One of my childhood memories involves my father taking me to Hyde Park Corner to listen to speakers on a Sunday afternoon. Some were notable characters, like Lord Soper, who were well known and admired. However there were always those who preached the message of Doom: the apocalyptic end of the world and Day of Judgement that would follow. As a child I was not quite ready to meet my doom and thankfully managed to take it all with a pinch of salt. However, readers should beware; the Day of Judgement really is very close indeed; it is the best example of a medieval wall painting depicting the Last Judgement in Wales and it can be seen in the parish church of St Giles, Wrexham!
The Wrexham example dates from the early sixteenth century and is consistent with others found across Britain. Doom paintings are nearly always shown above the arch separating the nave from the holy space of the chancel. Where they can be found they are invariably the largest single painting in the church.
The guidebook for the Church of St Giles is helpful in pinpointing the Biblical text that seems to have inflicted such fear upon medieval people. It is Matthew 25, verses 31-35 and 41:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at His right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at His right hand ‘Come, you that are blessed by the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’; then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘You that are accused, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’
The painting itself shows the figure of Christ at the centre. Unfortunately the top part of the painting, including the head of Christ, has been erased. The figure is flanked on his left by what are believed to be two kings and a bishop, wrapped in shrouds and arising from their coffins to present themselves to Christ in Majesty. It is a clear statement that even those at the top of the feudal order were considered to be subject to His Lordship. Flanking Christ on His right side are the figures of the Virgin Mary and St John who are believed to be interceding on behalf of the penitent.
Further down, on part of the right side of Christ where the painting is badly faded, it is said that the figure of St Peter is receiving a group of figures (including kings, queens, bishops, monks and laity) into the gates of Heaven. Meanwhile to the lower left side of Christ figures are being consumed in the flames of hell.
The painting is a reminder of the inevitability of death, regardless of wealth or status and of the need to lead a good life in fear of the Day of Judgement. In some cases, although this is not evident at St Giles, the Doom picture either contains an image of St Michael, weighing souls with scales, or else the image is somewhere close.
The key question is: did an earlier building of Hope Parish Church ever have a Doom Picture on an archway between the nave and the chancel? We will probably never know what colourful images lay beneath the whitewash in Hope Parish Church or in earlier parts of the church which have now disappeared. However, Hope Church does have at least one reminder of the inevitability of Doom.
The Eternal Truth of the medieval Doom picture has been captured in a few words of Latin which a stone mason, either because of instruction or of his own volition, chiselled onto a stone which is now in the external wall of the Church. The words ‘MORS OMINBUS COMMUNIS’ (Death is Common to All) are to be seen on one of the stones which is embedded in the section of wall connecting the main part of the church to the tower. The tower is believed to have been constructed around 1500 and we can only assume that the connecting section of wall dates from that time as well. The stone may have had an earlier location and the inscription would therefore date from an earlier period. Unfortunately, being on an external wall, it now shows signs of considerable wear and is barely discernible. It is, nevertheless, an interesting piece of evidence from a period in which the church played a key role in reminding folk of the inevitability of their own mortality regardless of their status.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policy of Flintshire County Council. Readers are welcome to contact the author with any news or views on the local heritage at DHealey204@aol.com or by telephoning 01978 761 523.