Richard Suggett’s new book on the late medieval Welsh church, Painted Temples, includes a list of every church in Wales with medieval wall paintings – that is to say, with known wall paintings, for we have no idea how many more exist beneath multiple layers of later plaster and paint.
Like the recent discovery in Rutland of a Romano-British mosaic depicting the battle between Achilles and Hector at the conclusion of the Trojan War, every new find has the potential to rewrite history. In the case of wall paintings, just such a moment occurred on Shrove Tuesday, 5 February 2008, when conservationists Jane Rutherfoord and Anne Ballantyne began to reveal an image of St George on the south aisle wall at the church of St Cadoc, in Llancarfan, some 11 miles south-west of Cardiff in the Vale of Glamorgan. By 2017, once the 20 overlying coats of limewash, distemper, and emulsion had been painstakingly removed, flake by flake, it was apparent that this was no ordinary St George. Rather it is a work of the highest artistic quality and one of the finest paintings of its kind anywhere in Christendom.
The figure of the warrior saint is magnificent: the painter has used artistic licence to swap the lance and shield from the correct side to show St George wearing his shield on his right arm. You can feel the tension in his body as he braces in his stirrups and uses both hands to drive his lance through the dragon’s throat. The reptilian qualities of the dragon are reflected in the scales of the knight’s armour: the solleret covering the foot, the flutes of the articulated knee joint, the couter protecting his elbow, and the extraordinary fan-shaped crest. All this shows a knowledge of contemporary armour, dating from around 1430, as do the cantle at the back of the saddle, the bascinet (helmet), the gauntlets, and the upper and lower cuirasses, or breastplates.
Flying sleeves of red silk and ermine emerge from St George’s uppermost hand and from the rear of the breastplate. Clearly the artist was familiar with the latest pan-European fashions in the dress of the male nobility. The helmet crest, by contrast, is decidedly old fashioned – demonstrating the artist’s knowledge of antique armour as well as contemporary, and chosen perhaps because this was part of the iconography of the ‘nobleman’, used for formalised portraits of chivalry.
The dramatic impact of the painting owes much to the artist’s portrayal of the interaction between the horse and the dragon. The horse is as much engaged in the battle as St George, its eye being fixed on the eye of the dragon whose long pointed tongue darts up towards the steed’s nostrils. The charge of energy between the two beasts is extraordinary and has no parallel in wall painting or manuscript illumination.
A red caparison spreads over the horse’s saddle and flanks, adorned with long red tassels, while the ostrich feather plume crowning the animal introduces a political element into the painting, for the ostrich feather was a symbol strongly associated with the English monarchy. So too was the figure of St George himself, chosen by Edward I (1239-1307) as the patron saint of crusading, and hence standing for divinely sanctioned warfare. The adoption of St George by Edward III (1312-1377) as the patron of the Order of the Garter (founded in 1348) amounted in effect to a statement on the monarch’s part that his wars (including his campaign to conquer Wales from 1277 to 1283) were comparable to the religious crusades. As for the feather, it was associated with Edward III’s eldest son and heir apparent, the Black Prince (1330- 1376), who was the first to use it on his seals, his tournament armour, and on the gold coins he minted as ruler of Aquitaine. Thereafter it was used as one of a number of symbols of royalty by successive English monarchs, and later came to be used exclusively by Princes of Wales.
We might therefore expect the patrons of this scheme to be sympathetic towards the English Crown, and while we have no idea who the gifted artist was who created such a lively scene, there are clues to the patronage in the inclusion of a shield high on the south wall bearing three silver swans on a black ground. This has been identified with the Bawdrip (or Bawdrep) family of Fonmon Castle, which lies some three miles south of Llancarfan. Sir William Bawdrep (c.1400-1480) may well have been the patron; his political loyalties can be gauged from the fact that his son, Sir Thomas (c.1460-1500), was Constable of Newport Castle, and a personal attendant to Richard III, who described him as ‘our well-beloved servant’.
