It’s behind you! – The Doom painting of Chaldon Church

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:

Detail of Chaldon Doom showing the bridge of spikes over which dishonest tradesmen have to walk over with a moneylender sitting in flames with Envy and Lust on either side of him.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Detail of Chaldon Mural. Glottony clutching hi bottle of wine.
©Anne Mitchell. Used without permission

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.

Detail of Chadon Mural. The Weighing of the Souls. Three naked women walk towards the Ladder as an angel points the way.
©Anne Mitchell. Used without permission

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.’

Detail of Chaldon mural. Supposedly based on the Harrowing of Hell as Satan lies on top of a huge worm like creature and an angel tranfixes him with a banner/ Redeemed souls climb the Ladder as another angel helps one climb.
©Anne Mitchell. Used without permission

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.

View of Chadon church, Surrey.
©Carole Tyrrell

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

Wenhaston, Sufoollk

Dauntsey, Wilts

Patcham, Sussex

Penn, Bucks

Oddington, Glos

Symington, Beds

Lutterworth, Leics

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.stthomassalisbury.co.uk/documents/history-heritage/9-the-doom-painting-guide/file

http://www.paintedchurch.org/doomcon.htm

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://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/suffolk/suffolk_three/wenhaston/index.html

http://www.paintedchurch.org/dauntdoo.htm

http://www.allsaintspatcham.org.uk/page9.html

http://www.medievalchurchart.com/2017/10/the-penn-doom-buckinghamshire.html

http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/cotswolds/gloucestershire/gloucestershire_two/lower_oddington/index.html

http://www.paintedchurch.org/mmoret1.htm – Marston Moretaine, Beds

https://www.leicestershirechurches.co.uk/lutterworth-church-st-marys/

https://www.stratfordguildchapel-friends.org.uk/the-wall-paintings

http://www.mondes-normands.caen.fr/angleterre/archeo/Angleterre/sculpture/doomstone.htm

https://www.quora.com/What-were-medieval-doom-paintings-and-what-were-they-used-for-What-is-their-importance

http://www.paintedchurch.org/doomcon.htm

http://www.lazerhorse.org/2014/06/08/medieval-doom-paintings/#

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/cambridgeshire/hi/people_and_places/religion_and_ethics/newsid_8605000/8605860.stm

 

 

 

 

 

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Symbol of the Month   – The Cadaver tomb

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds.  These medieval tombs  were an extremely visual  way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.

It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having  admired its magnificent hammerbeam with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.

I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.

Another full length from the feet up of Benet’s cadaver tomb with the modesty cloth.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb.  This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’.  This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death.  Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:

‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’

This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’.  This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the gisant of the deceased as they were when alive and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse.  This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.

Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s.  St Pauls’ cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne.  Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe and particularly in Italy, France. Germany and the Netherlands.

But who was John Benet?

According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors.  He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade.  This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life.  Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….

John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town  which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted.   It originally lay in his own private chapel.  This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling  which was restored in 1968.   You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling.  Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration.  The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:

’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services.  It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved.  The letter ‘S’  which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’

The restored ceiling of what once was the ceiling of John Benet’s private chapel.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.

There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’  Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.

The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.

Now there’s an  interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen.  It may have been created in the  nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops.  This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving would also confirm this.

Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read.  In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’.  Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:

‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

 A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated has obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory.  Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see.  I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.

The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern

This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal.   The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’

It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate.   But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck.  So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see.    I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

References and further reading: 

St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.

Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973

https://flickeringlamps.com/2015/01/03/a-most-macabre-tomb-in-lincoln-cathedral/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadaver_tomb