What really lies beneath the surface? Reasonable inferences or pure speculation about Hope’s wall paintings?
There is good news that Friends of Hope Parish Church maybe moving closer to achieving their goal of securing funds to help with the conservation of the important post-Reformation wall texts which are a distinctive feature of the Church. The Friends have shrewdly decided that it not currently possible to take further steps to reveal what lurks beneath centuries of lime wash on other parts of the church walls. This was a project taken on by the Vale of Glamorgan Church of St Cadoc in Llancarfan. There work did reveal some stunning examples of medieval art but it was at considerable expense and involved long periods of church closure apart from services.
It is, nevertheless, interesting to speculate about what does lie beneath the surface on the walls of our own church. Last month Our Heritage discussed the Doom painting which can be seen above the arch separating the nave from the chancel in the parish church of St Giles in Wrexham. This month we examine some of the other wall paintings which are evident in churches in north-east Wales. Do they provide clues about what lies beneath the surface of the lime wash in Hope Church or is it idle speculation?
In his book on Medieval Wall Paintings Roger Rosewell draws attention to the special emphasis given to a syllabus of faith at the Fourth Lateran Council which met in 1215 in the Pope’s Lateran Palace. It was stated that ordinary people (the laity) should receive annual Confession and learn about the fundamental tenants of the Christian faith. Archbishop Stephen Langton, (who is also noted for drawing up the clauses of Magna Carta on behalf of the Barons in 1215) said congregations should be given ‘food of the word of God, lest they be…judged as dumb dogs.’ In 1281 English bishops adopted an educational programme known as the Igorantia Sacerdotum which required parish priests to instruct parishioners with key articles of faith. It was, perhaps, the first attempt at a National Curriculum for the illiterate masses. Does it provide a clue to the messages conveyed by medieval wall paintings of the period?
Common themes which were included in the syllabus of faith were the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Virtues and the Seven Sacraments. These are among the most common reoccurring themes in church wall paintings and there are some key examples in north east Wales.
St Mary’s Church in Ruabon does have a faded, but nevertheless significant, medieval wall painting. It depicts the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. Thus parishioners were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners and bury the dead. In the case of the Ruabon example there is an angel by each of images to inspire the good deed. E. Clive Rouse, in another book entitled Medieval Wall Paintings, uses the Ruabon example in order to form a contrast with another wall painting at Corby Glen where a painting shows Seven Swearing Youths. In this case each of the offenders has a devil next to them tempting them to sin. The battle between Good and Evil is clearly evident.
There are a number of interesting wall paintings at Llangar in Denbighshire. The church is particularly noted for its distinctive Death figure – a skeleton holding an hourglass and an arrow with a shovel and pick between the legs. Whilst some of the meaning may be obscured the figure undoubtedly depicts the inevitability of mortality; a similarity to the cheery theme discussed in last month’s Our Heritage article.
What is also interesting about Llangar is that the walls also depict images which show the Seven Deadly Sins albeit in an extremely faded form. These date from an earlier period that that of the Death figure. The south wall has seven rectangular boxes which are said to have depicted the Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth. In each case the person committing the sin is riding on the back of an animal. Much of what is depicted at Llangar has been lost or obscured. It is believed that seven rectangular boxes beneath the Seven Deadly Sins may also have depicted the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy so that parishioners had clear visual images of the contrast between Good and Evil.
Meanwhile the work at St Cadoc in the Vale of Glamorgan has revealed some of the best UK examples of the story of St George and the Dragon as well as those showing vivid examples of the Seven Deadly Sins. At this point words of caution are needed. We must be wary of generalising from particular cases. There is no necessary reason why Hope Church had or has similar images beneath the lime wash. Historical examples can be misleading and we must be prepared for local variations. History is full of surprises.
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.