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



Wren, ‘Beautification’, and the Blitz: The Dome of St. Mary Abchurch

Like many churches, St. Mary Abchurch perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It would not be rebuilt by Christopher Wren until almost 15 years later with construction taking place from 1681-1686. A real treasure chest of woodwork, and considered to be one of the only ‘unspoiled’ examples of Wren’s work left in the City, Mary Abchurch should certainly be on your list to pop into if you have the chance.

Mary Abchurch

A rare glance at St. Mary Abchurch (usually hidden by buildings)

At first glance from the outside, the church is a regular, red-brick, square-shaped building. Inside, however, is a dome hidden from external view with paintings from the early 18th century. The dome is 40 feet in diameter, and built with no external thrusts or supports with its weight distributed between the walls of the church. Appearances are deceiving, and it’s important to note the dome itself is made of plaster and a wooden frame which is in turn covered by a roof. The dome is illuminated by four circular windows which causes the church to seem much larger than it really is, a design choice that hearkens back to Wren’s love of using open spaces and natural light in his buildings.

The dome was not painted until 1708 when a request for ‘beautification’ was made. The paintings first show up in records in 1714, and are widely assumed to have been part of this effort. Sources argue over if they were done by Sir James Thornhill or William Snow – though Snow (a parishioner) is often credited with the work as there is documentary evidence of him being paid by the church, while no such evidence exists for Thornhill.

The Dome

Once again, my camera stinks, but with the windows this is a tough thing to photograph on a good day!

The oil paintings inside the dome itself depict worship in heaven, with the name of God in Hebrew in gold at the center. Angels and cherubs singing and playing musical instruments feature in the more central part of the dome. While at first glance it seems that there are two levels to the structure, a second glance shows the dome is cleverly painted using a forced perspective technique to give the illusion of layers. The eight stone-like figures below are regularly assumed to represent Christian virtues, though there is no documentary evidence with respect to their identities.


Statue-esque paintings of (possibly) the virtues

The dome was almost completely lost in 1940 during the Blitz when a bomb went off nearby and much of the plaster was damaged. If you visit the church today, a photograph of the dome pre-restoration sits near the font showing the extent of the damage. The plaster that had not been completely destroyed had to be taken down, cleaned and then put back in its original place. After this new plaster had to be added and painted to match the rest of the dome. It’s estimated that at least 75% of the current dome is original thanks to the meticulously done restoration work, with only a few cherubs and portions of angels needing to be replaced completely.

If you do visit, be sure to note some of the other treasures in the church as well: carvings by Grinling Gibbons, a case of artifacts from the church, and the stained glass window dedicated to the Fruiterers.

More Info:
Wren’s City of London Churches – John Christopher
Wren’s Domes – Jacques Heyman in Proceedings of the First Conference of the Construction History Society (2014).
The Painted Dome of St. Mary Abchurch – Eric Smith in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Vol. 19

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…