TAKE A LOOK AT... (in Derbyshire)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11th August 2003 (p.1 & p.9), reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

TAKE A LOOK AT: CHURCH WALL-PAINTINGS

Nowadays the stone walls of our churches, sometimes bare, sometimes painted, provide a plain background for accumulated monuments and memorials. There was a time, however, when interior church walls were suitably illustrated. Whilst this added to the beauty of the building its main purpose, like the installation of stained glass windows and statues, was to present pictures to an illiterate population and bring the Bible to those who could not learn from the written word.

Guided by the clergy, the faithful learned to interpret those mysterious pictures and texts on windows and walls. Saints had individual emblems associated with their martyrdom, there was religious symbolism in animals, plants and fruits, and spiritual significance in geometric patterns and monograms known since the earliest days of Christianity.

An artist might make the painting of a church his life's work. Vegetable dyes were mixed to provide every shade, bringing a glory of warm colour to the otherwise drab walls.

The loss of this artwork began in the mid-16th century with the strictures of the Reformation but much more was obliterated, generally by a coast of limewash, under Puritan orders.

A PAINTED CHAPEL

Exceptionally, one beautiful example of a medieval painted chapel survives in the Peak, at Haddon Hall. Here six hundred years ago the original decorated Norman chapel became the south aisle of its larger successor, itself plastered and lavishly painted. In some places only fragments of figures and saints remain from once- larger scenes, but other walls are still smothered in foliage, flowers and repeated patterns right up to the roof.

Recent restoration of the wall paintings has reversed well-meaning but almost disastrous protective measures taken 70 years ago, whilst missing detail has been painstakingly filled in with water-based paints so that the work can be seen as was originally intended.

Early paintings have been revealed inside other churches during various restorations although it has been impossible to preserve any on a large scale.

A number came to light at Eyam in the middle of the last century but were covered up again and left until an expert restoration was undertaken 40 years ago.

On the north wall of the nave are some of the emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel - a favourite theme. A skeleton on the belfry arch poses several possibilities: it may represent St. Lawrence, as suggested by the emblem of an iron grid, but may equally well portray Death, since the church's dedication to St. Lawrence is more recent that the illustration. This particular painting was exposed when a section of the Creed was transferred on its original plaster to the chancel arch, further confirmation of the discovery that the decoration dated from three different periods.

ELIZABETHAN WORK

Three different layers were also identified in recent times at Hartington Church. Scrollwork and part of the Apostle's Creed were revealed on the south wall of the nave - Elizabeth I had decreed that all churches should display the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Seventeenth-century painting is seen in a verse from the Psalms: "Give the king thy judgement, 0 Lord, and thy righteousness unto the king's son".

In 1928 traces of Elizabethan frescoes were discovered inside St Helen's church, Darley Dale. Preserved here are a text and shield above the lectern, and a ship - emblem of the tribe of Zebulon - at the side of the pulpit.

Artwork of similar date is displayed on the uneven stonework of the south aisle at Bradbourne Church, consisting of a black letter verse from Ecclesiastes bordered by towers and pillars.

A VICTORIAN REVIVAL

Ecclesiastical interior decoration enjoyed a nineteenth-century revival, as at Tansley Church where the Ten Commandments, Creed and Lord's Prayer filled two arches behind the altar. These were uncovered 12 years ago at the time of the church's 150th anniversary, having been boarded over for thirty years.

Late Victorian murals are seen at their best in Cromford Church where the walls are stencilled with a profusion of fruit, flowers and vines. Eight imposing figures of the Evangelists and the Prophets overlook the nave, with biblical tableaux in and around the chancel.

Work carried out at almost exactly the same time completed the delightful St. John's Church in Matlock. The painting was executed by Louis Davies, who decorated the plaster ceiling with small birds flying between bands of red roses and purple grapes, inspired not by the bible or imperious royal decree, but by the new-born Arts and Crafts movement.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 11th August 2003.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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