In the mediaeval period nearly all churches were either partially or completely painted inside.
This wasn’t for aesthetic purposes but to provide objects of devotion and, in the absence of printed material, aids to teaching. So the Priests could use the paintings to teach their flock about the Bible, the lives of the saints, and aspects of morality. The paintings are still used for these purposes today.
St George was a Roman soldier, born in Palestine in 280. He converted to Christianity and suffered persecution, before being martyred for his faith in 303. Legends about St George date from the sixth century and he became revered in England from about the eighth century. He was probably not recognised as the patron saint of England until the rule of Edward III (1312-77), but since then his popularity increased. He was seen to embody virtues such as courage, particularly when opposing the forces of evil (represented by the dragon), and his prayers were sought by those who were engaged in fighting and conflict. He is shown in the painting in full armour, killing the dragon by thrusting his spear into its mouth. The painting appears to have been damaged before the Church restoration of 1875-78, but sufficient traces remained to help the restorer complete the scene.
St Christopher usually faces the entrance to the Church in his role as patron saint of travellers. The legend of St Christopher recounts how a young man named Offero set off on a quest to find the ‘greatest king’ and then serve in his court. He travelled the world serving progressively greater monarchs until, at last, he found his way to a monastery, where he joined to monks in serving Jesus, who is the King of Kings. As Offero knew nothing of prayer and fasting, however, the Abbot suggested he should use his great stature to serve Jesus by carrying pilgrims and travellers across the river to the monastery. One evening, as Offero was completing his work, he heard a child crying on the far band. Taking him on his shoulders, he was amazed to discover he was heavier than anyone he had carried before. The child said to him: ‘Your load is heavy because you are carrying someone who carried the sins of the world’ – it was Christ himself. Thereafter Offero became known as Christopher, the ‘Christ bearer’. The painting in St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church shows St Christopher carrying the Christ-child with the Abbot lighting their way to safety.
St John the Baptist
This painting has three scenes: first, on the right hand side, St John the Baptist is preaching to King Herod, telling him that he should not have taken Herodias to be his wife, whilst Salome lies seductively at his feet; second, on the left hand side is depicted John’s beheading; and finally, in the centre, the scene around the table shows Salome presenting John’s head on a platter to the King. This painting illustrates two important features of mediaeval wall paintings, the compression of several incidents into one scene, and the use of costume contemporary to the period in which they were painted. This enabled the mediaeval visitors to recognise rank, status, and sometimes occupations.
The Coronation of the Virgin
The Blessed Virgin Mary features heavily in the wall paintings around Church. This painting is probably the final in a sequence which begins on the wall opposite. It depicts Mary’s coronation as ‘Queen of Heaven’, as described in the Song of Songs 4.8, Psalm 45.11-12 and Revelation 12.1-7, following her dormition and assumption. As in other depictions of the Coronation of the Virgin, the scene takes place in the heavenly court, with Mary being surrounded by the Holy Trinity, angels and saints. St Peter, patron of the Parish, can be seen to the left holding the keys of the kingdom.
St Edmund was born c. 841, becoming King of East Anglia at the age of fourteen. In 869 the invading Viking armies marched through Mercia and into East Anglia, destroying the abbeys at Peterborough and Ely on their way. Edmund was defeated in battle but refused to be set up as a ‘puppet king’ as it would involve renouncing his religion. Refusing to give up his Christian faith, he suffered martyrdom and died on 20th November 870. He was stripped, tied to a tree, and shot with arrows before being beheaded. The inscription around Edmund translates as ‘Heavenly bliss is his reward for his good deed’. The image suffered damage caused by memorials fixed to the lower part of the scene, but a sufficient amount survived to make a complete restoration.
St Thomas Becket
St Thomas was a close friend of – and chancellor to – King Henry II (1133-89). The King appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, hoping to bring the Church under greater state control. However, for over five years, Thomas refused to cooperate. Finally, in a fit of rage, Henry famously exclaimed ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent Priest?’, whereupon four of his knights journeyed to Canterbury and murdered Thomas in his Cathedral. This act shocked the Christian world and Pope Alexander III declared Thomas a saint. His shrine in Canterbury became the most hallowed place in England. The painting shows the murder in the Cathedral, with the four knights wearing the armour of Edward IV (1461-83), from which we can date the painting.
St Catherine of Alexandria
This scene is an impressive depiction of the life of a very popular martyr, and is painted in four horizontal bands. St Catherine was venerated in the eastern Mediterranean from before the tenth century and became popular in the west from the time of the crusades until the eighteenth century. She was the patron saint of virgins, women, students, philosophers, preachers, wheelwrights, and millers. The most popular legend associated with St Catherine describes her as the daughter of Costus, the governor of Alexandria. Born in 282, she converted to Christianity as a student, and remained a Christian under the persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius. The scene depicts several scenes which tell the story of Catherine protesting to the emperor about the worship of idols, being put in prison, debating religion with the emperor’s philosophers, being stripped to the waist and flogged, returned to prison, tortured on a spiked wheel, and finally beheaded. The final band of this picture, which shows Catherine’s beheading, has been badly damaged by a funerary monument placed over it before the paintings were revealed, so there was little left of this particular scene, which is nearly a complete reconstruction.
The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy
The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy are actions and practices which the Church expects all believers to perform. The works express mercy, and are expected to be performed in accordance with Jesus’ words ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5.7). Six of the acts are taken from a text elsewhere in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ The final act of mercy, that of burying the dead, comes from a reference in the Book of Tobit. Just as the Corporal Acts of Mercy are directed toward the relief of corporeal suffering, so there exist Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy which are directed to the relief of spiritual suffering. The Seven Corporal Acts run as a band beneath the clerestory windows.
The Passion of Our Lord
These scenes follow on from the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy and depict the events of Christ’s Passion. From left to right, visitors observe: Jesus healing the ear of Malchus, which had been struck off in the Garden of Gethsemane by St Peter; Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor; Jesus being flogged; Jesus carrying the Cross; the Crucifixion, with Jesus being flanked by his mother Mary and the apostle John; the descent from the Cross; and finally the burial of Jesus.
The Harrowing of Hell
This is perhaps the most striking painting in the Church, and follows chronologically from Jesus’ burial. It depicts Christ descending to Hell (represented by the jaws of a great dragon) to rescue the souls of all those who could not be saved prior to his death. The first to meet Jesus is Adam, holding an apple, and the second is Eve. Of interest is the similarities in the faces of Jesus and Adam: the first Adam whose disobedience polluted the world with sin and led to its fall; the second Adam whose life of perfect obedience frees us from sin and restores the world to its prelapsarian state.
This final scene follows chronologically from the Harrowing of Hell. Christ bursts from a sarcophagus holding a sceptre of authority, having destroyed the last enemy, death. Two angels are present either side of him and a soldier falls back in amazement.
To see more of our unique mediaeval wall paintings, visit our Gallery here.
To learn more about our ongoing Heritage Project, which seeks to better conserve, present and interpret our wall paintings click here.