Evidence of iconoclasm
By no means all of the wall paintings in Richard Suggett’s book achieve the same level of creative accomplishment as the Llancarfan St George. Indeed, there are other paintings in the same church – of Death and the Gallant, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy – that are fascinating for their costume detail and iconography, but are not in the same artistic league. What they have in common is that most have had to be rediscovered, having been obliterated in the mid-16th century, when a series of royal orders went out progressively tightening up on what the new Protestant Church of England would permit by way of images in churches.
Thomas Cromwell, acting for Henry VIII, gets the blame for much of the iconoclasm of the period but, while he cannot escape condemnation for the destruction wrought by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, his Injunctions of 1536 and 1538 had more to do with the practice of the faith than with the removal of images: they were aimed at preventing what he viewed as ‘superstitious’ practices based on the belief that miracles could be secured in return for offerings of money or candles, or by touching, kissing, and licking relics and statues.
This relatively muted approach resulted from Henry VIII’s own somewhat traditionalist views, as evidenced by his extensive handwritten amendments to the draft of the 1538 Injunctions, but the Protestant reformers were in the ascendent when his nine-year-old son and successor Edward VI (r. 1547-1553) took over. Scarcely had he time to sit upon the throne than the 1547 Injunctions were issued, instructing parishioners and clergy to destroy, remove, or obliterate wall paintings, relics, images, pictures, and paintings, not only on the walls but also in glass windows. There were to be no more processions, no ringing of bells during services, and the practice of keeping candles burning perpetually in front of images and on tombs and in sepulchres and chantries was banned: from now on only two candles were permitted, on the altar before the Sacrament.
The task of supervising the destruction of images, the extinguishing of lights, and the abolition of elaborate ceremonies was entrusted to 30 commissioners who visited dioceses and parishes throughout the land to enforce the new rules, listing and appropriating vestments, chalices, and relics belonging to churches all over the land. Confiscations were near to total, and many priests and parishioners complained about what they regarded as the theft of their valuables.
Within a matter of months, churches that had once been full of colour from stained glass; wall paintings; painted screens, reredos, and roof timbers; polychromatic statues; richly embroidered banners and altar frontals; enamelled reliquaries; and vessels of silver and gold all aglow in the soft candlelight, became whited sepulchres. The poet Thomas ap Llewelyn, of Rhigos in the Vale of Neath (fl. 1580-1610), spoke for many when he lamented that the church had become ‘a barn’.
The contrast between the riotous colour of the pre-Reformationary church and its later 16th-century counterpart is illustrated by the south Wales church of St Teilo, Llandeilo Talybont, Glamorgan. Early photographs show a simple, plain whitewashed church with neat box pews filling the nave, a double-decker pulpit and altar railed on three sides in the approved Protestant fashion. The poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described it as ‘a little desolate white church and white-walled graveyard’. In 1952, a visitor recorded that ‘the interior aspect, in spite of complete daubing of everything (including pews, pulpit, and font) with whitewash, is of unrelieved decay, disuse, and gloom’.
From Reformation to reconstruction
The admirable Friends of Friendless Churches intervened in 1974 to carry out stabilising repairs, and the pews, pulpit, altar table, and rails were removed ‘for conservation’ under a well-meaning job-creation scheme but were subsequently lost. Thieves stole the slate from the roof in October 1984, but exposure to the elements had one positive effect: as the plaster began to fall off the walls, an underlying scheme of pre-Reformation wall paintings began to emerge. A decision of great vision was then taken to record and remove the wall paintings, dismantle the church, and rebuild it in the grounds of St Fagans National Museum of History, the open-air museum on the western edge of Cardiff, as a typical example of a Welsh late medieval parish church.
The reconstructed church was opened in 2007, complete with modern renderings of the original medieval wall paintings, a scheme of c.AD 1500 characteristic of many that have been lost or that remain to be discovered. There is no discernible logic to the scheme and no narrative link between one scene and the next: rather, the walls are painted with a series of discrete images of popular saints and Biblical stories. They include St Catharine and the wheel of her martyrdom, set with curved knife-like blades around the rim, and scenes from the Passion of Christ – including a striking depiction of the Mocking of Christ, showing stylised spittle flying from the mouths of grotesque mockers and disfiguring Christ’s calm and long-suffering bearded face.
