In 1953 restoration work in Hope Parish Church revealed remains of mural paintings on the plastered walls. Part of a wall painting of Saint Christopher, dated to the early 16th century, was exposed on the short south wall between the tower arch and the western respond of the arcade. Today only fragments of this fresco remain in a case. How can we be sure that these fragments do represent St. Christopher and why was he of such importance?
We can be fairly certain that the identification is correct. St Christopher is one of the few subjects that occur regularly in medieval wall paintings in churches. E. Clive Rouse, in Medieval Wall Paintings states:
St. Christopher is almost always found near or over a doorway or on a length of wall opposite the main entrance.
Images of the saint were often repainted, especially when a church underwent structural alterations or the entrance changed. Being able to see the image of St. Christopher, as soon as a person entered the church, seems to have been very important in medieval times. Indeed, St Christopher is of continuing importance; medallions, key-rings and other souvenirs are usually part of the standard merchandise sold at religious sites today. Hope Parish Church may have provided host to several different versions of the image as the church underwent structural change itself.
Golden Legend of c1260
The legend of St Christopher is the starting point in understanding the importance of the saint in medieval times his continuing appeal. Although there are early Greek, Latin and earlier medieval versions of the legend, artists almost certainly based their interpretation on that in the Golden Legend, which was compiled in about 1260.
According to this legend Christopher was a very tall pagan giant, by the name of Reprobus. He was eager to serve the greatest prince on earth but found his chosen masters to have failings. Even the Devil himself had been struck with terror when he saw the image of a cross. Intrigued by this the giant went in search of the Lord who had the power to do this. A hermit told him that he would find Christ if he served Him by carrying travellers across a river. Reprobus set about doing this and one day a child asked to be carried across to the other shore. The giant took the child up in his arms and strode into the water. However, as he did so the child became heavier and heavier and the water more treacherous and difficult to cross. He was only just able to reach the other shore. When he got there Reprobus asked the child why he was so heavy and the child answered ‘Wonder not, Christopher for not only hast thou borne the whole world upon thy shoulders, but Him who created the world.’ From that moment on the giant was known as Christopher or ‘child-bearer.’ Christ is said to have demonstrated His powers by telling Christopher that if he thrust his staff into the ground it would bear fruit. Christopher is said to have done this and the staff produced leaves and fruit like a palm tree. Christopher then went on to proclaim Christ for the rest of his life.
The Llanynys Wall Painting
The best surviving medieval wall-painting of St. Christopher in north Wales is to be seen in the church of Llanynys in Denbighshire. However, for our purposes it is convenient to view a modern artist’s version of that painting, which may be seen in St. Asaph Cathedral. This shows the saint carrying the young Christ on his shoulders. The deep water is suggested by cliffs either side of the river. Fish swirl round Christopher’s feet in the turbulent water. Even the hermit is seen holding a lamp to guide the way to safety. The staff, which Saint Christopher is using to steady himself, is already sprouting the leaves that are referred to in the legend.
‘Once his image had been seen it provided protection’
St. Christopher has generally been taken to be the patron saint of travellers but he was much more than that to ordinary people in medieval times. It was Christopher, rather than Joseph, who assumed the role of the paternal protector of Christ and he was also adopted as the protector of humanity in general. Once his image had been seen it provided protection, for that day, against someone dying without having undergone confession and receiving a final communion. At Woodeaton (Oxon) a fourteenth century wall painting of the saint is accompanied by a Norman-French text, the translation of which reads: ‘He who sees this image shall not die an ill death this day.’ In addition, seeing the image of St. Christopher also provided protection against fatigue, misadventure and disease. The fragmentary Latin inscription above the Westminster Abbey image has been translated as: ‘Whoever sees Saint Christopher this day will not be laden with tiredness.’ Indeed, the earliest known reference to a Saint Christopher wall painting is an instruction from Henry III, in 1240, when he ordered ‘an image of St Christopher holding and carrying Jesus is to be made and painted where it may best and suitably be placed’ in the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.
St. Christopher wall paintings provide an insight into the medieval mind. At a time when people did not have rational and scientific explanations for the disasters and diseases which befell them the teachings of the Church assumed great importance.
Evidence suggests that there was a widespread belief that it was essential for the image of St Christopher to be painted in a prominent position in parish churches. We can therefore be virtually certain that the Hope fragment of wall painting does show St Christopher, as has been suggested.
For those readers who wish to pursue this topic in greater detail there is a doctrinal dissertation on the topic St Christopher Wall paintings in English and Welsh Churches c1250-c1500 by Eleanor Elizabeth Pridgeon at https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/7964/1/2010pridgeoneephd.pdf
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.