Medieval wall paintings are like gold dust in the lands where the Protestant Reformation took hold. In the momentous waves of iconoclasm that swept through the north of Europe in the 16th century, incalculable numbers of religious artworks were destroyed. Wall paintings were the easiest targets: a simple limewashing could render them invisible. There was no need for flames, axes or other dramatic means of destruction. The wall paintings in the Guild Chapel, just opposite Shakespeare’s house (New Place) in Stratford-upon-Avon, are a rare example of fragments that have survived down the centuries. They offer us a tantalising glimpse into the visual spectacle of pre-Reformation England, a little window to peer into the lost colour and beauty of the past.
The paintings were made in the early to mid 15th century when the chapel was undergoing a big rebuilding project. The Guild of the Holy Cross, who had built the original chapel in the 13th century, had grown rich and powerful, effectively governing the town of Stratford. A man called Thomas Payntour was tasked with producing the earliest paintings, and more were made as the years went on. In their original state, the paintings would have been ablaze with colour and detail. The church also had an elaborate rood screen (separating the nave from the chancel) topped with a cross. The ceiling, which was replaced in the 19th century, originally featured carved and painted angels and the coats of arms of patrons and benefactors. The whole space would have been alive with imagery and adornment, until the mid 16th century.
Henry VIII is often credited with the English iconoclasm of the 16th century but it was really his successors Edward VI and Elizabeth I that initiated the destruction within local churches. Henry was more concerned with getting his hands on a ready source of cash by dissolving the monasteries and destroying the gem-encrusted tomb of Thomas Beckett. His Reformation was more about money and power than faith, but it was a different story with his children.
Elizabeth, crowned queen in 1558, had an especially difficult task because she succeeded her half-sister Mary I, who had tried to restore Catholicism. Many historians believe that if Mary had lived longer, she would have succeeded in bringing it back. In 1559 Elizabeth issued an injunction that demanded the ‘removal of all signs of superstition and idolatry’ so that ‘there remains no memory of the same in walls, glasses, windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses’. The destruction of images was about erasing a collective memory. It was the fresh living memory of Catholicism that had enabled Mary to restore it, so it was memory that Elizabeth now had to attack. Memory and our visual surroundings are intimately intertwined.
It was the 1559 injunction that provoked the limewashing which hid these wall paintings for centuries. In 1563, John Shakespeare (father of William, who was to be born the following year) authorised the payment for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chappell’. John was the Chamberlain of Stratford’s cooperation, which had replaced the Guild as Stratford’s governing body under Edward VI. The paintings were to disappear from history until the early 19th century. When the earliest examples were discovered in 1804, however, many of them were destroyed in the refurbishment that was taking place. So what we are left with are the fragments of fragments.
The destruction of images and decoration in the Reformation left a void that was filled by ‘words, words, words’. The Bible, the liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer were in English, and everyone was expected to understand God through their own vernacular language, not through imagery. The sensuality of images, candlelight, incense and music were replaced by textuality. This can go some way to explaining why England’s artistic Renaissance lagged so far behind that of Catholic Italy, but its literature flourished into a Golden Age under the reign of Elizabeth. This new focus on the English language was the context in which Shakespeare was taking English to pioneering heights of expression – the Shakespeare whose father was charged with getting rid of these local images.
Ironically, the limewash was actually rather helpful in preserving the images down the centuries. Although much of the colour is lost, you can still make out the luscious carpet of flowers in the large painting above the chancel arch. The painting depicts the Day of Judgement, with Jesus (sitting on a rainbow – you can just make out his feet) presiding over the separation of the righteous from the sinners. The righteous are entering Heaven, on the left, shown as a glittering turreted city. The mouth of Hell, on the right, is the literal mouth of a serpentine monster, with menacing teeth. It’s easy to lose yourself in the details and the drama.
Art history favours artworks that seem complete and untarnished by time; we like to look at paintings that are exactly as they were when the paint had just dried. But there is an important space in art history for fragments such as these. They are shadows of a vibrant past, but also testify to multiple histories, bearing the marks of different events and changes. They are less like a fossil than like geological layers, telling us of not one moment in time, but many – one on top of the other. Fragments can sometimes speak more eloquently than the complete picture.
You can learn more about the chapel here.
All photos my own.