The Entombment at North Cove is barely discernible, but later scenes are clearer. At the left is the Resurrection, showing a rectangular coffin in which Christ stands, his right leg raised in the act of climbing out. The staff of the Vexillum or Banner of the Resurrection is very faintly visible (slanting diagonally upwards to the right from just above the top of the head of the soldier in the left foreground), but almost all the rest of Christs figure has been destroyed. At the extreme left at the top of the picture is a kneeling angel, but this is very difficult to see now. The remaining details though are much clearer. Two soldiers (the one at the left visibly asleep) slump in front of the sepulchre. They wear chainmail armour of the period of the painting and there are two more of them behind the tomb. The sleeping soldier in the left foreground holds an club-like object, but the three others have weapons broadly similar to lances or halberds but very curious in detail. They seem (especially that at the upper right) to have flattened blades with a hole in them, and if anyone has any idea what these are I would be glad to hear from them.
At the right below is the next scene in the Cycle, the Harrowing of Hell. A few examples remain in the English church; many more must have perished. There is a general formal resemblance here to the later example at Pickering (but no strategically-placed discs). So far as the Hell-Mouth itself is concerned, there is also a resemblance to Great Harrowden, but that again is later. The theology of the Harrowing of Hell is complicated, and the fullest popular manifestation of it in the Middle Ages is certainly in drama.
For example, the Chester Harrowing of Hell, performed by the Cooks and Innkeepers, has all the necessary ingredients, including the defeat of Satan and the discomfiture of his cohorts, for impressing this difficult doctrine on the minds of ordinary folk. Humankind is in thrall to Satan after the Fall, until the crucified Christ, having paid with his death the necessary ransom, arrives at Hells gates, which cannot stand against him. In the plays, and in paintings like that at North Cove, medieval people saw his subsequent freeing of Adam, Eve, and the righteous who died before his Incarnation and Passion¹. The final painting in the Cycle is the Ascension (left), opposite the others on the South Wall beside the Doom. It is of the most commonly found type in this period, with Christs feet and the hem of his robe disappearing into space at the top centre of the painting. At least twelve figures are gathered below, looking up. One of them is probably the Virgin Mary, who is often shown in Ascensions of this date, but I cannot identify her with certainty. There is also a pattern of vines with grapes surrounding all the paintings in the church, which shows best here in the Harrowing of Hell above.
All in all, this is one of the fullest and most interesting Passion Cycles remaining in the English parish church, made by a painter with a lively imagination. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about it is the choice of an unusually pale set of colours, but this makes it very difficult to photograph.
¹This is, needless to say, an extremely compressed and generalised sketch of medieval Ransom Theory.
© Anne Marshall 2000 +++