Salisbury’s Doom Painting is the largest and best preserved in the UK. These medieval works of art were intended to remind the congregation of the judgement that would befall them when the end came. Painted around 1470, it was covered with lime whitewash during the Reformation and not seen again until 1819. Now following its most recent restoration in 2019, it is back to its medieval, vibrant glory and is essential viewing for anyone visiting Salisbury.
Doom paintings were once a common sight in the churches of England.
They are wall paintings which depicted the Last Judgement, when God would pass his judgement on the people and they would ascend to heaven or descend into hell, depending on their actions during their lives.
They were often painted over the chancel so that the congregation would spend their whole time in church looking at the image, a stark reminder of what fate could befall them if they didn’t follow their religious instruction.
The history of the Doom painting in St Thomas’s is a fascinating one.
Painted by an unknown English painter who was heavily influenced by the contemporary Flemish schools, it was painted around 1470 when the church building was undergoing expansion.
After just over a century of dominating the church and the thoughts of its worshippers, it was covered up in the Reformation, obliterated by coats of whitewash.
It remained forgotten until 1819, when faint traces of colour emerged during cleaning. It was uncovered and a drawing made, then for some reason it was covered with whitewash again.
Finally, in 1881, the whitewash was removed once and for all.
The painting fills the wall above the chancel arch and continues down down the sides into the spandrels. As with all doom paintings, it has Christ sitting in the centre. Here he is sitting on a rainbow, with his feet on a smaller rainbow.
His hands are raised, and both hands and feet show the signs of his crucifixion, with blood running from them. Behind him, angels hold the cross, his crown of thorns, a pillar, a sponge, spear and nails.
Further behind the Kingdom of Heaven is the Star of the East and the Sun of Righteousness. To his right is the Blessed Virgin and to his left is John the Evangelist.
Beneath his feet are the twelve Apostles who are judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It is what is beneath them, running down the spandrels, which is what I find the most interesting however.
On the left is a burial ground set in a green garden, with the dead emerging from their graves, helped by Angels with trumpets.
The dead at the bottom are emerging wrapped entirely in shrouds, others are casting off their shrouds and others are entirely naked, except for some with hats; a Bishop’s mitre, a labourers hat and a crown.
The angels are leading the groups of the naked into heaven, gazing beatifically at their smiling faces.
On the other spandrel we see what happens to the evil sinners.
Flames are rising from the ground where the dead are emerging, their bodies contorted in pain. Dragged out by demons, they are bundled together in chains and forced into the mouth of a fiery dragon, the mouth of hell, his jaws held open by two demons.
They are also naked except for some with hats, one Bishop’s mitre and two crowns, and many of them are clutching their heads in agony. An angel is trying to encourage them into the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is too late for them, they are whisked away by demons.
Local lore has it that one of the faces of sinners depicts Agnes Botthenham, landlady of the Rydedorre (now the Rai d’Or public house) in Salisbury which she ran as a house of ill repute, where women would hang out of the windows selling their wares.
It seems a little unfair on her as she later repented of her ways and founded the Trinity Hospital for the Poor in 1390, which is still in existence today as Salisbury Almshouses.
The demons are impish little things and quite different from those depicted in other Doom paintings. In others, demons are often large, hulking, clumsy beasts wielding pitchforks or turnspits. Here they are depicted as small and agile, mischievous rather than evil personified.
The Prince of Darkness stands between the Apostles and sinners, with the head and feet of a beast, one bird-like foot peeking cheekily over the painting and onto the bare stone of the chancel arch. With his hand perched coquettishly on his hip, he is being handed a drink by the only clothed sinner there, a woman with a whimple who seems to be hugging a demon.
A scroll at the bottom says Nulla est Redemptio – there is no escape for the wicked.
The whole painting is fascinating, and now after its recent restoration in 2019, the pale colours have been transformed into vivid, detailed depictions of the Judgement.
It was restored in phases, starting with brushing off all of the dust and securing the painted plaster that had become detached. It was then cleaned with fine decorators brushes and sponges and a protective coat added.
Hopefully it will now last well into the next century, providing a must-see attraction for years to come for visitors to Salisbury.
VISITING ST. THOMAS’S CHURCH
How to find St.Thomas's Church
Postcode: SP1 1BA
Public Transport: St. Thomas is in the centre of town, only a short walk from the train station and various bus stops.
Parking: There is no parking on site, but use the Central Car Park (what3words: smug.allow.gosh) which is just a two minute walk away.
When is St. Thomas' open?
Weekdays: 9am - 5pm Sundays: 12pm - 5pm
How much does it cost to visit St. Thomas'?
Entrance is free but please do consider making a donation in one of the boxes at the entrance.
Are there any facilities at St. Thomas'?
There is an accessible loo for use during services and events only, free WiFi for use while you are in the church and there is often tea and coffee available.
See our Salisbury City Guide for information on what there is to see and visit as well as locally owned places to eat, shop and stay.