What lies beneath…

02 February 2012

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The chancel arch at St Thomas’ Church, East Shefford. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.The chancel arch at St Thomas’ Church, East Shefford. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.

Walking into many of the churches in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust, one encounters a simple and serene interior – sunlight falling through clear glass windows or dappling across plain limewashed walls through stained glass.

However, this sense of calm and light is a far cry from how the original Medieval church would have appeared and in over 80 of our churches, beauty and intrigue in another form awaits your discovery…

Next time you visit one of our churches, you may notice red, brown or yellow blobs and swirls on the walls, or if you are lucky, beautifully detailed figures and scenes. These are Wallpaintings.  Although many are now lost, every Medieval church interior was originally painted and depicted Biblical tales, saintly miracles and terrible warnings, alongside decorative patterns for the benefit of the congregation. Wallpaintings give a fascinating insight into the lives and beliefs of our ancestors – if we understand their meanings and symbolism.

The reformation in the 16th century altered, but did not end this form of church art and unacceptable images were covered and replaced with new, less graphic subjects. And being one of the most significant keepers of nationally important Wallpaintings, we have been able to re-discover, understand and bring to life scores of inspiring work by local Medieval painters through our recently launched Wallpaintings Interpretation project.

The head of a dragon at St Lawrences Church, Broughton. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.

One such church is St Lawrence’s in Broughton, Buckinghamshire, which came into our care in 1974 and offers a very powerful impression of what it was like to enter a fully painted church – powerful, striking and looming. However, up until 1849 these walls were plain and whitewashed. A major restoration took place, and beneath the plain they discovered extensive, vibrant and rare Wallpaintings dating from the early 14th – mid 15th centuries… hidden for 300 years.

The north wall at Church of St John the Baptist, Inglesham, Gloucestershire. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.

And at the church of St John the Baptist in Inglesham, Gloucestershire, there are an amazing series of paintings from the 13th – 19th centuries on every surface – Wallpaintings hidden beneath Wallpaintings, beneath more Wallpaintings, in places ten or twenty layers thick. We are constantly discovering more as we conserve them.

Telling stories with images on walls is an ancient art and language that has been used since the dawn of humans, passed on through generations over millennia… eventually creeping onto the walls of our churches and with patience, you can visually ‘travel’ through the (modern) centuries and discover a world you may not have known to exist.


Post by Catherine Piddington, Conservation Projects Officer, The Churches Conservation Trust.



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