Holy Trinity Church Coventry.

The Medieval Painting

This article appears with the the kind permission of S A Wright & Assoc. Chartered Architect, Coventry

 Try here if you cannot hear the music  (Felix Namque  - Anon c1400)

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Brief History

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 medieval "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 originally 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 existed.

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.

Emergency Conservation

The immediate concern  was the deterioration  of the painting and the need to stabilise it before work could begin on the spire.

Conservators assessed 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.

The 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.



Examinations using 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.

Environmental Monitoring

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 and 41)


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 c1430-1440.

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.

Now, 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.

If you would like to know more, please visit the exhibition in the church.

Text S Walford Copyright 2002  SA Wright & Assoc
Chartered Architect, Coventry.

Work is being grant aided by the HERITAGE LOTTERY FUND

 19th September 2004 update editorial note from the webmaster: The Doom painting is now fully restored but this article will remain on this website for historical interest and information purposes.