Medieval Wall Paintings – Chronology
On completion of the building works, the decoration scheme completely covers all wall and vaulted surfaces with a series of approximately 34 subjects. The paintings may have been the work of a Master Hugo of Bury St Edmonds. It is known that Abbot Anselm’s sacristan, Hervey, commissioned a Master Hugo to oversee the artistic work carried out at Bury in the 1130s, including the Bury Bible. The marked similarity in style between that and the Copford frescoes suggests that Hugo had a hand in both. It was the practice for the master craftsman to execute the outline of murals, leaving his apprentices to fill in details later. This is what happened at Copford. The outlines were drawn on the wet plaster – true fresco – and the details were finished later after the plaster had been re-wetted. (Abbot Anselm was elected bishop by King Stephen and was known to have been aware of and influenced by the Byzantine art tradition that was then prevalent in Rome.)
The south wall loses an area of painting when the arch is created in the first bay of the nave to give access to a small transept.
Two further substantial areas of mural are lost when the other arches are made in the nave south wall to extend the transept into an aisle.
The collapse or removal of the stone vault over the nave sees the largest single destruction of painted decoration in the history of the church. The wooden trussed rafter roof is built to replace it.
The surviving paintings disappear under a coat of lime wash applied in the increasingly puritanical atmosphere of the reign of Edward VI.
Some of the paintings in the nave make a brief re-appearance when they are ‘discovered’ by a workman undertaking repairs before applying a fresh coat of lime wash. Writing twenty years later, Newcourt in his Repertoriumnote described the event in the following terms:
“Upon scraping the walls, in order to be whitewashed, there appear’d very fair and fresh Paintings of Christ upon the Cross, of St. Peter’s mother in law, lying sick of a Fever, of St. Mary Magdalen and other Representations, which were all whited over again, but not otherwise defaced.”
The rectangular ‘pulpit window’ is inserted with the loss of a panel reputed to have represented ‘the Woman of Samaria at the Well’. The chancel north window is inserted with yet further decorative loss.
The pulpit window is remodelled and the last vestige of the well painting disappears with the insertion of a stone heading.
Canon Wood, recently appointed rector, oversees the removal of the lime wash covering the apse paintings.
Daniel Bell undertakes the over painted ‘restoration’ of the apse paintings, giving a pre-Raphaelite flavour to the angels and a halo to Christ. Unfortunately, he also uses the wrong type of plaster which is now causing serious damage.
The decoration of the structural nave is uncovered and cleaned but not altered. Sadly, at the same time, the south wall of the chancel is destroyed, obliterating what was probably the crucifixion scene mentioned by Newcourt above.
An unknown artist paints probably the first wholly contemporary murals in the church for over 700 years. Painted above the chancel arch, they represent the Annunciation and the Visitation of the Shepherds. Also probably by the same artist are the trumpeting angels in the spandrels (spaces above the chancel arch) and on the west wall of the nave, Empress Matilda above the organ arch and the knight on the east side of the north-west window of the nave.
Description of Church Medieval Wall Paintings
The apse houses the magnificent Christ in Glory fresco. Christ in apocalyptic grandeur, enthroned upon a rainbow, looks down from the vault above the officiating priest on the supplicant congregation in the nave below. Surrounded by angels and attended by ranks of apostles the divine image is the ultimate statement of power and authority. The two paintings of buildings on the springers on either side are taken by some to be the architectural representation of the New Jerusalem. Others believe they represent the church buildings and manor house at the time of painting.
As part of the Victorian over painting of the apse by Daniel Bell, the figures on the vault were partially repainted. However, the apostles between the windows were almost completely over painted and the lower halves of their figures reconstructed because they had become indistinct or had disappeared altogether. It seems Bell was prone to adding ‘details’ that were not present in the original composition, including the symbols carried by the apostles and the rather Gothic-looking crown on the head of Christ but also tidying up the outlines and altering facial features. For example, a crowned Christ in a mandorla (almond-shaped panel) is unknown from the England of that period. Even so, the power and authority of the figures and the general composition must surely owe more to the Romanesque artist who originally created them than to Bell. The archangels Michael and Gabriel on the splays (obliquely angled surfaces) of the east window are paintings entirely by Bell.
