It’s in parish churches of the 13th-14th centuries that, according to Sir John Rothenstein, “a wholly popular and spontaneous art” flourished and where “we have to look for the pictorial genius of the age. We have to look, that is to say, to the village churches, for in these flourished exuberantly a wholly popular and spontaneous art.”
However, as Roger Rosewell notes:
“Of around ten thousand medieval churches, fewer than ten per cent retain significant remains of their original painting schemes…
[Yet even these] are evocative reminders of how these rich and vivid displays transformed the interior of every church with intoxicating colours and stirring art… [creating] a world of wonderment and the miraculous, a world that once entranced and embraced generations of Christian worshippers…”
As his example, Rothenstein notes the 14th-century wall paintings of All Saints, Croughton as “in a fortunate state of preservation” (although unfortunately I can find very few images).
There are two cycles, the “Life and Death of the Virgin” and the “Infancy and Passion of Christ” – “discovered” in the 1920s by Prof. Ernest Tristram – which would have covered the entire interior of the church.
Here we have the Flight into Egypt to the right which, as Rothenstein says, has something very “tender and intimate” about it.
There are thirty-six scenes in all. “Tristram estimates that a painter and his assistant took no more than two or three months to decorate an entire village church.”
This raises the question: Who were these church painters?
The most famous feature of St John the Baptist’s Church [Clayton, West Sussex] is the array of well-preserved and ancient wall paintings in the nave and on the chancel arch. They are part of a series painted by monks from Lewes Priory [the first Cluniac house in England, which founded Prittlewell Priory in the 12th century].
The Lewes monk-paynters seem however to be an exception. Turning again to Rosewell’s book, he notes that paynters were very rarely monks or even the ‘pictors’ of illuminated texts, but rather:
“lay professionals who learned their trade as apprentices in workshops based in major religious and commercial centres and who remained in such localities painting churches and manor houses for much of their lives” (Rosewell, p.111).
Again, it’s fascinating to note the richness of colour and fluidity of line in many of these wall paintings.
The Virgin and Child, St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire (14th century)
The Weighing of Souls, All Saints Catherington, Hampshire (14th century)
Such provincial church painting flourished then. However, as Rothenstein notes, the Black Death broke out in 1349 (killing up to half of the English population) and continuous foreign warfare destabilised the economy.
It’s this context of social upheaval that Rothenstein suggests brought a different type of artist seems to the fore:
“The consequent poverty and disturbance of the equilibrium between Capital and Labour brought about a fierce revolutionary movement which found original and violent artistic expression… defiant peasants were filling country churches with paintings the like of which had not been seen before.”
He relates this turn to the publication of William Langland’s “Vision of Piers Plowman” (1352), in which Christ is presented “in the guise of Piers Plowman, a humble man, sharing the labour, the hardships and the sorrows of the poor, and showing thereby that man achieves salvation through his work.”
The most dramatic ‘translations’ of the Plowman are to be seen at Breage in Cornwall: here we see St Christopher to the right, and to the left “Christ as a labourer, displaying His wounds [surrounded by] tools of labour.”
However, thoughts have changed since Rothenstein’s day and Rosewell, rejecting such a Romantic and Revolutionary interpretation of the Plowman Christ (p.88) tells instead that such images are about transgression, and now called “The Sunday Christ”. That Jesus is surrounded by tools and showing His wounds is a warning to not work on Sundays and to keep the Sabbath holy – otherwise you would be adding to His wounds, suffered for mankind. In some paintings there are shears cutting in to Christ’s leg.
Either way, as Rothenstein notes, these paintings are “especially remarkable” in that they display somewhat more realistic images over inherited stylisation and symbolism.
I wonder if this also meant more freedom for the artists?
Christ showing his wounds refers of course to Easter; the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene or “Noli me tangere” (“Touch me not”) from St. Giles, Suffolk.
Passion Plays were significant aspects of the medieval church calendar and there’s a great chance to watch one in our days of isolation as the Chester Mystery Plays are currently online.
“During the second half of the thirteenth century London became the principal centre of English painting… the product not of monastic but of royal inspiration.”