Saturday, June 20, 2009

Roof Decorations of the Choir and Presbytery

The Decorations of the Roof of the choir and presbytery are reproductions by Messrs. Clayton and Bell of the original paintings, which dated probably from the thirteenth century. The series, commencing from the west, shows twenty-four prophets and saints, all, with the exception of St. John the Baptist, selected from the Old Testament. Taking them in lines parallel with the choir screen, the first row contains (reading from the left, as one faces the altar): Zechariah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and St. John the Baptist; the second: Zacharias, Joel, Hosea, and Zephaniah; the third: Job, Habakkuk, Nahum, David; the fourth: Moses, Micah, Jonah, and Jacob; the fifth: Malachi, Obadiah, Amos, and Isaac; and the sixth: Haggai, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Abraham. In the square of the transept crossing are (following the same order): St. Thomas and St. Andrew, St. Matthew and St. John, St. Philip and St. Simon, St. Bartholomew and St. Matthias. At the left the last panel on that side contains St. Peter and St. Andrew, while another in the opposite corner has St. James and St. John. In the centre is a figure of Christ, in majesty, surrounded by the four evangelists.

From this point to the east the panels are devoted to secular subjects typifying the twelve months, "The signs of the Zodiac," Price calls them: January, warming at a fire; February, drinking wine; March, delving; April, sowing; May, hawking; June, flowers; July, reaping; August, threshing; September, fruit; [54]October, brewing; November, cutting wood; December, killing the fatted pig. The originals were white, or rather buff-washed, in the last century. Owing to the tenacity of this wash, and the friable non-adhesive quality of the paint it covered, it was found impossible to remove the additional coating without destroying the original paintings. Tracings of some of them were made by Messrs. Clayton and Bell; but although the semi-transparent character of the buff wash allowed the subjects to be discerned from below; on nearer inspection the details became blurred and shapeless.

The theory that the paintings of the choir had been re-painted before their defacement by buff wash seems hardly likely from the state reported by the restorers. The idea probably arose from an extract, itself possibly interpolated, frequently quoted from one edition of Defoe's "Tour through the Island of Great Britain:" "The choir resembles a theatre rather than a venerable choir of a church; it is painted white with the panels golden, and groups and garlands of roses and other flowers intertwined run round the top of the stalls; each stall hath the arms of its holder in gilt letters or blue writ on it; and the episcopal throne with Bishop Ward's arms upon it would make a fine theatrical decoration, being supported by gilt pillars and painted with flowers upon white all over. The roof of the choir hath some fresh painting, containing several saints as big as life, each in a circle by itself and holding a label in their hands telling who they are. The altar piece is very mean, and behind this altar, in the Virgin Mary's Chapel, are some very good monuments." But in the first edition of the same book Defoe himself says: "The inside is certainly hurt by the paltry old paintings in and over the choir, and the whitewashing badly done, wherein they have very stupidly everywhere drawn black lines to imitate joints of stone." In another edition of 1724 the passage reads: "The painting in the choir is mean and more like the ordinary method of Common Drawing Room or Tavern painting than that of a church." Whatever be the actual value of the painting on its own merits, as a record faithfully transcribed of very early roof-decoration, it has an interest of its own far beyond much more important work of later periods.

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