The 12th century medieval wall paintings of St Albans Cathedral are a national treasure of the highest importance. No other Cathedral has preserved so many wall paintings ranging from the Romanesque to the Tudor period and, as such, they are as important today as when they were first painted, allowing us to look into the past and gain an understanding of what it was like to be a pilgrim. What would I see? What would I learn? The wall paintings told stories then as they do now. These were the teaching aids of the mediaeval church.
Fast forward around 800 years and, as part of our Alban, Britain’s First Saint project, digital technology will help to recreate the original effects of the painting for visitor and pilgrim, bringing to life their original colours. This digital illumination of the Wall Paintings promises to be a very significant technical innovation, the first of its kind on this level at an English Cathedral.
We want to introduce you to the Wall Paintings, what they mean, how they were achieved and how we hope to use them today. Every Friday through Lent, we’ll be featuring one of the Wall Paintings on our social media, exploring the story and meanings behind each. Below is your introduction to these marvellous pieces of art.
The first paintings to greet a visitor entering through the West End doors of the Cathedral are a fine set of scenes depicting the crucifixion and the life of the Virgin going from West to East on the north side pillars, towards the Shrine of St Alban. Although only the underpainting is left, they have a powerful image and you can still see a hint of the original colour. Freshly painted, these had the finest of palettes: gold leaf, lapis lazuli and, most expensive of all, red lake.
Painted in a different style due to the climate, the images are not frescos as you might see in Italian churches, but beautiful seccos, painted onto a dry surface and much easier to handle – you get to correct your mistakes!
On the same pillars but facing south are four monumental paintings, each 3 metres tall. Newly created they would have had a “3D” effect to the faces, which has faded as time has passed. Layers of whitewash had also covered them since the 1500’s and so the faces are likely to have been damaged when this was removed.
Many of the original features of the Abbey were affected by the events of the reformation and the Wall Paintings are no exception. You can see the contrast when looking at the brighter and better preserved paintings in other parts of the Cathedral such as the St. William of York painting in the Shrine Chapel or the Doubting Thomas in the North Transept. However these four surviving nave figures will ultimately come into their own as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project.
If you haven’t already visited St Albans, come and see the Wall Paintings and a whole lot more besides.
With thanks to Julia Low, Chair of the St Albans Cathedral Guides.