The colour palette is restricted to black, red, and yellow ochre, with variations on these colours (various pinks and greys) achieved by adding lime to the red and black pigments. Great care was taken in reconstructing the paintings to use medieval materials, but the result still shocks visitors because of the vividness and strength of the colour, reminding us that we have got used to bare wood, white walls, and wall paintings that, where they have been rediscovered, appear in muted colours, mellowed by age.
There are paintings of angels on the walls of St Teilo’s, bearing symbols of the Passion, but no Crucifixion. Instead, the St Fagans reconstruction has a rood-loft with a coved underside, bressummer (load-bearing beam) carved with vine scroll, and paintings of the Twelve Apostles in niches with cusped trefoil heads, all surmounted by a Crucifix (the Rood) flanked by carved figures of the Virgin and St John. Painted on the wall behind the Crucifix are scenes from the Last Judgment: the dead rising from their graves and being separated into the saved, to the left, and the damned, who are shown being fed into the gaping mouth of a sharp-fanged monster to the right.
The loft and its decoration are based on surviving examples that are one of the great glories of late medieval Welsh churches. Their construction was a late development in the decoration of the church: most were inserted in the period from 1450 to 1540 to mark the threshold between the nave and the chancel, the laity and the clergy, the profane and the holy. Over that 100-year period, the decoration became increasingly elaborate, taking full advantage of the potential for intricate carving offered by green oak.
One of the most celebrated examples, at St Ishow’s church, Partrishow, Breconshire, was probably carved just as the Reformation was gaining momentum, because it was never painted, and has since attained a silvery patina that W D Caröe, who restored the church in 1908, described as being impossible for any artist to imitate. Most were brightly painted and gilded, as witnessed by surviving traces of colour – but many were scrubbed clean of paint by 19th-century restorers intent on revealing the carved detail.
In his discussion of the surviving screens and lofts, Richard Suggett points to the evidence for a revival of devotion to the rood in the 100 years or so prior to the Reformation. Images of the Crucifixion are singled out for gifts at this period, in preference to other saints and relics. Numerous donations, large and small, were made of gold and silver coins, of expensive fabrics in which to dress the figure of Christ, and of candles, wax, and tapers to burn constantly in front of the rood. The Partrishow screen is one of several in Wales that preserve sockets carefully drilled into the loft parapet to support votive candles.
Tellingly, these screens and lofts were erected in the space (the nave) controlled by the parishioners, and the doors and stairs giving access to the lofts are invariably in the nave, not the priest’s chancel. It was the churchwardens who commissioned the rood, sourced the materials, and engaged the carvers and painters, and we have records of them visiting neighbouring parishes to view their rood-lofts, evidence of a friendly rivalry. The heavy cost of the screen was born by the accumulation of bequests, such as that of Thomas Richard ap Gwallter (d. 1528) who left 40s towards ‘the gilding of the rode lofte’, or Sir Richard Porter who, in 1495, bequeathed 8s 4d to the ‘Rode of Conway’ and for the ‘reparacion of his lofte’, which was indeed rebuilt a few years later.
Devotion to the rood has an added literary dimension unique to Wales, consisting of poetry celebrating not the generic Crucifixion but specific roods and images of the Crucifixion at 15 named locations, including Bangor, Brecon, Valle Crucis, and Welshpool. The poetic descriptions of these roods always single out the lifelike carving of the figure of Christ and especially the realism of his wounds, the brightness of the colour and gilding, the richness of the jewellery and the mantles in which Christ is clothed (the colours varying according to the liturgical season), and – most importantly – the miracles attributed to rood. Rhys Brydydd’s poem in praise of the rood at Llangynwyd was prompted by his miraculous recovery from the effects of a snake bite, while Maredudd ap Rhys gave poetic thanks to the Chester rood for curing his lameness.
