Thursday, February 9, 2012

South Leigh, Oxfordshire

Seeing double

St James the Great, South Leigh has some of my favourite medieval wall paintings – although some of these paintings are probably not quite as medieval as they seem. One of the most striking is this wonderful St Michael Weighing Souls. The archangel stands with his scales next to the Virgin Mary, who, with the aid of her rosary, pushes the scale pan to ensure that the soul receives a favourable weighing; to the right, devils, including one with a flesh hook (a medieval kitchen utensil) try to push the scales the other way. Through prayer, the image seems to say, Our Lady will intercede on our behalf, the flesh-hook-wielding devils will be defeated, and all will be well. Both the Virgin and St Michael are drawn with flair: Mary is calm and graceful, her robes falling in generous folds; the Archangel has wonderful feathered limbs and an enormous sword that a mere human would need two hands to brandish.

Look more closely, and the painting reveals another secret. A horizontal band runs past the shoulders of the Virgin and St Michael and turns vertically downwards, forming part of the frame of an earlier painting; between the two saints is the faint image of another, much smaller, figure – seemingly another portrait of the Virgin. She forms part of an earlier depiction of the same scene, at a smaller scale. So we have a large image of the Soul-Weighing, together with part of a smaller depiction of the same subject, together with the upper and right-hand parts of its frame. At some point, someone repainted the image, hoping to do it more justice by giving it more room.

When was the image repainted? For a long time the large version we see today was accepted as 15th-century, with the smaller version dated as maybe 14th-century. But more recent accounts, including that in the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire and another in an article by John Edwards in Oxoniensa, suggest that it’s the work of Victorian restorers Burlisson and Grylls, working in the 1870s. The church’s original medieval paintings, having been whitewashed over in the 17th century, were rediscovered during the 1870s restoration and partly repainted, and the Soul-Weighing picture seems to have been increased in size in the process. Burlisson and Grylls obliterated the earlier, smaller soul-weighing and its ghostly frame, but this was rediscovered in a subsequent restoration in 1933. So now we have a double image to confuse us.

I suppose the scholars are right: it’s a Victorian image, although its palette, the fading areas, the costumes, and details from scales to flesh-hook certainly have a late-medieval feel. What does feel completely Victorian, though is the border. This must have been painted by someone who knew about William Morris. And Burlisson and Grylls, who started out as stained-glass artists, were certainly disciples of Morris at the beginning of their careers. Burlisson, Grylls, their employer the vicar Gerard Moultrie (Tractarian, hymnologist, educationalist), the restorers of 1933, the various artists who influenced them all, and the anonymous medieval painter who started the whole process going: English parish churches were made by many hands and the marks made by those hands are many, varied, and fascinating.

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