There’s a compelling attraction cast by medieval doom paintings in many parish churches in quiet corners of Britain – a chance for us to stand, as our forebears did, to look at the message spelled out clearly about the consequences of sin and, alternately, the rewards for a good life. There are around 60 Doom Paintings left in the UK, all in various stages of deterioration, and here at Slow Travel we are visiting those we pass on our travels.
In the days when most church goers could not read, the Church could dominate people’s lives through graphic illustration of the Day of Judgement or the Weighing of Souls when a person’s life comes to an end. On that day an individual’s sins would be balanced against his good deeds, and his fate decided – either to be sent to sit at the right hand of God in the eternal paradise of Heaven or be condemned for ever in the searing fires of Hell.
It was a simple and stark idea, designed to encourage conformity. However, these paintings were largely destroyed or whitewashed over during the Reformation of the 16th century when the Catholic belief in purgatory was discouraged, and faith was considered to be the road to salvation. Happily, some have been discovered under their layers of paint, some have been restored, and here we choose some of the best to visit.
St Thomas Church, Salisbury, Wiltshire
The biggest and best preserved of them all, this Doom Painting in the heart of Salisbury is a dramatic depiction of the fate that could befall the churchgoers if they strayed from the path of righteousness.
It depicts Christ in the centre sitting on a rainbow with the apostles at his feet. On his left are the virtuous emerging from their graves, escorted by angels, on his right are the sinners being dragged by demons into the mouth of a fire breathing dragon. Unusually for a Doom Painting, the demons are impish little things rather than pitchfork-clutching, hulking beasts.
You can read more about the St. Thomas Doom Painting here >>
All Saints, Catherington, Hampshire
The approach to All Saints, Catherington, is in itself attractive as the war memorial stands in the centre of the long swathe of grass leading to the entrance. The church’s best feature is on the north wall of the nave where there is a dramatic 14th century depiction of St Michael the Archangel weighing the souls of the departed to determine their passage either to Heaven or to Hell.
This is a similar theme to that of the Day of Judgement – upon death your sins and virtues will be weighed and will decide your passage from purgatory - either to sit with Christ or to burn forever in the fires of Hell. Here the Archangel Michael is drawn with outstretched wings, holding an upraised sword in one hand and a weighing scale in the other.
A bundle of souls is suspended on the scales and a wicked demon with a sinister curled tail is tugging at the balance beam, trying to pull as many of these unfortunate souls as possible down to eternal damnation. To counterbalance this, the Virgin Mary stands at the other end of the weighing beam and is holding it steady to prevent the poor individuals going to their hellish fate. She holds another pan of the scales with an anxious head already in it, and seems to be intending to save at least this one from the fires of hell. As well as imparting its clear message about the need to live a virtuous life, this painting glorifies the qualities of the Virgin Mary – her ability and compassion for all as the mother of Christ.
The head of St Michael looks suspiciously Victorian rather than medieval and is probably the result of a well meaning but clumsy restoration. But the message to the medieval congregation is powerful and strong – a good life will guarantee your place in Heaven.
South Leigh and North Leigh, Oxfordshire
One wonders which of these two churches was the first to commission a doom painting and whether some parochial envy inspired the second! These are two vibrant and dramatic 15th century interpretations of the Day of Judgement, with eternal bliss awaiting the Saved and the torment of hell assigned for the Damned.
St. James the Great, South Leigh
In the church at St James the Great at South Leigh the artist has taken the entire chancel arch and part of both the north and south walls to give his warning to the congregation below. Unusually there is no Christ in Judgement dominating the picture. Instead there are two scrolls at the apex – one reads Benedicti patris mei (Come, ye blessed of my father) written above those souls who are to be welcomed into heaven, the other is direct and brutal Discedite, maledicti (Depart, ye cursed) above those heading for damnation.
For the illiterate the message is graphically illustrated below the scrolls. Two angels with trumpets boldly announce the end and the recently departed are sent either side to their fate. Traditionally the Saved are depicted on the left of the arch (the right hand of God) and the Damned on the right. So on the left of the arch we see the magnificent architecture of Heaven – splendid towers with friendly angels, St Peter with his keys welcoming in those who have lived a life of piety and good deeds. Those to be accepted into this glorious future rise naked and contented from their graves.
On the right of the arch the fate of those whose lives have been blighted by sin is dramatic and uncompromising. They are chained together – no one is spared – the figures include a King, a Queen, priests and a bishop. (Curiously the number of legs do not match the number of bodies, but whether this is accidental or not we shall never know – was there perhaps some message here only obvious to late medieval minds?) Their faces are tortured and pleading as a yellow devil pushes them towards the blood-red dragon that is the Mouth of Hell. Another devil gleefully hauls on the chain to pull these tortured souls into Hell. There is no escape.
South Leigh also has a Weighing of Souls, with St Michael in charge of the weighing but this has been much restored and is apparently twice the size of the original. On the North wall there is also an interpretation of the Seven Deadly Sins – small scorpion-like animals. The parishioners must have been in no doubt about the consequences of a wicked life and no doubt the words of the priests constantly reinforced the message.
St Mary's Church, North Leigh
The painting at St Mary’s North Leigh is smaller in dimensions, being a semi-circular tympanum painting above the chancel arch, but the painting is equally forceful in its import. Again, there is no central Christ figure.
In the two middle sections we see the dead emerging stiffly from their coffins, leaving their shrouds behind them, uncertain of their fate. Those already accepted are being greeted by St Peter outside the gate of Heaven with his key in his left hand and his right extended in welcome: an angel above them trumpets their victory. But misery awaits the damned, which include a King and a bishop.
The meaning is clear – no one, however powerful, however rich, can avoid the Day of Judgement and the horrors that it will bring to those who have not abided by God’s laws. These sinners are chained together with an angel above sounding their last trump and another standing guard with a sword. Their feet are already being lapped by a pit of fire – red tongues of flame reaching for their bodies. One devil rises from the fire, two more – with particularly sinister and evil horns – ensure that the sinners are dragged down into the pit.