Crucifixes and rood-lofts suffered the same fate as wall paintings under the royal Injunctions of the mid-16th century, though a remarkable number of screens have survived in Wales, albeit shorn of painted images and almost wholly secular in their decoration. In place of figural and pictorial decoration, churches were now required to display Royal Arms, emphasising the supremacy of the monarch as head of the Anglican church. The earliest example to survive in Wales are the Arms of Henry VIII discovered under limewash at Llandeilo Talybont, no doubt covered over during Mary I’s brief and unsuccessful attempt at a counter-reformation. Llantwit Major’s church has the arms of James I, dated 1604, painted directly on to plaster, while the same monarch’s arms take the form of a painted plaster moulding at St George, Abergele, and at Haverfordwest the arms of Charles I are painted on boards.
Painted texts – on plaster or on board – were then introduced by the Elizabethan Order of 1561 requiring every parish church to set up a board over the communion table displaying the Ten Commandments. The Anglican Canons of 1604 then ordained that ‘chosen sentences’ from the Prayer Book and Bible should be used to adorn the walls of the church, ushering in a new era of wall paintings consisting of texts in English or Welsh, often set within an ornate frame.
We know a little about the trade of artisan painter at this period thanks to the verse autobiography of one Thomas Jones, which he composed and published as a warning to Sabbath-breakers like himself. He describes how he spent Whitsunday 1624 in an alehouse, cursing, smoking, drinking numerous ‘healths’, and keeping bad company. For violating the Sabbath and an important feast day he was thrown from his horse and suffered life-changing head injuries. After a four-year period of repentance and recuperation, he discovered that God had blessed him with a new talent – for painting and verse composition. Moreover, he was provided with a wife – a Brecon widow who told him that she had dreamed she would marry ‘a blacke hair’d Painter’.
His new talent must have been real, because he was granted a licence to work as a text painter in Brecon Diocese, where he claims to have ‘painted most of all the Churches there’. As well as ‘chosen texts’, he was often asked to paint skeletal memento mori figures, whose ‘ghastly pale grim face makes friends to weepe [and whose] sharpe dart makes friends in earth to sleepe’.
Antipathy to colour in the church continued into the 19th century, when the neatness of inserted plaster ceilings (hiding medieval painted roofs and carvings) and limewash (applied liberally inside and outside the church) was preferred to what Theophilus Jones (1758-1812), Brecon’s county historian, called ‘bedaubed caricatures of death and time, a wretched imitation of the king’s arms and many a holy text strewed around’.
The slow rediscovery of colour in the Welsh medieval church by antiquarian-minded parsons in the mid-19th century was a revelation, though not without controversy, as high churchmen and low engaged in renewed battles over the propriety of colour and imagery in churches. One man in particular – the Reverend John Parker (1798-1860) – became an advocate in Wales for recreating the architectural splendour of the Middle Ages. His attempts to restore the woodwork and paint the walls at Llanmerewig (Montgomeryshire) were subsequently erased by the restoration of 1892. His embellishments at Llanyblodwel, to which he moved as rector in 1846, are described by the authors of the Buildings of England volume for Shropshire as ‘a demonstration of staunch individualism’, which ‘makes clear his commitment to Gothic but unconcern for convention’.
Nevertheless, Parker was a gifted watercolour artist who made meticulous records of painted medieval woodwork in scores of churches in Wales, even as the anti-colourists were busy scrubbing woodwork clean and applying coats of varnish. The discoveries that he made in secluded and remote Welsh churches marked the start of a revival of interest in the colour and decoration of medieval Welsh churches that continues to this day.
Temlau Peintiedig: Murluniau a Chroglenni yn Eglwysi Cymru, 1200–1800 / Painted Temples: Wallpaintings and Rood-screens in Welsh Churches, 1200-1800, is a bi-lingual book by Richard Suggett, with a foreword by Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 2021, ISBN 978-1871184587, £29.95; Friends of the Royal Commission are entitled to a 10% discount).
All images: © Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW), unless otherwise stated.