Wonders written on the wall

A review of Medieval Wall Paintings, by Roger Rosewell. An invaluable guide to the church art we've lost – and what survived

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

Medieval Wall Paintings Roger Rosewell

Shire Publications, pp.96, £7.99, ISBN: 9780747812937

‘Take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines … pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows…’. These were the instructions handed down to churches in the reign of Edward VI, the death-knell for medieval church wall paintings following the wholesale destruction of the monasteries in his father’s time.

That any church art survived this state-sponsored barbarism some five centuries ago seems extraordinary, and its rarity makes it all the more precious. This is no more than a pocket guide to the shadowy and often elusive fragments of secular and scared art that we do still have, but if the doom paintings will be familiar to many, who other than the specialist knows about the ‘three living and the three dead’ and the ‘warning to janglers’, let alone the Bonnacon, a bestiary beast to be seen in Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough ‘shown propelling the contents of its bowels horizontally at some pursuing hunters’?

Roger Rosewell’s larger volume on this subject doubtless fills out these and other subjects touched on here — who made these paintings and why, how and where and what did they cost— but make sure you have this little book in the door pocket of your car.  The illustrations are good enough to give a real sense of the treasures that are still to be found, and from Dunkeld on the fringes of Birnam Wood to St Botolph in Hardham, West Sussex, Rosewell’s invaluable gazetteer will point you in the direction of the best examples and remind you of just how much we have lost.

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