Conservators in the UK have revealed and restored a series of medieval wall paintings, intended to be destroyed during the English Reformation but saved by none other than John Shakespeare — the father of the famed playwright. Covering the interior walls of Guild Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon, renowned as Shakespeare’s birthplace, the works represent what is likely one of the only extant examples of a nearly complete, medieval decorative scheme still in situ. They depict, in large format, detailed scenes of Judgment Day and candid reminders of death; featuring crucifixes, angels and devils, tortured souls in hell, and a large figure of St. Michael the archangel, the murals were among the many targeted by the iconoclasm laws passed in 1547.
Shakespeare senior served as Stratford’s chamberlain in 1563, when he received orders to paint over the offending pictures. He followed through, but his supervision of the handiwork suggests some reluctance: workers used limewash to cover the art, which essentially saved the paintings from the same tragic fate of similar works across England’s churches. Stratford Town Trust also posits that limewashing may simply have been a practical solution to limit the costs of upkeep of the building, which dates to 1269.
The walls received further layers of limewash and painting schemes in the 17th and 18th centuries, as decorative tastes shifted with Protestantism’s influence. In 1804, the chapel’s hidden, medieval pictures were revealed during renovation work; back then, however, they were not considered significant enough to preserve, restore, or protect. But in March, Stratford Town Trust secured a £100,000 (~$126,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to support these most recent efforts, with a team from Hawkes Edwards & Cave Conservation Architects supervising the so-called Death Reawakened restoration project. Their retouching of the murals is nearly complete, and the chapel has remained open since the start of the operation, allowing visitors to see the medieval building transform into a more faithful version of its once-very colorful self.
“The Chapel would not have been unusual in having some paintings or decoration,” Cate Statham, a project manager for Hawkes Edwards & Cave Conservation Architects, told Hyperallergic. “However, these were expensive undertakings, and the Chapel’s paintings are unusual and significant for several reasons. Firstly they were all carried out together, at the same time by the same artists — [they were] designed and executed as one piece of work. This is very rare indeed, and the stories told in the paintings also all interconnect — another unusual factor. The fact that most of this scheme still survives, albeit some of it in better condition than others, is incredibly rare … it is one of only a few buildings in Europe.”
Conservators focused on two paintings: “the Doom,” which portrays the Judgement, is spread above the chancel arch; and “Allegory on Death,” a medieval memento mori, which was painted on a western wall. The latter likely shows a family crypt — complete with a body in a coffin, feasted on by wriggling worms — and was at one point also covered by timber paneling. St. Michael looms above the scene, surrounded by seven stanzas of verse; according to Statham, only his face showed evidence of defacement, suggesting that this death-related iconography may not have been deemed as offensive as other pictures.
While “Allegory on Death” was in relatively stable condition, “the Doom” suffered much more damage, largely from a wax preservative applied to it in the early 20th century, which discolored the paint and also absorbed dirt. Paint had flaked off in many areas — a number of figures who have entered Heaven are unrecoverable — but the surviving scenes present a message clearly meant to warn of sinners on Earth. The scene includes people tied up and fed into the mouth of a fanged serpent, symbolizing the mouth of Hell, and depictions of demons torturing souls.
“What is really interesting is the amount of detail painted, even at a height where it would always have been difficult to distinguish it from the ground,” Statham said. “Every face and individual is different; there are numerous plants and flowers, which seem to represent real species (the symbology of which we are still deciphering).”
While removing the chapel’s wooden paneling, conservators also came across fragments of two ornate paintings. These unexpected findings show scenes from the life of Adam as well as of a Dance of Death painting; although vaguely documented in historic records, they have not been visible since the 20th century. Rather than simply painting over them, hands had also actively scraped parts of the surfaces away. A glimpse of the Dance of Death, however, arrives thanks to the hands of Wilfrid Puddephat, the Art Master at a local school, who in the 1950s undertook a meticulous study of the Chapel’s artworks and recreated the Dance of Death in a colorful illustration.
The restoration team is continuing to clean the paintings, survey them, and analyze their paint particles. Its members are also opening up more sections of wall paneling to see how much painting may still remain, long hidden, on the chapel’s interiors. Other scenes that are on their radar, according to records, include a graphic depiction of Thomas Becket’s murder — it apparently shows blood spurting from the martyr’s neck — and a rendering of the legend of St. George and the dragon. But for now, visitors entering the medieval space, like the parishioners of centuries past, will be greeted by sobering messages of the inescapable afterlife, all unfolding in glaring, immersive form.
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