Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire
Several times I’ve visited the small church of Stoke Orchard, not far from Cheltenham. The main reason that Stoke Orchard is famous is because of its medieval wall paintings. They are doubly rare, first in that they survive at all and second because they depict a series of stories about St James of Compostela, an unusual saint to to celebrated on such a scale in an English parish church.
These paintings are well known among experts, and even have a mention in one of my favourite short novels, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country. In the book* the narrator Tom Birkin, a restorer of wall paintings who has just returned home from the trenches of World War I, has arrived in the fictional village of Oxgodby to uncover a wall painting in the parish church: ‘I willed it to be something good, really splendid, really astonishing. Like Stoke Orchard or Chalgrove.¶ Something to wring a mention from The Times and a detailed account (with pictures) in the Illustrated London News.’
Tom Birkin indeed finds something good. But what would a real Birkin think if he visited Stoke Orchard today? He’d probably be saddened that the paintings had faded so much, but at least his knowledge of their iconography would enable him to work out what they depict. If I tell you that the fragments in the image above are some of the clearest that remain, you will get the picture. Or not.
Fortunately the Birkin role of explicator is taken at Stoke Orchard by a series of panels with explanations and old images that are somewhat clearer than the real thing. They reveal that the section above, which you'll have to click on to have chance of seeing much at all, depicts part of the ‘Hermogenes episode’ of James’s story. Hermogenes was an evil magician whom St James converted to Christianity. In one part of the story, Hermogenes asks for the saint’s help in overcoming demons, and the magician is given James’s staff to help him. This image shows Philetus (left), an associate of the magician whom James has also converted, handing Hermogenes the staff.
English medieval church wall paintings are nearly always faint and hard to make out, having been whitewashed over during the iconoclasm of the 17th century, to be uncovered† by dedicated Birkin-figures in the 19th or 20th. Many look as if they are at the end of a long uneven cinematic slow fade and their faded state is sad. Unlike some vigorous medieval stone carvings§ that look as if they could have been done yesterday, they actually look their age, and more. But repeated visits, frequent changes of viewing position, and steady scrutiny make looking at them rewarding and worthwhile and moving too.
* A Month in the Country is widely available as a Penguin Modern Classic.
¶ In Oxfordshire, another church with outstanding paintings.
† Pevsner’s Buildings of England Volume, Gloucestershire 2: The Vale and the Forest of Dean says that the Stoke Orchard paintings were ‘mostly uncovered in 1952–56 by Clive Rouse”, making it anachronistic of J L Carr to make his hero mention them in 1918, but A Month in the Country is a novel, after all.
§ Some medieval carvings have of course been recarved by later restorers, confusing this neat picture.