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  • Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches
  • Rachel Canty
Roger Rosewell. Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2008. Pp. 380. 255 color and 6 black-and-white illus. ISBN: 9781843833680. US$80.00/£39.95 (cloth).

In this book Roger Rosewell offers a thorough and welcome overview of medieval wall paintings surviving in parish churches throughout England and Wales. This important medium has not received such extensive coverage since E. W. Tristram's seminal work of the 1940s and 1950s, which charted developments from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. (Unpublished notebooks for the fifteenth century are in the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.) Lately, much research has been orchestrated by David Park of the Courtauld Institute of Art, though an increasing number of scholars have come to recognize the value and significance of wall paintings for an understanding of medieval devotion and related matters (e.g., Ellen Ross, The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England [1997]). Rosewell's work fills a significant gap in current studies and lays important foundations for future work in this and related fields. Supported by a remarkably generous number of color photographs (in excess of 250), it encourages reassessment of a major yet undervalued aspect of English medieval art and patronage.

The book looks to a wide readership, both academic and popular, and there will be much to interest general enthusiasts and scholars alike working in a range of disciplines including literature, history, art history, and theology. It is particularly rewarding for those interested in the nature of English liturgical and devotional culture, the parish and its community, and the interrelations between textual and material culture, as well the technological context for the production of the wall paintings themselves. The quality and number of the photographs, and the detailed gazetteer to surviving paintings across England and Wales, will allow easy identification of appropriate material for study. This geographical index also enables the book to be a practical aide to visiting the churches under discussion, and the bibliography is sure to be a support and spur for future study.

The appeal to a broad readership largely determines the structure and content of the study. The chapters are effectively freestanding, and [End Page 133] the presentation of illustrative material on almost every page provides a focus and aide to analysis. Rosewell begins with a historical survey of wall paintings—here stylistic developments are mapped against broad architectural movements following the standard Victorian categories of Romanesque and Gothic. A consideration of the range of subject material then follows; this features narrative sequences drawn from the Old and New Testaments, notably the birth, life, and Passion of Christ, and those drawn from the apocryphal scriptures and more contemporary writings, such as legends of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Doom scenes and the depictions of saints (e.g., Saint Christopher and Saint George) were also popular and receive close attention in both the text and illustrations. There is also useful discussion of more obviously catechetical material—the schematic depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy are prominent—and instructional or admonitory images like the warnings against gossips and the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. It is pleasing to see secular and decorative features given prominence, and there is assessment of the nature and role of heraldry and donor portraits (a fourteenth-century one at South Newington, Oxfordshire, is particularly well captured). Rosewell rightly gives space to an examination of practical matters, such as how wall paintings were made, who might have made them, and in some instances, who paid for them. The chapter "Meaning and Understanding" aims to provide an interpretive examination of a range of paintings and examines a number of key issues (subject matter, donors and patrons, sources, function). There is, finally, a brief account of the fate of medieval wall paintings from the time of the Reformation until the present day.

The author and the publisher are to be particularly congratulated on the quality of the images. The sharpness of this photographic record demonstrates a wealth of important...


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