On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.
Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.
Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey
This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.
Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.
Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey
Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.
Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey
In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.