click photo to enlargeThe village of Kempley in Gloucestershire is fortunate to have two wonderful churches. One dates from 1902-3 and is in a fine "modern Gothic" style, the work of the Arts and Crafts architect, Albert Randall-Wells (1877-1942), perhaps the subject of a future blog post. The other, redundant since 1976, is a Norman building of around 1130 that has some of the best early wall paintings to be found in Britain.
Schemes like the one in the chancel, shown above, are not unusual in the churches of Mediterranean countries. However, in Britain, for such work to remain, it had to withstand not only the ravages of a damp climate but also the condemnatory hand of the religious iconoclast. The Reformation denounced such painting as "popish", idolatrous and unfitting for the newly independent, national and puritanical church. Consequently they were either plastered over, scrubbed or scraped from the walls, or painted over with whitewash. Of these three methods of removal the one most likely to result in some kind of later salvage of the paintings was the latter. And, in fact, during restoration work in 1871-2, whitewash was removed from the old walls to reveal the work of Romanesque artists.
The Victorians sought to preserved them by applying various clear coatings, all of which made the original colours darker. More sensitive conservation work was done in the 1950s and the figures and patterns in reds, ochres, blues and whites were better revealed. The centre of the ceiling has Christ in a triple mandorla giving benediction, the night sky, candles and the Evangelists surround him. Also represented are the Virgin and St Peter with the Apostles sitting under arcades on the north and south walls. The scheme continues in the nave, with interruptions due to damage, where it is joined by fourteenth century work and seventeenth century texts. Evidence of medieval wall paintings can be seen in many churches. In some, for example Pickering in North Yorkshire, it is reasonably extensive. Elsewhere it is often in the form of a "Doom" above a chancel arch. However, for the most part we are left with the odd figure, part figure, pattern or text, and splendours of the kind to be seen at Kempley are to be treasured.
photograph and text (c) T. Boughen
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