspiring for the communities gathering to worship. And, as Roger Rosewell notes, there would also have been “the great festivals such as Easter… processions and rituals, itinerant preachers and travelling actors, re-enactments and feast days” – the whole experience of church life formed people’s ways of seeing and being from birth.

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The Crucifixion, All Saints, Turvey, Bedfordshire

[This] alcove painting was re-discovered during 19th Century renovations. The fresco dates from the 13th Century and shows the Crucifixion, with Our Lady and St. John. An article in The Times, published in 1933, which is framed in the alcove, describes the fresco as “the finest painting of its subject and time in the country”.


Such wall-paintings are often understood as ‘books for the illiterate’, ‘poor men’s Bibles’. Rosewell however dismisses this and says that “once they are no longer ‘seen’ only as books” they can be seen differently: as works of art, sufficient in their own right as part of the interplay of liturgy and prayer, images to explore, whether in private devotion or daily conversation, in the mind’s eye (p.185).

Moreover, the paintings “would have provided a visual orthodoxy; a set of recognisable images which formed an international Christian visual language which supported doctrinal beliefs and provided a shared imagination for every community” (p.187, my emphasis). And that ‘shared imagination’ brings communities together not only across geography and place, but time and history – of generations past, present and future.

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St John the Baptist Church, Clayton, Sussex (c.1100)





Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (4)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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