Thursday, 23 February 2017

Llancarfan Medieval Wall Paintings

Llancarfan is an ancient place, its origins, unlike most villages found throughout the Vale of Glamorgan, lies before the Norman Conquest of Glamorgan C 1093, as it is thought that a religious establishment has existed in the area since around 500 AD.  The church dedicated to St Cadoc, a local man, whose alleged deeds were first committed to parchment in this very place by Lifris at around 1100, is a fine example of medieval ecclesiastical architecture and contains many treasures such as a rare wooden reredos and an unusually large carved wooded chest. 

                                (St Codoc's church Llancarfan)

Recently St Cadoc's church has been able to add yet another treasure to its collection.  In 2008 a series of medieval wall paintings were re-discovered, having already been noted in 1877-78 but covered up again, and the long, painstaking process of conservation begun, which has already yielded fascinating results. 

Most of the paintings are still hidden beneath centuries of lime wash with just a small portion visible as the conservation work is still ongoing.  The extant paintings however were more than enough to make us content with our visit.

(One of the recently uncovered paintings)

The paintings have been dated to the late medieval period and depict a variety of themes.  These paintings although a rarity in the Twenty First Century would not have been unique in their day as most churches throughout Britain would have been painted internally-their walls blazing with colour instead of the bland lime wash that is seemingly ubiquitous in many churches today.  The great religious reformation during the mid Sixteenth Century which began with Henry VIII divorcing Britain from the Roman Catholic church and the wholesale conversion to Protestantism during the reign of Edward VI kick-started the process of eradicating all traces of the ancient religion that had been spread throughout Britain by missionaries from Rome almost a millennia previously.

Anything overtly associated with Catholicism was suppressed, religious houses were confiscated and shut down, their occupants made homeless, the ritual and dogma associated with Catholicism too was made obsolete, incense, icons and art were made redundant including the paintings on the walls of Llancarfan church which were probably lime washed over sometime during the middle of the Sixteenth Century.

Most of the paintings unsurprisingly contain references to religion.  Many of the images depicted in the paintings might seem abstract to us today- even macabre, but these paintings were designed to convey to a largely illiterate population graphic allegorical themes rather than the artists skill with a brush as many would primarily view them in the Twenty First Century.

All the themes are of interest.  The multi-headed beast for example seems quite typical of the fire and brimstone mindset associated with medieval Catholicism, and the quite obvious perils of sin are graphically illustrated.  For example, on the left we a man committing suicide by thrusting a sword through his body, we see lust illustrated by two lovers locked in embrace and further to the right two men with swords engaged in combat denoting envy.

Above the sinners is a regal figure wearing a crown who is surmounted by two satanic looking creatures, clearly embodying pride and implying that from prince to pauper no-one in society was immune from the consequences of sin. 

(Medieval society was left in no doubt of the consequences of sin)

Perhaps the most striking image is that of St George and the dragon.  St George was adopted by the English during the Crusades and later became the patron saint of England.  St George is portrayed as a contemporary knight and his image dominates the south wall.  This painting is thought to be the largest and most complete of its kind in Britain.

(St George and the Dragon)

To the right of St George appears a young man stylishly dressed in late Fifteenth Century attire seemingly in the prime of his life accompanied by what appears to be a skeleton in a burial shroud. This grisly painting expresses the medieval awareness of death.  During the medieval period death and disease were never very far away with an average life expectancy around thirty.  The Fourteenth Century saw the arrival of the Black Death which not only killed off a large chunk of the population of Britain, but also caused mass terror due to its inexplicability. 

(Man in Fifteenth Century attire with skeleton)

The wall paintings at Llancarfan can be viewed during regular church opening times. 

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