By Churches Conservation Trust
700 year old wall paintings in Buckinghamshire
St Lawrence's Church, Broughton, is at the heart of a small village now located on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. Built from local stone, the building was restored in the 1880's. However, the wall paintings inside survive from the 15th Century.
Vivid paintings once covered the walls of churches across England. They transformed buildings into enthralling spaces full of messages and meaning. The decoration of English churches likely began in the 7th Century, when Christianity became widespread in Anglo-Saxon England. These wall paintings in Broughton were made in the 1400's.
This colourful, gothic display seems decorative but 700 years ago it was meant to educate. Christian church teachings were given in Latin, a language not commonly spoken at the time, so paintings helped embed religious stories and moral messages into the daily lives of local people.
Reform and destruction
Not long after their creation, the Broughton wall paintings were hidden. The 16th-century English Reformation saw a break with the Catholic Church in Rome and the Church of England was created, with King Henry VIII as its head. During the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, wall paintings and other church decorations were seen as distractions from God and were mostly destroyed, sold or covered over.
Medieval wall painting of St George and the Dragon (1410/1470)Churches Conservation Trust
George and the dragon
300 years later, the paintings were revealed by Victorians who were often keen to restore Medieval art. A large and dramatic depiction of the
legend of St George and the Dragon was revealed above the main entrance to the church. The artist had shaped the composition to fit the space over the arched doorway.
Changes to the building over time have left scars. Further restoration involved raising the roof, destroying the upper section of the painting and leaving George headless, adding to the drama of the piece.
St George is the patron saint of England, here he wears the national flag, the red-on-white cross.
St George is shown as a knight on horseback slaying the dragon below, an image which first appeared in Western art in the second half of the 13th Century.
In the distance is Lady Cleolinda, a Libyan princess who, in the story, was soon to be sacrificed by her townspeople to the dragon. When George killed the beast, he saved her life and so the town converted to Christianity. The painted detail on Cleolinda's face has been lost over time.
The lamb is often used in churches to symbolise sacrifice. The theme of sacrifice – the loss of something or someone for the greater good – is common in religious teachings. Here, it gives medieval churchgoers and modern observers a clue that this is Cleolinda, reminding us of her story.
The dragon, breathing fire and fumes, has a red and yellow body covered in scales and tiger-like stripes. The dragan appears to have a second, serpent-like head with a tongue in its tail – a ferocious beast indeed!
Medieval 'Doom' wall painting of heaven and hell (1410/1470)Churches Conservation Trust
This dramatic painting, known as a 'Doom', is the first thing visitors see when entering the church. Here, the glorious rewards of heaven are juxtaposed with the eternal agony of hell and so Christians are encouraged to lead a holy life. Every medieval church would have had a Doom to warn people that God sees all and that everyone – rich or poor – will face judgement based on the choices they have made in life.
The Doom depicts 'The Last Judgement' when, after life, each person's soul is judged and sent to either Heaven or Hell.
In the centre is one of the best surviving figures, a large angel playing a trumpet to raise the dead and call them to their judgement.
By tradition St Michael decides whether each soul goes to Heaven or Hell. Here he weighs souls on a set of scales and, based on their life on earth, determines their fate.
St Mary, to the left, places her finger on the scale to counterbalance the demons, tipping it in favour of Heaven.
Worthy souls then proceed to the gates of Heaven, which is often represented as a castle-like structure on the upper left side of Doom paintings. The gates protect the souls from the sinful impurities of those outside, and are surrounded by flying angels.
In the lower right corner are the jaws of Hell, where 'damned' people are consumed by fire exploding from the wide, tooth-lined jaws. This striking image has a clear message, regardless of whether people understood the language spoken or could read church texts.
Medieval wall painting of a 'Pieta' (1470)Churches Conservation Trust
This painting, from circa1470, shows a scene of Jesus Christ in the arms of his mother Mary. Versions of this scene are common in Christian imagery, especially in central Europe, and are known as 'Pieta', which means both piety and pity in Italian. This version has an interesting secondary meaning; it warns against swearing and making oaths on Christ's body.
In the centre, the Virgin Mary cradles the body of her now-defaced son, Jesus. This is a likely reference to a medieval tale of a man who frequently swore on Christ's body until Mary confronted him with the body of her son, wounded by his blasphemy.
Bones are visibly protruding from the left arm and leg, a reference to swearing "by God's bones".
Nine men surround Mary and Jesus holding different bodyparts. Here, a man carries Christ's foot, suggesting he swore on it. This literal display of blasphemy physically deforming the son of God would have been a very powerful warning to medieval Christians.
Another figure carries the 'Sacred Heart' which is said to represent God's divine love for all humanity. Interestingly, this man's hat is similar to those depicted in Flemish art of the time, which may have inspired the artist.
At the bottom of the painting, two men quarrel over a game of backgammon, their weapons drawn against each other. This time, the warning is against the sin of gambling on the Christian sabbath, Sunday.
A striking feature of this painting is the costume, including odd socks and floppy hats. The variety of colours used are often found in wall painting pigments across Europe. Although these odd socks or 'hosen' are unusual, noblemen are sometimes dressed similarly in other European art from the era.
Medieval wall painting of St Helena and St Eligius (1410/1470)Churches Conservation Trust
St Helena and St Eligius
This painting depicts St Helena and St Eligius, framed by a border of scrolling red leaves. Saints are holy people from history whose lives were in some way extraordinary. They symbolise protection and provide moral guidance to Christians. Imagery of many saints was banned as idol worship during the English Reformation.
St Helena on the left was the mother of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 337. Soon, tolerance of then conversion to Christianity spread across the vast Roman Empire.
St Helena is said to have discovered the cross that Jesus died on whilst touring what is now Syria and Palestine. Here she is shown carrying a T-shaped cross, the typical shape used to execute early Christians.
The influence Helena had on her son ultimately lead to the Christianisation of England.
Also depicted is St Eligius, who lived centuries after St Helena, when Western Europe was no longer under Roman rule. He was the king's chief advisor in what is now Belgium and worked for twenty years to convert the pagan population to Christianity.
It seems that successful Christianisation is what links these two saints from different times and regions of the world.
St Eligius was a Bishop, and is often depicted with the recognisable 'mitre' hat and with a 'crosier' or staff in his right hand. Sometimes he is also shown holding his emblem, a goldsmith’s hammer.
St Eligius is the patron saint of blacksmiths and 'farriers' who make horse shoes. Beneath him is a collection of tools and other metalwork.
This saint's life story includes a miracle in which St Eligius amputates and re-attatches a horse's leg in order to fit a horse shoe.
Church wall paintings tell us fascinating and sometimes surprising stories, full of messages reflecting the concerns of people at the time they were designed. The Broughton wall paintings are free to visit and there are hundreds of surviving medieval examples around the UK, waiting to tell their tales of morality and mortality to modern-day visitors.
Jessica Clarke, Chloe Meredith and Jamie Taylor
With thanks to:
The Friends of St Lawrence's, Broughton
More information on St Lawrence's Church