The subjects painted come mainly from Christian history, although some
secular scenes appear and there is much decorative
painting - scrollwork, flower and leaf patterns, and so on. Christian history in the Middle Ages, though, involved a great deal more than the Christian story as narrated in the New Testament. There are examples on these pages of the accretions which
clustered around the Gospel accounts and were firmly believed in as
historical fact, such as the story of Longinus. Although specific
parallels between what was preached in the church and the stories that
appeared on the walls are hard to track down, the painted wall clearly had
much the same didactic intention as the sermon - in other words to teach
Christian truth as it was understood, and to improve peoples behaviour
through moral instruction and example. Some very specific examples of the latter - the Moralities have survived, and there are several on this site. By contrast, in fact, paintings of Christs earthly ministry, including the Miracles, are now very rare indeed, and seem always to have been so.
The old idea that early church wall painting in England (or indeed elsewhere) is best described as primitive, or naive needs to be resisted. These descriptions no doubt owe something to the post-Enlightenment aesthetic that saw such paintings as evidence not merely of Popery, but of crude vulgarity as well. Later on, Victorian sensibilities, more kindly but still reductively, added quaint to the list of epithets, and this is still found in older books on the subject. What matters here is what was missed as a result - namely an understanding of what the anonymous painters of these walls were trying to do, which was certainly not to daub haphazardly because only the sacred content mattered. One has only to see the evidence, as the 15th century wore on, of painters trying to figure out mathematical perspective by eye, and almost managing it, to realise that although they may have been less talented than the painters of the Continental Renaissance, or the English cathedral painters, or the manuscript painters, they were no less serious in intention.
¹ (The earliest layer of the remarkable paintings now being uncovered at Houghton-on-the-Hill, near Swaffham in Norfolk, may prove to date from the 10th century.)
© Anne Marshall 2000