England and Wales are full of beautiful medieval churches. From the famous like Christ Church cathedral to the lesser-known like Dorchester Abbey, they offer breathtaking architecture and decoration, and since many are free, they make good budget travel destinations.
Some even preserve fragile paintings from the Middle Ages, like this one photographed by Roger Rosewell, author of Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. This is a thorough and richly illustrated guide to an art form many travelers know little about. He takes us through the history of these paintings and their sometimes obscure meanings, and delves into how they were seen by their contemporaries.
The above illustration shows the “Harrowing of Hell” and was painted in the late 15th century at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering, Yorkshire. It’s a scene from The Gospel of Nicodemus, when between Christ’s burial and the third day, God undid Christ’s death and Christ released Adam, Eve, and other righteous souls from Hell. If you haven’t heard of this gospel, it’s because it’s one of the many books that didn’t make it into the final standard version of the Bible we know today. Scenes from this book and many other so-called Apocryphal texts were well-known to medieval Christians, though.
Other subjects include the Virgin Mary, the lives of saints, the Doom or final judgement, and the Warning to Blasphemers–a grisly scene in which those who have taken the Lord’s name in vain are shown tearing apart his body.
Rosewell also looks at the patrons who commissioned the work and the painters themselves, telling us a lot about medieval society. Interestingly, it appears some of the painters were women, yet little is known about any church painters, male or female. There’s also a handy gazetteer and subject guide to help you locate any church paintings along your trip itinerary.
I only have two minor criticisms of this work. Firstly, while Rosewell explains Christian iconography very well, sometimes he leaves architectural terms undefined. Despite having written two books on medieval history, I had to look up “soffit” and “voussoir”! Also, while many of the photos are lovely, some have less than ideal lighting and look like simple snapshots. Granted, many medieval wall paintings are so faded it’s virtually impossible to get good photos of them, yet I feel a bit more effort would have enhanced these photos considerably.
All in all, I highly recommend Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches to anyone interested in the Middle Ages, art, or travel in England in Wales. It’s the perfect mixture of art, history, and guidebook, something I wish the travel industry would give us more of.