The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering is known for its Medieval wall paintings, one of the most complete sets in Britain. Kate Giles gave us an excellent and lively talk on the wall paintings and donated her lecturer fee to the restoration fund. Any errors in this article, written up from my notes, should be attributed to myself, as editor.
The building, thought to date from about 1140, probably stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon church, about which little is known. In the mid and late 12th century, new arcades and aisles were added to the basic church – a sign of there being a good sized local population and a certain amount of patronage. Further rebuilding, in the Gothic style occurred in the 14th century. Kate explained how the obsession with ‘purgatory’ in the Middle Ages led to the addition of many chantry chapels to churches, enabling more prayers for the dead, which could help speed their way out of this state of purging their souls of sin. The wall paintings were thought to have been commissioned, probably from itinerant painters, in the mid 15th century after the nave walls had been raised and a clerestory added, to give more light. The laity became better educated as the paintings functioned to help explain the stories of the saints and as an aid to worship – in other words, they acted as the poor man’s bible. Kate commented that some art historians are a little ‘sniffy’ about 15th century paintings, believing them to be somewhat primitive, but she thinks they give a real feel for the times.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation, about 100 years later, the artworks had been painted over and by the end of the 16th century, probably nobody remembered them. At this period, the clergy were nervous about the idolatry of saints and the Pickering paintings had included depictions of St. George, St. Christopher, St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas Beckett, St Edmund, St. Catherine, the passion of Christ, the descent and resurrection, the death, funeral, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary, and the corporal acts of mercy. Only during renovations in 1852, were the paintings rediscovered – to the consternation of the vicar, Rev. John Ponsonby, who thought they were ‘ridiculous’ and would distract the congregation. He sought the archbishop’s permission to get rid of them but had them painted over without that consent. Because Catholics appeared to be coming to the fore again, there was a fear amongst the Protestant clergy of such ‘popish superstitions’ and many other Medieval paintings were destroyed in this period. The paintings had been copied at the time, for the Yorkshire Architectural Society, but these drawings do not seem to have survived, although there are some drawings probably made for W. Watson by artist T. Chambers, which have survived.
The plasterer employed by Rev. Ponsonby had not wanted to do the job of covering the paintings and had apparently changed the plaster recipe. Over twenty years later, a new vicar, G. H. Lightfoot employed restoration expert, Mr Jewitt, of Shirley & Hunt of Lancaster, who was able to remove the plaster and restore the paintings. This work took about ten years and resulted in a palimpsest of over-painting.
In the late 1920s Ernest Tristram, a professor of art and design at the Royal College of Art, being a keen pioneer of conservation, coated the paintings with a mixture of wax and turpentine. Wax is now known to attract dust and dirt and seals the surface, preventing the paint surface from ‘breathing’. It was partially removed by E. C Rouse in the 1950s but he replaced it with an equally unsuitable silica seal. Drawings made at the time, by Janet Lenton for E.C Rouse are in safe keeping in the Parish archive. An application for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant is due to be submitted in 2018 in the hopes that a major conservation and heritage interpretation project can be funded, using current best practice methods. Heating and lighting are also under consideration.
Even more exciting, Kate Giles has recognised that, possibly inspired by contemporary sources such as The Golden Legend or Mirk’s Festial, the positioned order of the paintings on the church walls appears to represent a religious calendar, starting with March the beginning of the liturgical year. This arrangement is thought to be unique to Pickering.
I hope this lecture summary will encourage you to go and view the paintings for yourself (and perhaps contribute to the restoration fund). The paintings really are spectacular, and seem somewhat bizarre to modern eyes. A small guide book is available, but a look at the church’s website beforehand would be even better.