Welcome to a new year and a short piece on how part of one of my blog posts became part of a youtube film.
I have to say that, after a cursory glance, that ‘Look it’s behind you! The Chaldon Doom painting’’is undoubtedly my most popular post with 4,205 views since it’s publication in 2018. It was a post about what may the oldest wall painting in England which is on the back wall of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chaldon, Surrey. This is an out of the way place as there’s no real village there. But the church is very picturesque and popular as a destination for walkers especialluy during the summer when there is cake and tea on sale on Sunday afternoons.
The actual title of the painting is the Purgatorial Ladder and was painted in order to instruct the congregation to live a righteous life. After death they were either destined for heaven or hell depending on if they had lived a righteous life. It’s an impressive piece and I did wonder how it might have felt when praying or listening to a sermon with the painting and its angels and demons behind you.
A man called,Richard Gandon from a film company called Eyedears contacted me last year as he’d created an animated explanation of the Chaldon Doom and posted it on youtube. He asked for permission to use my introduction from my blog post on the painting with accreditation. It is a short and accessible explanation of the painting’s elements such as the Seven Deadly Sins and well worth a look at.
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.
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:
Five child angels, their faces turned to each other, framed by small wings, except for one that was staring out at me, I wanted to reach out and touch them but didn’t want to damage them. They formed a roundel at the centre of a tall cross with the phrase ‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ inscribed at the base of its stem. I was on a tour of Beckenham Cemetery when I first saw them.
Our guide didn’t comment on them but the monument is in a prominent place on the main road through the cemetery and I often wondered about this pretty and poignant memorial.
On a visit to Highgate East in 2014 I found another example but on a smaller scale on a tombstone in the name of Alfred Hack and dated 1956. There is a distinctly 1930’s look about the angels from their hairstyles.
I also found another version which featured cherubs faces instead of childrens on a visit to Knebworth this summer.
Then , on a more recent visit to Beckenham Cemetery, I found another similar one which was only a short distance away from the first. In this the child angels seem to have more definite, individual faces and the one that has her head towards the viewer is looking down instead of outwards. Now I wanted to find out more about the quotation and the angels and my research led me to a Victorian hymn that was sung on the Titanic at its final service on board and by the inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp as the S.S led them in. The ‘angel faces’ is a quotation from ‘Lead, kindly Light’, in fact it’s the penultimate line and like ‘Rock of Ages’ it caught the mood of its time.
These are the lyrics:
‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not for ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on,
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.’
However, the writer John Henry Newman (1801-90), always refused to reveal the meaning of the ‘angels faces’ or what the ‘kindly light’ actually was.
Originally a poem, it was written by Newman in 1833. He was then a young theologian and Anglican vicar and was going through a challenging time in his life. Struck down by a fever which nearly killed him while travelling in the Mediterranean, Newman’s servant was so convinced that he would die that he asked him for his last orders. But in his autobiography, Newman told him ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light’.
Newman recovered but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Desperate to return to England he then took a boat from Palermo to Marseilles only to end up stranded and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio. Exhausted and frustrated Newman wrote the poem, ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ that, in 1845, became ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. Newman was not happy about this as by then he’d converted to Catholicism and hymn singing wasn’t included as part of divine service. He went onto become Cardinal Newman, one of the most important figures in English Catholicism, and also an important writer. In 1900 Elgar set Newman’s poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music.
‘Lead, Kindly Light’ has struck a chord with those in danger or about to enter the endless dark realm and needed the comfort of a light leading their way through it. Miners awaiting rescue from deep underground during the 1909 Durham mining disaster sang it as did the passengers on one of Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship, Carpathia, was sighted the morning after. It caught the Victorian mood perfectly as did ‘Rock of Ages’ and Queen Victoria asked for it to be read as she lay dying. It also inspired a celebrated painting by the Scottish artist, Sir Joseph Noel Paton in 1894 in which the angels are pensive young woman.
But why did one line from this song inspire two monuments in Beckenham Cemetery and one in Highgate East? I noticed that both of the Beckenham monuments were on children’s graves and that the carved angels were also children. Perhaps the mourning relatives left behind may have wanted the consolation that their beloved children would be waiting for them when their time came.
The first one is the Foster family monument. The epitaph is now virtually unreadable but I could make out the name ‘Francis Frederick’ carved along the base. There are two inscribed ‘Books of Life’ placed on top of the grave. One is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Gladys Alice Chapman and the other is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Emma Foster.
The second one is the Pace family monument and is to the two daughters of Henry William and Elizabeth Pace. These were Lilian Alice who died in 1888 and Grace Irene who died in 1903. Strangely enough they both died at the same age and Elizabeth herself is commemorated here as she died at 33 in 1912.
This is the one in Highgate East dedicated to Alfred Hack and dated 1956.
So, a line from a hymn that even its writer was unsure of its meaning, became a symbol of comfort to sorrowing families.
However the symbol has been adapted to feature cherubs as in St Mary’s, Knebworth’s churchyard. These are on the tombstone of the Lutyens family’s nanny, Alice Sleath.
But I am indebted to Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone for the possible origins on the image of the angels.
The composition of the five heads may have been adapted from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA entitled ‘Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon’ which was painted during July 1786 – March 1787. The sitter was the then 5 year old Frances Isabella Keir Gordon (1782-1831) who was the only daughter of illustrious parents. They were Lord William Gordon (1744-1823) and his wife Frances Ingram (1761-1841), second daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine (1727-78), who were married on 6 March 1781. Her uncle was Lord George Gordon (1751-93), whose political activities had sparked the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
Frances’ mother outlived her by 10 years and the painting was then presented to the National Gallery. It was enormously popular and was reproduced on numerous decorative items and photographic reproductions such as ‘The Cherub Choir.’
And so a poignant and powerful symbol was created from the combination of a great painting, an inspirational hymn and Victorian taste and led to these three lovely memorials to much missed children.