Saturday, September 28, 2013
St George: martyr, knight, protector
In about 1410 the walls of St Lawrence's church, Broughton were decorated with a very striking series of wall paintings. Rather less that 140 years later these paintings were whitewashed over as part of the iconoclasm associated with the English Reformation. They lay beneath the whitewash until the building was restored in 1849, when they were rediscovered, the whitewash was removed, and some of the images were retouched. What was revealed, and what is there now includes: a painting of the Doom showing St Michael weighing souls, the walls of the Heavenly City and the mouth of Hell; a Pietà surrounded by figures thought to represent a warning to swearers; portraits of Saints Helena and a Bishop-Saint, probably Eligius; and this painting of St George slaying the dragon.
The upper part of St George's body has not survived (this was a casualty of a roof replacement), but the remaining part of the painting, above the South door of the church, is still remarkable. The horse, especially its head, and the saint's plate armour are carefully drawn, with a strong line. The dragon is even more amazing, with its ribbed wing, curling tail ending in a small head, and its main head, striped, toothed, and with pointed ears. Behind this exotic beast, the small figure of the princess (in late-medieval costume, with lamb) is rather insignificant, but no doubt she had more presence when he original detail was visible.
Although, as is well known, St George did not come from England, he has long been associated with the country, as well as with knightly virtues and a propensity to protect those in need. He was a popular saint, and a prayer by the poet Lydgate (who was alive when this painting was done) puts him in a list of ten martyr-saints, also including Christopher and Catherine, who had the power to assist devotees in the attainment of their everyday wants and needs. Perhaps it's appropriate that the worshipper in this church saw, on entering, the rather frightening Doom painting, with its fearsome hell-mouth, but, on leaving, saw above the door the protective figure of St George, who would stand by them as they went out again into the world.
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St Lawrence, Broughton, is one the churches in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. I have blogged before about the Trust's work. They deserve our support.