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The Harrowing of Hell, with donor : Brent Eleigh, Suffolk (‡St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich) Late 13th century

Harrowing of Hell, with donor & ewer, Brent Eleigh (76KB This painting, on the altar wall to the right of the Crucifixion at Brent Eleigh is now in a very dilapidated state indeed, but in 1979 Pamela Tudor-Craig called it ‘perhaps the most important of the three [paintings in the church]’¹. There are few paintings of the Harrowing of Hell left, and a late 13th century example such as this is a great rarity.
Christ is a tall figure in the centre, and he is inclining forward (to the left). It should be possible to make out his ovoid head and halo, and his very long robe, gathered to the right at waist level. At the far left, Adam kneels, holding out his hands, one at least of which is discernible.

In rather better condition than the rest of the painting is the small kneeling figure at the right, and the detail below right, pixelated as it is, shows him reasonably clearly. Harrowing of Hell, Brent Eleigh, detail, donor with ewer (39KB) This is a priest or monk, tonsured, wearing a red robe and looking up towards Christ with his hands raised in prayer. The trace of an inscription (in Lombardic capitals, which helps to date the painting) to the right of his head was decipherable in 1960 as ‘+RICA’. Beside the figure at the bottom right is a wine-jar or ewer.

Pamela Tudor-Craig, quoted earlier above, went on to say that ‘Little though there is of it now, there can be no doubt the figure of Christ was once of a very high quality. It is as close in style and colours as anything in England to the Doubting Thomas subject, painted on a similarly large scale in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.’².
Also at Brent Eleigh, on the other side of the Crucifixion, is a painted background to a statue of the Virgin, with angels. All three of these medieval paintings, considered together, can claim to be some of the finest in England.

¹Quoted in Canon John Fitch, Brent Eleigh Church : An illustrated History and Guide, 1986, p.11 (available in the church)
²Ibid. p.12. The Westminster Abbey Incredulity of Thomas is Plate ll in Tristram English Medieval Wall Painting : The 13th century, Plates, Part 1

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Diocesan Website with contact details for Brent Eleigh church

Anne Marshall 8/4/2002