The chancel arch is decorated with bands of ‘meander’ patterns and, on its soffit(under surface), with the twelve signs of the zodiac. These terminate above the capital on the north side with a rising sun and on the south side with a semi-crescent moon. It is very unusual to find signs of the zodiac in this position. When they were uncovered at the end of the 19th century, after being hidden for over three hundred years, the figures of Leo, Cancer and the Virgin (with a halo) were found intact, others were partially recognisable, while some could only be restored by following the original scratch marks. No other English church seems to possess a complete Zodiac. That it appears at all seems to suggest a very early date.
The best-preserved Romanesque fresco in the church is the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter. This is positioned in the first bay of the nave at the lunette (semi-circular space) above the rectangular pulpit window. The scene is both united and separated by two arches springing from a central towered structure with a doorway. To the left of the tower an interior is suggested by a gathered curtain. In the room, on a pallet, lies Jairus’s daughter under a blanket. Behind her stands her grieving mother. To the right of the tower we see Christ standing in a cross-legged attitude and, to His right, an unidentified figure with a halo. The artist has chosen to illustrate the moment when Jairus returns home, having found Jesus. He looks backwards over his shoulder and up into the face of the disproportionately tall figure of Christ. Jairus is explaining the cause of his distress and appealing for help, while pointing with his left index finger towards the interior of the house. The facil features of the figures are especially noteworthy, each having individual characteristics. Jairus, with his highly simplified and accentuated features, is close to being a caricature. The dynamic character and apparently random quality of the composition are very different from the static, hierarchical decoration of the apse. This fresco has not been over-painted and is in its original state. So far as is known it has only ever been cleaned.
The total effect of the early paintings in the rest of the nave is perhaps more impressive than the remains of the individual scenes, which are generally truncated or so faded as to be indistinguishable. A series of heads above the north chancel window, which lost their bodies when the window was inserted, fall into the former category. However, the figures on the south side of the west window were identified, only in a report on the paintings compiled in 1990, as a royal presence flanked on each side by soldiers, their shields still being easily recognisable.
There are one or two surviving fragments which do command rather more individual attention. The north-west window is flanked by figures of knights wearing chain mail and helms, carrying shields and spears. While the knight on the east side is a 19th-century re-interpretation, that on the west is both original and clearly identifiable, thus giving a good indication of the armour and equipment of the period. Roundels on various pilasters containing the heads of angels and other worthies are delightful but of mixed age and condition.
On the springer immediately to the west of the Jairus lunette there are the legs of a man and the lower body and legs of a lion. This probably represents Samson struggling with the lion and is so animated, that it seems as if the figures are dancing.
Restoration of the Church Medieval Wall Paintings
The paintings continued to deteriorate during the course of the 20th century and attempts, not always successful, were made to stabilise the paint surfaces. For example, due to darkening of a wax preservative applied earlier, the angels above the south chancel arch are now barely discernable.
A major initiative was clearly needed if the paintings were to survive. Improvements to ground drainage and extensive repairs to the church were carried out as an essential prelude to completing work on the conservation of artwork throughout the building.
Between 1988 and 1993, the conservation of the wall paintings was undertaken by Wolfgang Gartner and his team from the Canterbury Cathedral Wallpaintings Workshop. Their task was to conserve the paintings of all periods in the state in which they existed. No attempt has been made to remove Victorian over painting or to restore any of the medieval frescoes to their assumed original form. More details about this work are on display in the church.
The paintings are now critically examined by experts at each quinquennial inspection of the building and necessary repair work is carried out.
For further history and information on the church see British History Online.
Adapted by Roland Mallinson (2005) from the guide by A J Wright (1993, revised 1998 and 2003), with kind permission.