Uncovering Ancient Murals

Valerie Offord,
March 2002.

There have been two recent press reports of the discovery of mediaeval wall paintings – one at Ilketshall St Andrew in Suffolk and one at Chesterton in Cambridgeshire.

During routine decorating work in December 2001 at St Andrew’s, a Norman church in Ilketshall St Andrew, depictions of angels in wall paintings believed to date from the 1320’s were uncovered. Experts were excited by the find, as they have reason to believe that the paintings may extend over the whole nave. They have lain forgotten for centuries beneath a layer of plaster and whitewash, having been covered up during the Reformation.

David Park, Director of the Conservation of Wall Paintings Department at the Courtauld Institute of Art, regards it as a very significant find. Furthermore, he remarked that it is not often that really interesting and unknown mediaeval paintings suddenly appear. So far it is known that there is a large female figure on the south wall of the nave, a small figure of an angel with the arms raised and a flying angel. On the nave wall there is a large representation of a church with a cross. Mr. Park stated that it was too early to identify precisely what any of the imagery, which is well-preserved, represents and he does not recognize the hand or the workshop. The rector stated that he was ‘scared of the financial implications’ of the discovery for his small parish.

The 13th century church of St Andrew, Chesterton revealed this Easter one of Britain’s finest mediaeval wall paintings in its entirety for the first time since it was covered during the Reformation. The full extent of a striking depiction of the Last Judgment, along with decorative work that predates it by two centuries, is now visible after experts removed a layer of limewash.

Toby Curteis, the wall painting conservator, remarked that the survival of so large an area makes the painting one of the most important of its period. It was expensively painted with a sophisticated technique. Figures include the Virgin, St John the Baptist, apostles and trumpeting angels set against a hilly landscape with elaborate flora and a starred sky. Below them are the Dead climbing out of their tombs, accompanied by angels. The figures of the Virgin and Apostles are looking up, to an area where a figure of Christ in Majesty may have originally been painted. On the north side are the Blessed, entering the Holy City with guiding angels and St Peter. On the south side are the Damned, being tortured by all manner of demons. They are either being welcomed to heaven, depicted as a turreted city, on the north side, or the Devil is dragging them down to the mouth of Hell, on the south side.

It is thought that the church’s close links with the Kings of England may explain the quality of the paintings. In 1217 Henry III presented the church to a papal legate who, in turn, gave it to his monastery at Vercelli, near Milan, Italy. Under Vercelli’s patronage it was rebuilt in the 1300s and decorated with some of the images that have now been uncovered. Henry VI reclaimed it in 1440 and it was given to King’s Hall (now Trinity College) Cambridge. The style of the Last Judgment indicates that it was possibly painted in the second half of the 15th century.

Sources
Alberge, Danya ‘Lost’ Last Judgment resurrected for Easter The Times March 30 2002
Alberge, Danya Church decorators uncover ancient murals The Times December 28 2001.

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