The Church in Colour

Landscape (UK) - - In The Home -

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.

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