Lakenheath
Wall Paintings Project

Today surviving medieval wall paintings are a rarity. Less than ten per cent of English churches contain any remains of their early decoration and, in most cases, these remains are mere fragments of once much larger schemes. Indeed, the number of churches that can still boast large scale surviving paint schemes number perhaps only a few dozen. Yet, to our ancestors, the people who built and worshiped in these churches, the sometimes gaudy and brightly painted decoration was the norm. They would be as stunned to walk into a modern whitewashed church as we would be to find ourselves in a riotously painted and decorated church of the middle ages. The medieval church was a place of colour and animation, where armoured Saints bore down on vermillion coated dragons and sinners in Bishops mitres were cast into the very literal mouth of hell. To modern eyes, more used to the bare walls bequeathed us by our puritan forebears, the painted church is difficult to visualise - which makes the rare survival such as those here in Lakenheath all the more important.

Prior to the reformation in the sixteenth century virtually every English church interior was painted. Then, in 1536, the reformers of the English church under Henry VIII issued Ten Articles that condemned the use of images in the church. The images were regarded as ‘superstitious’ and ‘idolatrous’ and the reformers wished to wipe the church of England clean of such things. Although this marked the beginning of the attack upon wall paintings it wasn’t really until the accession of the boy king Edward VI that the onslaught was begun in earnest. Within a decade the vast majority of medieval wall paintings had been either whitewashed over or, in more extreme cases, gouged from the walls. Luckily, here at Lakenheath, the paintings were merely whitewashed over; a practice that both concealed them and ensured their preservation for future generations.

The Wall Paintings

‘Inevitably anyone who enjoys wall paintings suffers tinges of regret: so much has been lost which could have been saved: so much could be seen if churches were awash with funds to reveal what remains hidden. But, even so, there is still much to see and seeing is the only way to marvel at what was once commonplace. Art for everyone: art which promised more than life itself.’

Roger Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings

At Lakenheath at least five individual painting schemes have been tentatively identified although, as you will notice, several of these are difficult to see without a specialist guide. The paintings visible today date from the 13th to the 17th century and it is the latest of these schemes that is perhaps easiest to identify. This can be found high up on the south arcade and takes the form of a panel of black letter text. The lettering, which is set in a decorative frame, is taken from the gospel of St John and reads ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth but for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the son of man shall give unto you’. Religious texts such as this were painted to replace the superstitious images that were outlawed in the 16th century and strongly supported the protestant emphasis upon the importance of the word of God rather than, what they regarded as, the superstitions of the Roman Catholic church. At the same time it was ordered that the Royal coat of arms be installed in the church: a later rather splendid example of which can be seen on the south wall of the nave.

Of the medieval wall paintings now visible the earliest are thought to be the large paintings of angels that sit high up on the north arcade (left). The angels are quite simply painted, with black or red outlines. It is thought that these angels may have been painted in the early 13th century.

The second obviously visible scheme are the scrollwork patterns also on the north wall that are thought to represent trees (below). The dark foliate pattern is highlighted with red flower like objects. This pattern also appears, very faintly, further along the north arcade – where the colour scheme appears to have been reversed. It is believed that this scheme may well date to the late 13th century. Click here to see a suggested reconstruction of this scheme.

 

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