The Church in Colour
Many churches today, especially those built or restored by the Victorians, have walls of bare stone, creating a calm, even solemn atmosphere. But this was not always the case. Whether in a magnificent cathedral or the lowliest village church, medieval worshippers would have been surrounded by vibrant art, with walls and ceilings, columns and arches, vaults, screens and statues alive with colour. Some of this painting was purely decorative, with trailing vines, foliage, flowers and birds bringing nature inside the building. Sometimes there were mythical animals such as griffins and unicorns. Repeated geometrical designs such as zigzags were also popular. Painting imitation stonework, wall hangings and curtains helped to create an illusion of opulence and grandeur. Many of the pictures were devotional aids, allowing the observer to reflect upon the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints. Portraits of St George, St Christopher and St Catherine were especially common, but lesser known ‘local’ saints were also depicted. Popular Bible stories were often painted in a strip, like a newspaper cartoon, particularly useful in an age when many were illiterate. Other common themes were reminders of how, or how not to, behave. The Seven Works of Mercy showed people caring for the sick, visiting prisoners and feeding the poor. On the other side of the coin, The Seven Deadly Sins highlighted the evils of man. Almost every church would have had a Doom, a depiction of the Last Judgement, as a reminder of what was to come. But daily life on Earth for many was also reflected. The Labours of the Months showed manual work carried out throughout the year: March, pruning trees; October, ploughing or sowing. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ showed how man’s life could change on a whim. There was also, literally, writing on the wall. Until the 14th century this was in Latin but thereafter usually in English. It included prayers, accounts of miracles or even the names of people buried in the church. The paintings were usually done by journeymen artists, travelling from one church to the next. In the case of richer churches and cathedrals, artists would have been specially commissioned. The works were usually painted over several layers of white plaster which had been allowed to dry, a technique known as secco. Brushes were of animal hair, often squirrel or badger, and oyster shells were used as palettes. Basic colours included yellow and red ochres, black from carbon, and white from lime or chalk. These were mixed to produce other colours, including a semblance of blue made from white and carbon black. More expensive were colours obtained from minerals, such as green from malachite and blue from azurite. The illusion of gold was obtained from compounds of lead and tin. Thin sheets of actual tin, silver and gold were used to create paintings that gleamed in the candlelight. But it was not to last. In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with Rome and the destruction of churches and monasteries began. It gathered pace in the reign of his son, Edward VI. Anything associated with “feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition” had to be removed. Wall paintings were chiselled out of walls or, more commonly, whitewashed over, to be replaced by bare religious texts and the royal coats of arms.