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.
St Nicholas, Oddington, Goucestershire
This fascinating church, originally built in Saxon times, is worth a visit for many of its interesting and quirky features – the old nave and the new nave, the mass dial and the wooden bier, the strangely hanging Jacobean pulpit – but its main glory is its huge Doom painting, taking up almost half of the north wall of the nave.
This painting is believed to date from 1340 and is one of the largest surviving in England, being 32 feet long and 15 feet high, the lower part now hidden by wooden panelling. It’s immediately apparent how bright, dramatic and dominating the image must have appeared to the medieval congregation, cowed into good behaviour by the fear of the ghastly fate depicted here for wrong doers. Faded and partially obliterated now, the message is still clear to modern viewers.
At the top of the painting Jesus sits in majesty above an orb of the world, apostles and saints on either side. At his feet two angels are sounding trumpets, presumably the Last Trump, reverberating for the dead rising from their graves at the bottom of the picture. On Christ’s right the Saved are being welcomed by angels through the portals of heaven but damnation awaits those on his left.
There is a figure dangling from a gibbet, a sinner whose destiny is inevitably the mouth of hell below him/her. The devil, black with hoof-like feet, a spiky tail and horns, is calling the Damned towards him - various tortures await them. Noticeably, this group includes those with crowns and mitres on their heads. The devil seems to have some striped servants to help him with his task of pulling these malefactors into hell. One has the task of using bellows to stoke the fire beneath a cauldron where hapless sinners are being boiled. Its very size and the evident original brightness of the reds, green, blues, yellow and white makes this Doom one of the most interesting in the country.
To the right of the Doom is a later painting which is somewhat mystifying. It could be of the Seven Deadly Sins with Pride as the central figure or it could be a “Magnificence” image, a veiled attack on the wealthy Cardinal Wolsey who was Lord of the Manor of Oddington in the early 16th century. A small image of the Virgin Mary in the south chapel is thought to be even earlier than the Doom, possibly 13th century.
Set at the end of a narrow tree-lined lane in the beautiful scenery of the Cotswolds, with old tombstones in the churchyard leaning haphazardly in all directions, this is a particularly absorbing visit for the Slow Traveller.
Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, Warwickshire
This dramatic and striking Doom painting dominates the nave of Holy Trinity church, one of the largest medieval parish churches in England. It’s high and dark, so time is needed for eyes coming in from outside to adjust to the subdued light and make out the distinctive features of the picture. It is believed that the painting was done between 1430 and 1440; like others it was whitewashed over during the Reformation and rediscovered in the 19th century. Our medieval ancestors would have been faced with the stark message about their potential fate as soon as they entered the building: the image deliberately designed to prompt self-examination and a mending of any sinful tendencies, as defined by the Church. There may be particular urgency here as Coventry suffered an earthquake in 1426, leading citizens to believe that God’s retribution would strike at any evidence of wicked behaviour.
Christ is at the top, raising his hands in judgement, showing the marks of his crucifixion. Immediately below him is the orb of the world, divided into three parts, signifying the elements of earth, air and water. The Virgin Mary is on his right, St John the Baptist on his left. Mary bears her breast – a sign that she will intercede for the hapless humans below. Eleven of the apostles (there is no Judas) and St Paul sit either side of these two principal figures. St Peter’s key is found at his feet.
Two scrolls with wording from Matthew’s Gospel reinforce the message for those few in the congregation who would have been able to read Latin. Venite benedicti Patris Mei on the right, translating as Come Ye Blessed of My Father and Discedite a me maledicti in ignem aeternum – Depart from me Ye Cursed into the eternal fire.
The angels sound the Last Trumpet and the dead rise from their tombs, some partially wrapped in their shrouds. Two groups of figures are at Christ’s feet – those on the right with their hands in prayer, hopeful of salvation, those on the left already looking downcast as their fate is sealed. Kings, queens, cardinals and clerics are shown on both sides – indicating that status on earth is no determinant of a place in Heaven, all men and women will be judged equally before God.
On Christ’s right is the gateway to Heaven where the Saved may enter. On his left is the Mouth of Hell – a wide, gaping mouth of sharp teeth ready for the four pictured alewives who have presumably watered down their ale, and a group of chained figures - other malefactors of the 15th century world. The message is resoundingly clear - there is no escape from Damnation. It must have been an extremely powerful warning to those entering for worship. While the message no longer has the power to shock the 21st century traveller, it remains a wonderfully evocative picture of the beliefs of those who came before us.
The Beauchamp Chapel, Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick
It is unusual to find a Doom painting in a chantry chapel, but the elaborate Beauchamp Chapel has one, framing the window and balcony looking down on the tombs below. It may be that there was a painting here when the chapel was first built in the mid 15th century but it is known that this one was completed about 1634.
It is believed to be after the style of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The figures here show the development of painting since medieval times – they are human and lifelike, drawn with attention to the shape and proportions of the human body. There is a sense of perspective lacking in the earlier 15th century portrayals of men and women being judged and their destiny decided. However, the message to the observer is the same. Those on the right hand of Christ will find their reward in Heaven, those on the left, despite their protests, will descend into the flames of Hell.
It is this section of the painting that received the most damage in 1694 in the great fire of Warwick, so it is a little hard to identify exactly what is happening to the sinners but it is clear that their fate is a terrible one. It is interesting that this church was ready to commission an artist to paint this subject long after the Reformation, and shows the idea of God’s judgement on the last day, and the need to live a blameless life to enter the kingdom of Heaven, still held power over those who worshipped here.
The Painted Chamber in The Commandery, Worcester
(A doom painting in an unusual setting)
The Commandery in Worcester is best known as a military building – the HQ of Charles II’s armies during the battle of Worcester in 1651. Yet the building itself is far older – its origins lie in the 11th century when the land probably housed a Saxon chapel. It became a monastic hospital through the Middle Ages until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1540. It is probable that one particular room may have acted as an Infirmary for the sick and dying, with the walls painted at some point in the 15th century to convey Christian beliefs. Appropriately, the walls are portrayed with Christ and the saints, all instantly recognisable to medieval people, including St Peter holding the keys to the gates of Heaven.
Central to one wall is the depiction of the Weighing of Souls, encouraging patients to confess any sins before they were administered the last rites and came to the Day of Judgement. St Michael, wings outspread, holds the scales that weigh the good and evil deeds of a person’s life. On the left two malevolent devils pull down the scale with the evil nature of the dead soul inside it, on the right the Blessed Virgin Mary, with crown, flowing hair and elaborate robes, uses her rosary to raise the scale in which the goodness of that same soul’s nature is highlighted. The scales are well balanced – it is unclear at this point how they will fall. It’s a painting of high drama and leaves the onlooker (no doubt supine in a hospital bed looking up in awe) as to no doubt about its message.
The painting were only discovered in 1935, having been whitewashed over since the Reformation when ideas about purgatory, the value of “good works” and the Day of Judgement changed significantly and became abhorrent to Protestant reformers. These in the Painted Chamber are particularly fine as the colours, probably using iron oxide pigment on dry plaster, are very strong, with red and gold dominant and powerful.
They are a joy to see – and far more accessible than many similar church paintings which generally stand high above the Chancel and need you to develop a crick in the neck to view them properly. A visit to The Commandery is in itself very worthwhile, but this room is undoubtedly the highlight, with the Weighing of Souls an impressive and emotional reminder of the medieval mind.