Looking at the stone-wall interior of Stratford-upon-Avon's Guild Chapel today it is hard to imagine the appearance of the nave when it was built at the end of the fifteenth-century. Like most places of worship in medieval England, it would originally have been covered with brightly coloured wall paintings, or murals.

Preservation and destruction

Religious murals were never intended to be permanent. As fashions changed or the building was altered, so new paintings would be commissioned. That we have, at least, accurate copies of Stratford's fifteenth-century paintings today is a result of attempts to obliterate such images at the Reformation.

Detail from Fisher's depiction of the St George & the dragon mural

West wall of the chapel - faint traces of the Becket and St George murals can be seen on the wall either side of the organ pipes

An entry in the town council's accounts of 1563 records a payment of two shillings for defacing the images in the chapel. The murals were covered with a layer of limewash and so, whereas many murals throughout the country did not survive the centuries, when in 1804 the chapel was refurbished the original scheme was discovered under this protecting layer. And before the subsequent destruction or re-covering of the paintings as part of this refurbishment, the antiquary Thomas Fisher was able to record their detail and colouring in a series of watercolours, published as Paintings in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Stratford upon Avon.

"Many murals throughout the country have not survived the centuries"

Detail of a figure from the paintings in the chancel

The chancel arch - traces of the Doom are clearly visible

Their purpose

Religious murals were meant to be both devotional and to teach. Bibles and service books in the medieval age were handcopied, and as a result both rare and costly. Furthermore, the majority of the rural population was illiterate. Thus, the murals were used to instruct the congregation, relying on a convention of signs and gestures to ensure their meaning was understood.

The Day of Judgement

A mural representing the Day of Judgement, otherwise known as the Doom, was to be found in almost every church. In the chapel it was placed over the chancel arch, in full view of the congregation, to provide both an encouragement and warning.

"... souls are shown being dragged by demons into the fiery cauldron of hell"

Fisher's depiction of the Doom Fisher's depiction of the Doom

The figure of Christ is seen sitting in judgement on the souls of the dead. The figures of St Mary and St John the Baptist kneel either side of Christ. Souls of the dead, shown as small naked figures, are rising from graves and are accordingly being welcomed by St Peter into the heavenly city or are being dragged by demons into the fiery cauldron of hell. Crowns and mitres are used to signify the rank and status of some of the figures.

Detail from Fisher's depiction of the Thomas Becket mural

The West Wall

The murals opposite the Doom on the west wall depict Thomas Becket and St George, and these were intended to encourage contemplation on the qualities of each saint - Becket's martyrdom in defence of the Church against the secular power, and St George's manly Christian virtue and chivalry.

Today the most evident feature of the mural on the lefthand side of the wall is the altar, in front of which Becket was shown being murdered by the four knights. The knights are labelled with their names and Becket's chaplain stands in horror in the background. The principal features of the corresponding mural are the tail of the dragon and the green foreground. Fisher's depiction shows St George on a white horse in the middle of the mural and the curious figure of the princess and her dog. In the background is the city of Silene and on its battlements the princess' parents and other spectators.

The Chancel

Queen of Sheba

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Jigs@w from Tibosoftware St George and the dragon virtual Jigsaw Puzzle

Click on the puzzle link.
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The Guild Chapel - owned by Stratford-upon-Avon Town Trust - is generally freely open to the public throughout the year

Web links

Medieval wall painting in the English parish church
This illustrated site provides a brief introduction to the subject, combined with a growing catalogue of locations.

Paint the cathedral game
This interactive feature from the games section of the BBC History web site allows you to 'paint' the west front of Wells Cathedral, revealing how it would have glowed with paint and shone with gold in the thirteenth-century. Requires Flash plug-in.

Report broken links here

Further reading

Discovering wall paintings, by E. Clive Rouse
(Princess Risborough: Shire, 1980)

The Guild Chapel and other guild buildings of Stratford-upon-Avon, based on the research of Wilfrid Puddephat
(Stratford-upon-Avon: Stratford-upon-Avon Art Society and the Guild School Association, 1987)
Intrigued by the traces of the medieval wall paintings in the Guild Chapel and references to the guild's thirteenth-century buildings, Wilfrid Puddephat started to examine in detail the surviving buildings and documents for more evidence. This booklet presents his fascinating reconstructions.

copyright © 2002-2010 the Guild School Association Oct-2010