The priest’s sermon has made you feel a little drowsy as you sit in your pew. Then, as your eyelids begin to droop, suddenly you can smell burning and hear crackling flames….faint screams as well and devilish chuckling interspersed with angels singing…..there’s a sudden warmth behind your back and when you turn around, you’re confronted with gleeful demons faces on the whitewashed wall. Is one turning round and beckoning to you? Instantly you’re wide awake again with a nudge from your mother to sit up straight and you turn to face the priest again. But you can still hear the flames and the laughter…..
Chaldon’s Doom painting, or mural as the church prefers to call it, is reputed to be the oldest in England and has been dated to at least the 12th century. It’s believed to be the work of an anonymous artist monk. Until the 17th century it taught the local parishioners which was the right path to follow if you wanted to be going upwards to eternal bliss instead of down to hell for endless torment. The mural’s official title, according to the church’s website is The Purgatorial Ladder, or Ladder of Souls, with the Seven Deadly Sins. However tastes and doctrines change and after the Reformation many of England’s Dooms were whitewashed over. It was felt by zealous reformers that they didn’t follow strict Bible doctrine and were also considered to be ‘Popish’.
But Dooms have a habit of re-surfacing and so it was with the Chaldon Doom. In 1869, the then Rector, Reverend Henry Shepherd was having the church walls prepared for whitewashing when he suddenly noticed signs of colour and halted the work. The mural was then cleaned and preserved. There was a further conservation in 1989 by the Conservator and Director of the Canterbury Wall Paintings Workshop.
According to the painted church website, Dooms were the most commonly painted subject in the Middle Ages. Dooms were often placed on a church’s west wall as a reminder to parishioners as they were leaving the church. But, as at Chaldon, they were also on the back wall or at the front on the chancel arch as at St Thomas’s Salisbury. The Chaldon mural has the disturbing effect of constantly looking over your shoulder when you turn your back on it…..
The Chaldon Doom is large and measures 17ft x 11ft and stands out against the plain white washed walls. It’s painted entirely in red whereas other Dooms are in full colour. However it’s the only image in England of the Ladder of Salvation although it’s common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It’s behind the pews and would have been a constant reminder to the parishioners to be thinking of the afterlife. A medieval congregation would have been illiterate and the Doom would have resembled a picture book or public information film on what could happen to sinners in eternity. They needed to prepare for the Final Judgement and, due to a shorter lifespan, the afterlife was much more to the forefront of the medieval mind than ours. A Doom is a traditional English term for a pictorial rendition of the Last Judgement or Doomsday which is the moment when Christ decides the eternal destination of human souls. This is because the Church was very concerned with how to portray the afterlife in a visual way that could be easily understood. After all a picture is worth a 1000 words…
There are roughly 40 surviving Dooms in Britain but in the 1880’s over 100 were recorded. They can often combine several themes: the parable of the sheep and the goats, assorted Biblical prophecies and other medieval traditions. The Chaldon mural uses the Seven Deadly Sins.
There’s only two choices for the dead as they arise from their graves to go up to Heaven and sitting around on clouds playing harps or down to Hell and the eternal flames. However Purgatory was also uppermost in the medieval mind as people believed that, prior to going to Heaven, a soul would have to spend time there before going up to Heaven. Chaldon’s Ladder represents Purgatory.
To interpret the Chaldon Doom and its crowded canvas you need to begin at the lower right of the painting and look for the serpent in the tree of life which is a metaphor for the fall of man. This is a rough guide from a Chaldon church pamphlet and imagine the priest using it to preach to his flock:
Two demons hold up a bridge of spikes over which dishonest tradesmen have to cross. These include a blacksmith, spinner, potter and mason who are all missing essential tools. The cheating milkman is about to climb the ladder with a brimming bowl of milk due to having given short measure in life.
Then we come onto the 7 Deadly Sins:
Avarice: A moneylender sits in flames as two demons hold him upright. He’s blind and money pours from his mouth. He has to count it all as it flows into his pouch.
Envy: There are two figures on the right hand side of the moneylender. One of them has longer hair than the other.
Lust: On the moneylender’s left hand side are two figures embracing.
On the left hand side of the ladder a demon plucks souls from the ladder of salvation.
Pride: A woman is beside a demon as a devil wolf gnaws at her hands. This could indicate either pride in her hands or that she fed her pets too well in life while ignoring the starving.
Anger: Above the woman two figures fight over a hunting horn. Two demons throw what are considered to be murderers into a cauldron.
Gluttony: A drunken pilgrim lies at the feet of a demon. He’s sold his cloak or badge of office in order to buy wine.
Sloth: At the far left 3 women dawdle.
A cloud bisects the picture to form a cross and the foot of the Ladder is the symbol of life. The Archangel Michael is weighing the good and bad deeds as the Devil slyly has a hand on the scales trying to weigh it down with bad deeds as he holds a rope dragging souls to hell. A penitent tries to point out to St Michael what the Devil is up to. The 3 Marys are being led to Heaven by an angel as another one above them helps a remorseful thief ascend to the Pearly Gates.
Elijah and Enoch are also going upwards to bliss on the right of the ladder as an angel holds up a scroll of their good deeds. Above them another of the heavenly host hold up a scroll which says ‘open ye the gates that the righteous may enter.’
On the far right the Lord is mesmerizing the Devil with his cross while welcoming Old Testament characters into Heaven and finally above the ladder is the demi figure of Christ in the act of benediction.
He has the sun on his right hand side and the moon on the left.
For a fuller explanation I can recommend: http://www.paintedchurch.org/chaldon.htm
Chaldon church is near Coulsdon in Surrey and its correct name is St Peters & St Pauls.
It’s a lovely picture, postcard church with a candle snuffer tower but it’s in the middle of nowhere except for a scattering of nearby houses. There’s no village attached to it and it’s on the notorious Ditches Lane which leads off Farthing Downs. This can be a lonely road for walkers as there are no houses along it until you reach the church. Chaldon church is rumoured to have been built on a pagan site and there has been a church here since 1086 AD. Its foundations have been dated back to 727AD. I find it strange that such a magnificent and dramatic mural was located in such an out of the way place. It really took me by surprise when I first saw it as it’s so in your face. But as I turned away from it I thought I heard devilish sniggering and wondered what it must have look like under flickering candlelight.
There are other Doom paintings to be seen in England and these are:
South Leigh, Checkendon and Coombe – Oxfordshire
Stratford upon Avon, Worcs (this is in glass)
York Minster (a crypt carving)
St Thomas’s church, Salisbury
I have seen the one in Salisbury and was really impressed. It’s in full colour and is over the chancel arch to greet worshippers. Christ sits on a rainbow at the centre of the chancel arch with the godly rising from their graves with angels whereas on the left the sinners are being helped by demons to go down below. This again was whitewashed over and then re appeared. Here are a small selection of images from it:
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
Reference and further reading
Dooms with a View, Cathy Howard, FONC News Summer 2007
Chaldon Church mural leaflet
Restoration Village, Philip Wilkinson, English Heritage, 2006
Restoration Village, Philip Wilkinson, English Heritage, 2006
http://www.paintedchurch.org/sleig7ds.htm – South Leigh Oxfordshire 7 Deadly Sins
http://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1972/long.pdf – overview of medieval wall paintings in Oxfordshire including Dooms
http://www.paintedchurch.org/mmoret1.htm – Marston Moretaine, Beds