Saturday, 31 July 2021

In the Vale of Glamorgan

Around c.650 AD the picturesque hamlet of Llanfarcan was a thriving centre of Christianity. It was here that St. Cadoc built a monastery which by the year c. 800 was a flourishing centre of learning. Despite destruction by the Danes, Llancarfan monastery continued to be the most powerful ecclesiastical community in Glamorgan. It did not, however, survive the Norman invasion, and the Abbey's responsibility then passed to the Abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester. 

St. Cadoc

Although nothing now remains of the monastery, St. Cadoc still retains a presence in the form of the local parish church, where the buildings simple chancel arch suggests a foundation date of around 1200.

Fifteen years ago when work was being carried out to the interior walls due to damage by Death Watch Beetle, peices of limewash fell off them. This revealed red painted lines which indicated the presence of medieval wall paintings. As the church is Grade 1 ⭑ listed it was necessary to employ specialist conservationists and it has taken years and years of work to reveal the paintings. The images painted in 1500 may seem macbre to our eyes, but they were done to convey to a largely illiterate population graphic scenes of the consequences of sin. 

In England I have seen several medieval 'Doom Walls', as they are collioquially named here, which graphically show the Last Judgement i.e the differences between heaven and hell, but the paintings on the walls in St. Cadoc's, Wales use a different approach. 

Covered in over 27 layers of lime wash for almost 500 years, the paintings show St. George and the Dragon, Death and the Gallant, and six of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The King and Queen peer through the castles battlements seemingly in great dismay.

As their daughter, the Princess, plays in the grounds below with her dog unaware of the dragon coming to get her.
But in rides St. George to the rescue, he slays the dragon, and saves the princess. The Virgin Mary is shown to the right bestowing her blessings on St. George.

St George was adopted by the English during the Crusades and later became the patron saint of England whose qualities many sought to emulate; therefore a positive role model that Christians could aspire to. 

Dancing with Death - the Gallant (knight) and the Cadaver (skeleton)

This painting depicts an elegant 15th century young man holding hands with a skeleton. The skeleton is wearing a shroud and appears to be leading the knight out through the window and into the graveyard beyond.

It is difficult to photograph them standing together as the Gallant is on the interior wall whilst the skeleton is featured pulling the Gallant's arm around the corner into the inset window wall. A toad can just be made out on the skeleton's chest, just seen to the left of the snake-like worm's head. We know that it is a worm and not a snake - the lines on it are segments not scales. The Cadavers lips are open in an awful grin. It still has eyes, and tufts of hair hang from the neck. This painting has been done by a completely different hand and is considered to be far older than the other paintings.

The 7 deadly sins

A multi-headed beast along with several small devils lure mortals into transgressions to condemn their souls forever into everlasting punishment. 

Accidia/sloth

The suicidal victim of sloth has reached the depressive limits of monastic isolation. He is in spiritual gloom, cast into despair. His commitment, perhaps faith, withers in hopelessness. Helped by the tempting demon, the sinner falls upon his sword. 

Note: I have difficulty in understanding this representation and description of sloth. However, although today sloth is acquainted with laziness in the medieval period it was a spiritual sin as mentioned above.  

The lower part of this image shows Luxuria/Lust

The young couple seem to our eyes to be involved in nothing more than a cuddle, but the fiery mouth beneath them gives out the warning. 

Superbia/Pride

Here is an attractive young man who clearly aspires above his worldly rank. His lower quarters sit on a humble wooden bench, while blatantly infringing clothing prohibions. Pride is also crossing his legs which according to medieval iconographic tradition casts him as a 'wrong doer'. By contrast his upper half is regally clad, his shoulders heavy with ermine, as two grosteque acolytes place a crown upon his head.

Gula/Gluttony

It will be apparent that Gluttony is more often than not linked to drink and the hostelry, as is the wonderfully-painted glutton on St.Cadoc's wall. He may look like Desperate Dan devouring his cow pie in the Dandy comic, but he is in truth a slave to the medieval tavern.

Avaricia/Avarice

The miser represents the archetype of avaricious characters. His covetous hand grasps at a bagful of money whilst his desires are being stimulated by the number of golden coins which the tempting devils continue to pour into the coffers before him. 

Ira/Anger 

The image on the right shows a horned demon, his wild eyes and salaciously curving tongue, relishes the conflict he is promoting between two very young men, identically clad and certainly not dressed for battle. 

The final sin Invidia/Envy appears to be missing. However, at the very bottom of the above image is a man lying on the ground - it is possible to just make out his legs and lower part of his body - could this be Envy?


39 comments:

  1. What vibrant and vivacious art! Not the cheeriest of subject-matters, true, but yowza! It was well worth uncovering -- a treasure! I especially like St George.

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    1. It is quite amazing that they have been covered over in layers of limewash for well over 500 years.

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  2. How wonderful to see these great efforts of art that are so ancient! Thanks so much.

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    1. my pleasure Barbara - I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing them.

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  3. Hi Rosemary. This is fascinating! Are they still in the process of uncovering the wall paintings? Will there be more details revealed? I would assume the entire church must have been decorated at one time. Thank you for sharing this! I am a medievalist at heart and we have no medieval buildings on this side of the pond! I really enjoy your explorations!

