The Medieval Doom Painting
This article appears with the the kind permission of S A Wright & Assoc.
Chartered Architect, Coventry
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hear the music (Felix Namque - Anon c1400)
The blackened area above the Chancel
Arch has seldom drawn the attention of visitors to Holy
Trinity. Those who did glance up may have discerned a face amidst
the gloom and part of a foot dripping with blood; small windows onto a
mediveval "Doom painting, a hidden gem only now being recognised as
one of the "finest and most extensively preserved" works of
its kind in England.
The Doom was orignally discovered beneath
limewash in 1831, Local artist David Gee was paid to restore it and
apply a varnish coating to the work, but this rapidly darkened and by
1855 most of the painting was obscured. By 1873 it was described
as 'almost invisible'.
At the turn of the century cleaning work
uncovered the face of Christ, but by the 1980's it was feared that most
of the picture had been lost for ever beneath the blackened
surface. Close examination however, and the cleaning of two small
areas just above the crossing arch, revealed that much of the work still
In 1990 a routine inspection of the spire disclosed alarming
structural problems. It was clear that vibrations, from the major
repairs needed, might cause damage to the Doom painting, so with the
help and advice of English Heritage a symposium was held at Holy Trinity
in 1995. Experts from many different disciplines gathered to
discuss the assessment, preservation and conservation of the
painting. A plan of action was agreed, a team was assembled and
initial investigation began.
The immediate concern was the
deterioration of the painting and the need to
stabilise it before work could begin on the spire.
its preservation, the nature of previous work carried out and the
various types of decay present. The work was photographed,
recorded and examined using ultraviolet and infrared light.
Emergency conservation was then carried out using techniques which would
not compromise or rule out further treatment in the future.
darkening of the coating applied in 1831 was obvious, but it also had
contracted, pulling the underlying paint off its backing. Tests
showed that deionised water relaxed the coating and this allowed the
conservators to temporarily refix much of the flaking paint, stabilising
the picture and preventing further paint loss in the future.
ultra violet light reflectography and infrared, disclosed a wealth of
detail even in areas where the painting appeared to have been
lost. They also revealed for the first time that the painting was
substantially complete and original, with no evidence of the large scale
restoration' thought to have been carried out by Gee.
Minute samples of paint taken for analysis showed that the medieval
artist used very sophisticated techniques in his work. Egg and oil
were used as binders for the pigments and different coloured grounds
produced certain effects when the upper paint layers were added.
Thick black underpainting for the green reduced light scatter, thereby
intensifying the colour. A complex mixture using red-lead gave
warmth to the overlying gold leaf and different techniques and pigments
were used to denote the fresh and dried blood on Christ's feet.
Finally a variety of glazes were applied to further enhance the
brilliance of the colours.
As the small areas of cleaning have shown, the final painting would
have been a very powerful and commanding presence within the church.
Once emergency conservation
had been completed, a computer based environmental monitoring
programme was implemented, to record various factors whic might be damaging
the painting, including relative humidity, ambient and surface
temperature, visible light and ultraviolet light.
Analysis of the
results showed that high levels of visible and ultraviolet light were
causing flaking, loss of paint and general deterioration. This
damage was being worsened by the church heating system which caused very
rapid changes in the relative humdity, resulting in expansion and
contraction of the painting and in particular the coating.
'Doom or 'Last Judgement paintings depicting the
image of judgement, blessing and damnation described in Matthew 25, were a
familiar and striking site to medieval church goers.
''When the Son of Man comes in His glory
and all the angels with him, He will sit on his throne,...He
will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from
the goats, and He will place the sheep on His right hand and the goats on
His left. Then the king will say to those on His right hand, "You have
my Father's blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready
for you since the world was made..." Then He will say to those on his
left hand, "The curse is upon you; go from my sight to the eternal fire that
is ready for the devil and his angels....." (Matthew 25 v31-34
Until recently, a water-colour by Nathaniel Troughton, c1860 was, the only guide to the appearance of this Doom painting.
Investigation has now shown his depiction to be fairly reliable.
Christ sits in the centre with the twelve disciples on either
side. To His right kneels Mary amidst the dead rising from their
graves. Above them is the stair to heaven. To Christ's left
kneels John the Baptist below him the souls of the damned are propelled
by demons towards the open jaws of hell.
The Doom painting was obviously
completed after the raising of the clerestory, it lies across the line of
the original, steeper roof. Architectural analysis showed that this
alteration, usually put at the end of the 1400's, actually dates from
c.1400-1425. An examination of the style, iconography and costumes
depicted in the Doom confirmed this pointing to a painting date of
Detailed investigation of
the painting has shown that it is substantially intact beneath the blackened
varnish, predominantly original and of a complexity and sophistication hitherto
unrealised. It is one of the "finest and most extensively preserved
late medieval 'Last Judgement' wall paintings in England'
|The Present - September 2002
he conservators have revisited the
site periodically since 1995, both to ensure that
the painting has remained stable and to carry out cleaning tests to
determine the most effective method for removing the coating.
Experimental photography using infrared film was carried out in 1998 and
proved successful that the whole of the painting has been recorded in
this way, revealing a wealth of detail invisible to the naked eye.
with the spire repairs complete, the cleaning of the painting has
begun. The conservators will be on site for nine months, gradually
revealing the hidden glories of the Doom. As they carry out the
painstaking cleaning work, work is also underway on the manufacture of
special light filters for the clerestory windows. These are
a unique design, specifically for Holy Trinity and will dramatically
reduce the ultraviolet and infrared light reaching the painting.
you would like to know more, please visit the exhibition in the church.
S Walford Copyright 2002 SA Wright & Assoc
Chartered Architect, Coventry.