The Treasure of St. Mary Kempley

Roughly 18 miles from Gloucester lies the church of St. Mary Kempley. Separated from the road by an avenue of trees and part of the churchyard, you will be greeted with a standard grey stone building – just for it to turn pink on you the moment you turn the corner. It’s not often I’m surprised by the exterior of a building but at 9 am on a very cold and wet day I did have to pause for just a second, but it’s not the outside of the building I’ve come to look at.

Exterior. St Mary Kempley

I was not exaggerating…

The church of St. Mary Kempley is currently owned by English Heritage and maintained and run by a lovely group called Kempley Tardis – that’s right – like Dr. Who. The building is Norman and was built in the 12C, likely by Baron Hugh de Lacey – the owner of Kempley Manor at the time. The tower is 13C and was purportedly built to defend against potential attacks from the Welsh. The porch was added in the 14C.

If you think of it, looking up as you enter the church you will encounter a Norman tympanum with a ‘tree of life motif’ obscured by some of the timbers. Once inside you’ll be under a hidden away 12C roof – one of if not the oldest in England- which is above the currently visible ceiling. Upon entering there are several wall paintings in various conditions all around the nave. The paintings here in the nave are done with tempera, and are classified as secco – where the painting is done after the plaster dries. They are all thought to be from the 14C, though some of the paintings on the south wall appear to be palimpsests – where there are layers of paintings over each other.

Porch and tympanum

There IS a tympanum in there…I promise!

The palimpsest paintings can be seen on the south wall – dark plumes contrast with the white wall and the very end of a crozier can be spotted to the left. This is the murder scene of Thomas Becket, who can be just barely made out kneeling in prayer. Above the plumed attackers is another figure – likely St. George slaying the dragon – with other small fragments peeking through. At present, apart from St. George, we are not sure what the other painting depicts.

On the north wall of the building is arguably the most spectacular part of the nave. The finer details are now gone but the wheel of life painting commands the presence of the room – with each of the several circles representing a stage of life – likely with Christ being in the center as this is how many are found in comparable manuscripts. In these motifs, life starts at infancy, peaks about halfway through, and then for the rest of the wheel there is a greater and greater decline until death. On good days with good lighting sometimes figures can be made out through the damaged layers of paint. Also present on the north wall are images of St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Michael, and the Virgin. Closer attention to St. Michael reveals he is carrying a sword, a sign of the last judgment. Meanwhile, the Virgin has her hand up in a gesture of intercession. These scenes and reminders of death and the potential for damnation were common in medieval churches, and encouraged congregations to stay faithful.

There are some paintings on the chancel arch, the three Mary’s at the sepulchre are in the upper south corner, and patterns cover the arch and portions of the doorway. But stepping into the chancel makes the rest of the building feel almost irrelevant.Chancel at St. Mary Kempley

Upon entering the chancel it’s almost hard to know where to look first – the ceiling and walls are covered with 12C frescoes. To be fair, after a little bit of digging through reports and papers it appears there is a layer of fresco painting with secco techniques applied for the details over it – but all the same the presence of fresco painting in England is extraordinarily rare. It’s hard to imagine what the church looked like when the paintings were whitewashed over in the 16C, and harder to imagine the surprise of their discovery in the late 19C after they had been forgotten for a few centuries! The set of paintings in the chancel is the most complete set of 12C wall paintings in England and are considered to be of international importance. Their colours, style, and technique are all similar to Romanesque wall paintings in France from the same time period. The traditional reds and yellows, as well as the highlights of blue azurite and green malachite cover the walls and ceiling in a scene from Revelation showing the apocalypse.

On the chancel ceiling Christ sits with his feet on the globe surrounded by the sun, moon, the four evangelists, and seraphim. The north and south walls contain the twelve disciples all looking up to Christ in adoration, the occasional faded set of eyes still stare up and out of the plaster. It is impossible to determine which disciple is which, but close inspection will reveal that they were indeed all painted to look different from each other. But my personal favourite part of the chancel are the entryways into the holy city painted above the windows. Towers and arches crown the curve of the window while the surrounding stone is painted in a red checkerboard pattern – making the distance between wall and window feel even further than it is.

It’s easy to spend a good chunk of time here if you really allow yourself to notice and appreciate the small details of the paintings and the stonework. However, given the nature of this blog by now you must be asking ‘But is there any graffiti?!’ Sadly there appear to be no grand designs like we get in some of the cathedrals or other parish churches. A few odd lines  here and there and almost random looking scratches hint at possible inscriptions from long ago. The only discernible find I had was a shield shape faintly inscribed in one of the windows. A large and difficult to photograph compass drawn design also lends its apotropaic power on the outside of the door. Apart from those two items I found very little in the way of graffiti. Despite this, St Mary Kempley is certainly worth a visit – even just for a look at the rare and amazing 12C paintings in the chancel. Besides, it’s one of the only places left you can get a feel for what many of the parish churches looked like long ago.

Compass drawn graffiti

Can you spot it?

I chose to visit St. Mary Kempley on a freezing wet February morning, but the church is open regularly- once the weather warms up – from April to October. Or you can contact English Heritage and make an appointment if you prefer to venture out in the cold like I do!