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    1. These Doom paintings were usually painted on the West wall where the exit door is, so that the parishioners would be reminded of their message as they left the church. They were also often painted on the chancel arch as a constant reminder to the congregation whilst a service was in progress.

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  4. What amazing paintings to discover hidden away for centuries. The red colour would have been quite striking in the original. The subject matter is rather gruesome, but in an illiterate age would have conveyed meaning quite clearly. I love the details you included in this post.

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    1. I have had an interest in these hidden medieval paintings for a long time so was pleased to have the opportunity to visit this little hamlet in Wales to see these.

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  5. Hello Rosemary, I think these paintings are great. I'm so glad they found and restored them. The only problem is that I think the demons and monsters are cute, so I'm not sure they would have cured me of any of these sins.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - I too am pleased that they have been found and carefully restored, but I didn't realise before that you are so mischievous!!!

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  6. The limewash is what has saved the paintings in many cases, otherwise they would have faded long ago. Those are some of the best preserved (and conserved) paintings I've ever seen.

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    1. It was very a destructive act at the time of the Reformation when these paintings were covered over, but the blessing is, as you mention, they would have faded long ago.

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  7. I suspect that at one time or another most of us have committed these alleged sins. So far in my case they have not proved deadly, and I doubt that I am yet finished with them!

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    1. Oh dear David! you are the second person to comment here and reveal that you are not that saintly.

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  8. Amazing they have survived enough to be restored in such fine detail. Mention of Danes at that time got me thinking as I recently watched Vikings, a series about the first visits to England, pillage of churches, and land grabs into what eventually became Danelaw over large chunks of England yet the series was set in the Norwegian fjords and high mountains, not flat Denmark. Similar to William Wallace charging about the Scottish Highlands in various films when he actually came from the lowlands. Truth overlooked because people expect something more dramatic than a guy from the flat lands of Paisley. At least the paintings restored there are the genuine article without the need for anything else added in as so much history we tend to accept as fact as been distorted with each generation, especially by the Victorians if it conflicted with their perceived values at that time, something modern restoration workers can hopefully avoid. Funnily enough, the Devil usually looks happy in old works whereas the saints are always depicted as pious and miserable, usually suffering. Conclusion...Fallen angels have a lot more fun.

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    1. I have come to the same conclusion when looking at these Doom Walls.

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  9. Dearest Rosemary,
    Wow, what a tedious task of restoring those original paintings from over 500 years ago.
    It gives us a very unique insight in the visual teachings about sins back then!
    Indeed, how few people were literate at that time?
    Wonderful post.
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Dear Mariette - fortunately many churches here are now discovering their medieval 'Doom Walls' which were actually protected over the hundreds of years by the limewash. They are a great and very interesting legacy which gives us a first hand glimpse into the far distant past.

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  10. How fabulous, Death Watch Beetles guide the world to a Doom Wall! You must wonder if the reason the murals were painted over was because the frightening imagery had lost its potency, in the same way that overexposure to gory and scary stuffs today are hard to raise reactions with viewers.

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    1. More and more of these 'Doom Walls' keep coming to light, but fortunately for us they have slept undisturbed. They were actually covered over during the Reformation, and the whole concept was lost. That is, until the Victorians revived the tradition. However, their paintings are very sophisticated unlike the lovely naive paintings of their medieval ancestors.

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  11. It is wonderful that modern scientific methods of restoration can reveal these long-hidden paintings. They are a bit gruesome, but also imaginative and clever. How lovely that you can now be out and about and can visit them. Be safe.

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    1. We hope to travel up to Yorkshire in September, all being well, and I intend to visit another church there which has a really splenid Doom Wall.

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  12. Wonderful that they survived under all those layers of lime wash, and that they have now been revealed.

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    1. The naivety if these paintings very much adds to their appeal.

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  13. Hello; I really liked this entry, this story, the documentation of it, very interesting.
    Thanks for sharing it.
    Happy week.
    Best regards.

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    1. Thank you very much José - I appreciate your kind comment.

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  14. Dear Rosemary,
    This is a most beautiful post.

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    1. Dear Gina - thank you very much and pleased that you liked it. Hope all is well with you.

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  15. It is shocking that they covered up the art, likely when the religion changed, but after seeing it I can sympathize.

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    1. It was too catholic for prostestant faiths. However, the limewash has preserved it for over 500 years otherwise it would have faded.

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  16. Those paintings are just AMAZING! It´s history and so interesting...
    Great post!
    Love from Titti

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    1. It was very much a case of fire and brimstone threats for the ordinary citizen back in medieval times.
      I am so pleased that you found the paintings and history of interest - thanks Titti.

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  17. Dear Rosemary, thank you for those amazing pictures! This innocent but not (!) simpleminded way to depict our world and the one above touches the heart (at least mine) without any "rational" protection (maybe I cannot make it clear what I mean. Same in literature of early times: "Beowulf" knocks me over, always.

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    1. Dear Britta - I wholeheartedly agree with you.
      The medieval message in these paintings would have been very clear to their illiterate audience.

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