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Medieval Wall Paintings of England and Wales

by Roger Rosewell
Boydell Press, 2008

Medieval Wall Paintings of England and Wales

   
  The revival of interest in the glories of the Late Medieval English Church has come at a happy time. Over the last fifteen years or so, Eamon Duffy, Jack Scarisbrick and the rest have shown us that the English Reformation was not as cut and dried as we'd thought it was. What is more, they have done so using original artifacts as well as original sources. As a result, the art objects of medieval England have once again become enchanted in our imaginations, and been reclaimed from the dry and dusty studies of academics and research students.

Our renewed fascination with the buildings and their contents has coincided with the rapid growth of cheap, easy, democratic technology. No longer is church photography the preserve of the tooled-up professional. A gifted amateur can spend a couple of hundred pounds on a decent digital camera, and get fabulous results. Nobody talks about coffee table books as a genre anymore - these days, we expect all books to be well illustrated.

And then, of course, there is the genealogy thing, and also the Da Vinci Code thing. Suddenly, the past looks as if it has become positively sexy. Perhaps this is not surprising. We live in a society which is fast changing, and no longer deeply-rooted. People are yearning for something beyond themselves, a touchstone if you like, back to where they came from and how they came to be here.

Roger Rosewell's splendid book, now available on Amazon, is typical of this new generation in historical publishing. It is a book written by an enthusiast for enthusiasts, lavishly illustrated, and including photographs by some of those gifted amateurs. In 380 pages, Medieval Wall Paintings can offer no less than 252 colour photographs. Digital photography is ideally suited to the recording of wall paintings. Enhancement by image software can bring out the tones and nuances that the centuries have made oblique. Sometimes, it is as if we are seeing them properly for the first time.

The book begins with a history of Christian wall paintings in England and Wales, from the 4th century symbols at Lullingstone Villa in Kent to the elaborate schemes at the start of the 16th century which suggest to us what an English Church Renaissance might have been like. Wall paintings were an essential feature of English churches for about five hundred years, and Rosewell explores how historical and liturgical developments during this time led to changes in the style, subjects and significance of the paintings. He correctly notes the effects that the Black Death would have on liturgy and devotion, with an increasing focus on the Last Things, of death and judgement, with an inevitable change in emphasis in the subjects of paintings. The Black Death's consequent economic boom then led to many new painting schemes paid for by enthusiastic donors, with the inevitable result that today we often find wall paintings overlaying older ones.

Rosewell follows the history with the subjects themselves. This exhaustive survey ranges widely, from commonly found Biblical scenes and devotional images to those which were essentially catechetical, the images of Saints and other rarer subjects which seem more allegorical than anything else. Rosewell goes on to explore those responsible for the production of wall paintings, the patrons and the painters, and the techniques used to produce them. The technical details in this section are particularly valuable, and answer a number of questions that had been nagging me for years. He conjures up a vivid image of the painters at work using '...large brushes made of hogs' bristles... ideal for undercoating...' while, for smaller details, '...pointed brushes made from squirrel tales are recorded.' They dipped their brushes into 'shells of oysters, scallops and mussels... used as palettes'. We see these artists atop 'scaffolds... made of timber, such as alder, which could be grown straight and tall very quickly'.

A chapter follows on what Rosewell calls 'meaning and understanding', and perhaps this is the one weak section of the book. This is, after all, an art book rather than a work of theology, and it is difficult to comprehend how wall paintings were actually used without an understanding of Catholic belief and practice, and the way it was located and expressed in often remote communities in the centuries before the Reformation. Rosewell wisely adds the caveat that we should not regard wall paintings as 'books for the illiterate' or 'poor men's bibles'. It's a valiant effort, but when he needs to explain that the Mass was '...a ceremony of the miraculous, involving prayers and scriptural readings or chanting which transformed consecrated bread into the body and blood of Christ as a physical presence...' as if this was the arcane activity of some long-lost sect, rather than the living belief and practice of millions of people worldwide today, you know that it is going to be difficult for him to tie together what is happening on the walls with what is going on in people's heads and hearts.

For many people, the most useful and enjoyable part of the book will be the gazetteer. This contains five hundred churches with significant schemes of wall paintings, with descriptions of what you will find when you get there. Many of them are illustrated elsewhere in the book. I have to say that the sections for Norfolk and Suffolk, the two counties I know best, appear exhaustive and flawless. Finally, an excellent subject guide tells you where to find particular images around the country.

I have carried this hugely enjoyable book about the house for a couple of weeks now, dipping into it with delight. I can't imagine that anyone with more than a passing interest in wall paintings would not similarly fall upon it and feast. At 24cm by 17cm, the book is big enough to accomodate detailed images of all but the most complex schemes, and as they are printed on quality paper, some of the details are superb.

I do wonder if this lovely book risks falling between two stools. Although good value at 40, it is perhaps too expensive to be as popular as it deserves. Conversely, it is probably not academic enough to become the standard text on the subject. But any church explorer will find so much to delight them that I can only suggest you start stockpiling the birthday book tokens now.

Simon Knott, March 2008

See the Medieval Wall Paintings of England and Wales on amazon.co.uk

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