Nave of St. Mary Kempley

More information:
English Heritage’s page on St. Mary Kempley
British History Online with a Summary all about Kempley itself
Wall Painting Condition Audit from 1997 in the Archaeology Data Service database
Kempley Tardis



Top 5 Places For Graffiti Not Far From London

When I first started out on my adventure in medieval graffiti land it was always so frustrating to see the cool things that came out of small churches that usually required a car to get to. I lacked a car, and most of my Londoner friends also lacked cars. It was like everything I wanted to do was out of reach. Obviously this was not true, and I went and stretched my legs, hopped trains, and ended up finding plenty of graffiti nearish London.  So if you’re based in London and car-less this post is for you!  (Note: these are in no particular order. I refuse to rank things like that!)

1. The Tower of London

OK let’s just get this one out of the way. Yes it’s touristy. Yes it’s often crowded. No it’s not a church. But there are some really amazing examples of graffiti at the tower. The obvious hotspot for graffiti will be Beauchamp tower – with beautiful and intricate examples of graffiti from various prisoners. If you go during the week and early in the morning it’ll likely be a quiet tower to visit. Salt tower also has some wonderful examples. But if you pay close attention you will find inscriptions pretty much all over the place!

2. Hampton Court Palace

Again. I’m sorry. Tourist filled. But there’s some really amazing stuff here! The processional gallery is my personal favourite spot for historic graffiti, but keep an eye on all the doorways and in some cases – the doors themselves here! You’ll find apotropaic marks, handprints, and in some cases full names with regimental information scattered throughout the palace.

3. Canterbury Cathedral

I knew you were wondering when I was going to start blithering on about churches. Well my friends…that time is now. Canterbury cathedral (like many cathedrals) is a treasure trove of all sorts of wonderful graffiti. One of my favourite inscriptions ever comes from this place – I’ve made special note of him below. The crypt has some great images of Christ, as well as at least one axe!  Make sure you also spend some time in the cloisters for graffiti from all completely different time periods. Meanwhile, inside you can find shoes, hands, horseshoes, stars, names, faces that are just a bit judgey….

4. Winchester Cathedral

My second most favourite inscription ever is here (Harey Coppar, wherever you are now….thanks for bringing me amused joy). You’ll have to look upwards for it though. The usual ‘cathedral level of selection’ is present here. Stick to pillars in this place, and make sure you look up! Infamous ‘VV’s show up like mad here, I love the unfinished pelta, there are a few great daisy wheels (albeit some of them are severely damaged), and benches have plenty of carvings to sift through.

5. St. Albans

I know, I know, I already plugged this place a little bit but truly it’s worth a visit. It’s so close to London, has so many graffiti, and as people to this day continue to tell me there’s a pamphlet there – I know they must still be in print so go get a copy and have a wander. Some of the really big stuff is harder to see lighting wise but many of the people who work there can show you outlines if need be – and most of the other graffiti listed are super easy to find!


Complete with nails!

OK folks I tried to keep it short and sweet. Go out and have a look – there’s of course way more graffiti in each of these buildings than I have mentioned in this one short little post!

St. Albans Abbey: The one that started it all…

Once upon a time, when I was solely a stained glass nerd. One day, I took a break from the hustle and bustle of London and spent an afternoon strolling around St. Albans Abbey. At the time I was just starting out on my ‘SEE ALL THE CHURCHES’ adventure. My dissertation was on a London City Church, and most of the churches I had been doing research in were all in Greater London – many of those were of Victorian construction or ‘renovation’.

The Abbey was fairly quiet, it was a sunny, warm day in June so all the sensible people were outside enjoying the weather. I was running around like I usually was in a church, picking out which windows I was going to take the time to photograph (sunny days are awful for stained glass photography), looking at tombs and monuments, and falling in love with wall paintings – something that you don’t really find in London churches. My travelling and church visiting buddy stopped over to look at some books to buy and I spotted a leaflet entitled: A Short Graffiti Tour of Saint Albans Abbey. I had no idea what they were talking about so I picked it up and started to read.

Skeleton 2

One of the first ever pictures I took of graffiti….and it’s total crap (of course)

WHAT. Tiny scratches on walls that are skeletons and hares and hands and names?!?!?! How had I been missing out on this! Despite being halfway through seeing the Abbey I dragged my counterpart back to the proverbial start so we could go through this pamphlet and find all the graffiti we could. Though a few areas were cordoned off, I found most of it and started trying to figure out how to take photos of the inscriptions with THE crappiest camera for low-light the world has probably ever seen. I still love the image I somehow got my camera to take of the famous hare as well as the two skeletons. Take a moment to feel bad for my friend here….I literally refused to move on to the next spot in the pamphlet until I had successfully found the graffiti that were listed….meaning there were times he was standing there doing nothing for quite some time.

Upon leaving I thought of the dozens of churches I had been to already. Did THEY have graffiti? If they did why didn’t they tell anyone? This was such a personal and interesting thing to study what on earth had I been missing out on?! I suppose I got bit by the graffiti ‘bug’ that day, because every building we visited afterwards I was climbing in the cloisters or crawling around the quire looking for previously ignored symbols. Several times I had people come up to me and ask me what on earth I was doing staring at the walls – I’d cheerfully show them and they’d join in for a short time before reverting to ‘normal person’ status. What was even funnier was going through my photos from churches before I knew graffiti was a ‘thing’ and seeing photos I took of graffiti without even realising it was there or what it was! Graffiti became my main field of study and my passion soon after that trip.

These days I look at images people send me and try to answer their questions, or put some of the cool things I’ve found up on a screen in front of a class full of undergraduate students, or I’m crawling around on the floor investigating a unique looking chisel mark in some long forgotten parish church. But I absolutely love it and wouldn’t trade it for anything – so thank you St. Albans – you helped make me…