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  • Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches
  • Elizabeth Freeman
Rosewell, Roger, Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches, Woodbridge & Rochester, Boydell, 2008; cloth; pp. viii, 380; 6 b/w & 255 colour illustrations; R.R.P. $US80.00, £39.95; ISBN 9781843833680.

With over 250 colour photographs of surviving medieval wall paintings, this book will no doubt be carried under the arm of many visitors to English and Welsh churches. It has beautiful colour photos, as well as a handy gazetteer. One can imagine the book being used as a guide-book when visiting churches as well as a book to sample at random the survey of the history and themes of church wall paintings in England (and, to a much lesser extent, Wales).

Roger Rosewell tells us that fewer than 10% of the 10,000 medieval churches (presumably in England, the geographical focus of the book?) have surviving wall paintings. But that still leaves 1,000 churches with some survivals, and in this book Rosewell gives a gazetteer of about 500 such churches (those that are readily accessible to the public), as well as the afore-mentioned photos. On the one hand, a lot of paintings have been lost, but the delight of this book is in reminding us how much still survives. Only a very small handful of wall paintings survive from Anglo-Saxon times, but following the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council’s emphasis on instructing the laity, survivals pick up from the twelfth century.

The wall paintings were usually made in the secco technique, although some of the pre-thirteenth century examples are frescos. The paintings can be divided into nine subject matters: scenes from the Old Testament (of which there were surprisingly few); devotional images of Christ; the Life of Christ, especially scenes from the Holy Infancy and the Passion, but rarely images of Christ’s miracles or parables; the very common images of the Virgin Mary; scenes from the lives of various saints (with about a dozen saints predominating, especially Christopher); death and the last judgment; pious moral messages such as good versus evil; transgressions; and Christian allegories and symbols. Strangely, very few wall paintings of the seven [End Page 194] sacraments or the seven virtues survive, nor are there many images attacking heresy. Indeed, it seems that wall paintings played almost no role at all in contemporary propaganda.

Effacement of the paintings was of course widespread in the sixteenth century, and Rosewell provides churchwardens’ accounts which itemize the payments people received for such paintings-over. But there is more to the story than this. As Rosewell points out, two thirds of parish churches were rebuilt or renovated between approximately 1400 and the middle of the sixteenth century. Many of these renovations saw the addition of paintings, but many also saw their removal, as, for example, new doors and windows were inserted into the middle of picture cycles, hence destroying parts of the cycles. The nineteenth century saw the origins of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, but also the well-meaning yet disastrous attempt to protect paintings by means of applying beeswax, lavender and orange oil, varnish, and turpentine. But, on the other hand, there are always rare stories of recovery, such as the recent discovery of lovely Romanesque and fourteenth-century paintings at Ilketshall St Andrew in Suffolk when the church was being repaired after a lightning strike.

The gazetteer is arranged by county. Here one will find twelve churches listed under Bedfordshire, 60 for Norfolk, and through to a mere seven churches in Yorkshire, and then fifteen in Wales. Each church listing includes the subjects that are portrayed in the paintings. There is also a subject guide which lists all the churches that have paintings of, say, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Last Supper, Pentecost (very few churches), the Virgin and child, St George, St Peter, St Margaret of Antioch, St Katherine of Alexandria, the Doom, the Three Living and the Three Dead, the seven works of mercy, the wheel of fortune, and so on and so forth.

The book contains a good bibliography, confined to materials on wall paintings. For reasons not explained, the book has...


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