PREVIOUSLY undocumented wall paintings dating back more than 500 years have been uncovered within Stratford’s Guild Chapel – leading conservators to conclude it is one of only a handful of places in Europe to have an almost complete medieval decorative scheme still in situ.
The uncoverings were made this month by conservators currently working in the Chapel as part of the ongoing Death Reawakened project funded by Stratford Town Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Work to reveal, clean and retouch two of the best-preserved wall paintings within the Chapel – the Doom and Allegory on Death – is currently underway.
As part of the project, conservators also removed sections of the wooden panelling which covers much of the Chapel’s walls to determine the extent of painting preserved underneath.
And what they found has caused huge excitement – shedding light on medieval paintings covered up on orders given to Shakespeare’s father in 1563. Some of them have not been seen for almost 100 years, while other sections have never been adequately recorded in detail.
The wooden panelling is extensive, running along both the north and south walls behind the Chapel’s pews.
Archives conveyed that further paintings lay waiting to be examined but the scale and detail revealed so far is beyond all expectations.
Clear details from two large ornate paintings, the Dance of Death and Life of Adam, are both visible.
The Life of Adam was a long painting known to have run the length of the south wall, but it hadn’t been exposed since the mid-20th century and its documentation at the time had been limited. The small section now exposed shows details including animals and people thought to be part of a hunting scene.
Light has also been shed on the Dance of Death – always known to have been concealed along the north wall but likewise not seen for three-quarters of a century. It is sadly much more degraded than the Life of Adam, but sections can still clearly be seen.
And with the majority of both walls still covered, the best could be yet to come.
“This is an exciting development in our knowledge of the Chapel,” Project Manager Cate Statham, of Hawkes Edwards & Cave Conservation Architects, said.
“We knew about the presence of something behind the panelling on the north and south walls but the level of detail retained on the south wall in particular is really exciting and encouraging. The Guild Chapel’s earlier interior scheme was colourful, vibrant and decorative, with every single wall covered in paintings. We are very fortunate to have what represents an almost complete pre-Reformation medieval scheme still in situ, where the design was conceived and executed all as one piece of work at the same time – and we know of only a few comparable examples surviving in all of Europe. It raises lots of exciting possibilities for the future of the Chapel, the conservation of these additional paintings and whether they could ever be on regular display.”
Conservators are now surveying and recording the sections uncovered and carrying out testing to ascertain what might be achieved with further conservation, similar to the works carried out to the Doom and Allegory paintings.
Work is almost complete on the Doom, with later layers of paint and wax painstakingly removed to reveal exceptional detail and colour previously hidden.
The Allegory on Death has also undergone conservation, with the full painting now visible, probably for the first time since the 17th Century.
The Allegory painting is termed a ‘memento mori’ (literally “remember you have to die”) – something which is reflecting on the subject of death, the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. This was a common European subject in religious artworks.
“The Allegory in the Guild Chapel is an exceptional survival; although there are others, to our knowledge none of them are as complete or in as good condition, making it incredibly rare. The last time it was viewed as it is now was most likely to have been in the 17th Century, before it was limewashed, before another scheme was painted over the top, before the high level gallery, and then the later timber panelling were installed. The fact it has survived through the centuries to stand in this condition today is quite remarkable.”
A complete survey of the painted scheme and development at the Chapel will now be carried out. The current project has also revealed details of later decorative schemes over the top of the earlier wall paintings, which will also be recorded so a better understanding of the alterations to the decoration of the Chapel can be built up.
The Guild Chapel dates back to 1269. Its rare and precious medieval wall paintings are a window to the past, giving a picture of life and belief 500 years ago, in the time and town that Shakespeare was born into.
These outstanding example of medieval church decoration were covered with layers of limewash in 1563 on orders given to John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, during the Reformation, after which they subsequently lay hidden for hundreds of years.
The Chapel is open daily to visitors, free of charge, and conservators can currently be seen in action.
For more information please go to www.stratfordtowntrust.co.uk/guildchapel