Humanities - Parish paintings

From dragons to the crucifixion, church walls have stories to tell

Jerome Monahan

Here is an opportunity to make an extraordinary journey. It lasts more than a thousand years and is a compelling way of exploring the history and shifting state of Christian belief in England. Young writers and artists will encounter dragons and mermaids, and much else to fire their imaginations.

Access to such riches is available because of a new venture from the Churches Conservation Trust - an interactive website celebrating the heritage of church wall painting in many of the 341 buildings it protects. The first incarnation of the site contains images of some of the best preserved wall paintings from 24 of the 80 or so churches that boast such decorations.

"It is remarkable that so much has survived," says Dr Miriam Gill, a lecturer in architectural history at the University of Leicester and the author of the entertaining notes on the wall paintings website. "Unlike frescoes, these images were usually painted directly on to dry plaster. Such thin layers of paint are particularly vulnerable." According to Dr Gill, the covering up with whitewash of these often elaborate and brightly coloured picture sequences after the Reformation may have protected some that might otherwise have vanished.

And what splendours have survived. It is seasonal perhaps to highlight those depicting the life of Christ and the Passion, and some of the most detailed of these are to be found at St John's Church in Duxford, Cambridgeshire. Here, most unusually, St Joseph of Arimathea is painted asking Pontius Pilate for the body of Christ. In another striking example at St Lawrence's Church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire, an odd pieta shows various sinners holding portions of the dead Messiah. This mysterious image, reveals Dr Gill, is actually a moral lesson depicting the literal rending of Christ done by those given to profane swearing by parts of His body.

In addition to the directly scriptural images, the website includes a wealth of more secular subjects, such as the Amphisbaena, a dragon with a second head in its tail which can be seen in combat with St George at Broughton, or the mermaid seemingly tempting St Christopher at an undedicated church in Whitcombe, Dorset. Wonderful stuff.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist who provides Inset and pupil enrichment workshops nationally and internationally.


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Jerome Monahan

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