Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Painted Churches Of England

By Karen Warren

We tend to expect the interior of a Norman English church to be dull grey stone, the only colour provided by the light flooding through the stained glass windows. However, these churches would have looked very different in the Middle Ages.

In those days the church was central to community life. Everyone, whether peasant or nobility, attended church on a Sunday, as well as for important rites such as baptisms and weddings. When they stepped inside the door they would be greeted by a feast of colour. It would seem as if every available surface – not just walls, but pillars and arches too – had been decorated [1].


Many of these paintings would have been pictures of well known biblical scenes, or they would have illustrated aspects of medieval Catholic theology, such as heaven and hell, or bands of angels. There would also be pictures of the saints, and a whole range of symbolic images including animals and flowers [2]. To get an idea of the effect, have a look at the stained glass windows in an old church and try to imagine the walls and pillars all covered with similar images.

Why were churches painted in this way? The easy answer is that church buildings were designed for the glorification of God. For the vast majority of people it was the most splendid building they would ever enter, and no time or expense was spared in its construction and decoration. It is possible that wealthy parishioners commissioned paintings for the walls, or bequeathed money for that purpose.

These pictures are popularly described as “the poor man’s Bible”. Many people of the time were illiterate and only the clergy had access to Bibles (which in any case were written in Latin). The theory is that the church paintings had an educational value, telling stories and imparting information to those who could not read it for themselves.

Richard Taylor [3] is sceptical of this idea, pointing out that the images would have been meaningless to anyone who did not already know the story. However, he argues that the pictures would have reinforced the message being delivered from the pulpit. They would also create a shared religious experience: anyone moving to a different part of the country would have recognised the scenes depicted in the local church.

A particular feature of medieval wall paintings is that the characters are always dressed in medieval clothes rather than the clothing they would have worn in biblical times [4]. This may simply be due to a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) the customs of earlier times. However, I would also suggest that a medieval parishioner who saw images of religious figures resembling him or herself would be more likely to identify with those people – and thus with the Christian faith – than they would have done with more remote images. (A similar phenomenon can the observed in the mystery plays – annual enactments of biblical stories – in which Old Testament characters are given distinctly medieval concerns and attitudes.)

Given the ubiquity of the medieval wall paintings, you may wonder why so few are visible today. The blame for this lies largely with the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century. The Church of England under Henry VIII remained broadly Catholic in its religious belief, although not its affiliation. However, Henry’s son Edward VI (and his advisors) had a more protestant vision for the church, and regarded any decoration as idolatrous. The wall paintings were either scraped away or whitewashed over, often to be covered by religious texts. The damage was largely done by the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans a hundred years later, but they destroyed any remaining ecclesiastical artworks.

For centuries people forgot that church walls had ever been decorated. It was not until the Victorian era that churches began to be restored, and the paintings were revealed as old whitewash was removed from the walls. Unfortunately, many were damaged as the paint was chipped away.


However, modern restoration techniques have enabled some paintings to be recovered almost in their entirety. New paintings are being discovered all the time, and ways have been found to preserve them as they are uncovered [5].

Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a comprehensive list of all the churches with wall paintings in England, although English Heritage has a map of all the painted walls in its care, including many churches and abbeys [6]. One of the most impressive examples in a church still in use is that of St Peter and St Paul in Pickering, North Yorkshire. East Anglia has many fine painted churches, including St Mary’s at Houghton-on-the-Hill (where the church itself was not rediscovered until 1992).


Finally, the tradition of decorating church walls did not entirely die out in the Middle Ages. The Norman church of St Michael in Garton-on-the-Wolds in East Yorkshire was completely repainted with biblical scenes in the 19th century. More modern examples include the Bloomsbury Group murals in the Berwick Chapel in East Sussex, and the artist Stanley Spencer’s paintings at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire.


[1] Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti, p4
[2] Richard Taylor, How to Read a Church
[3] Richard Taylor, ibid, p2
[4] Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, p78
[5] Historic England, Wall Paintings: Anticipating and Responding to Their Discovery
[6] English Heritage, Save Our Story – Wall Paintings 

Photographs all by the author:
1. The Martyrdom of St Edmund at Pickering Church
2. Victorian wall paintings at Garton on the Wolds
3. The Last Judgement, Houghton on the Hill


Karen Warren is a travel writer, novelist and book reviewer. Her first novel, Shadow of the Dome, is loosely based on real events in 13th century Mongol China, and was published by Lume Books in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel, based in England and South Africa. This is a contemporary history but has a smattering of the Middle Ages…

Karen writes travel articles for a number of outlets including her own site WorldWideWriter. She is also a book reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society.

Author website:

Link to Shadow of the Dome on Amazon

Link on publisher website -

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.