The rain came down... and a Suffolk medieval marvel was revealed
- Credit: Archant
East Anglian Treasures: In the latest of our archive series, Ian Collins tells the story of the remarkable Wenhaston Doom.
How very fortunate that, in the driest part of the country, it rained heavily one night in 1892. That was just after a late Victorian clear-out in Wenhaston church near Halesworth, and just before a churchyard bonfire.
Church renovation of the sort William Morris hated – and which he opposed, largely successfully, in nearby Blythburgh in one of his last campaigns – had included a new chancel arch.
Old whitened wooden panels were stripped out and thrown on the pending pyre. Then came the overnight deluge and next morning, through rivulets of dissolving whitewash, a visitation of the Virgin Mary was noted.
Other painted figures – heavenly, satanic and human – were emerging through the murk. It was indeed a miracle that, though mutilated and then obscured for centuries, the Wenhaston Doom's late 15th century idea of Judgement Day (Doomsday) had just about survived.
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Art historians were summoned, and the relic from a humble parish church – where visiting antiquarian David Elisha Davy found 'Nil memorabile' in 1808 – was taken to London's Burlington House for a Society of Antiquaries display generating 'much excitement'.
The restored treasure still excites visitors in its church setting today – though not, alas, in the now-narrowed original overhead position where it and its ilk cowed many a medieval congregation into lowly submission in hope of heavenly elevation and fear of falling far further. The message and workmanship may be crude but as a picture of past faith the Doom is hugely illuminating.
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An immense cross-shaped central shadow punctured with nail holes is flanked by blank columns where a carved rood and figures of the Virgin and John the Evangelist were torn out and destroyed during the late 1540s Protestant iconoclasm under Edward VI. The boards and whitewash then covering the painted scene, and an added Biblical text similar to that still visible on the whitened rood screen at Norfolk's Binham Priory, proved a protector when Puritan vandals called almost a century later.
Robed in red, Christ, the Divine Judge, sits top left on a rainbow throne, with the Virgin and John the Baptist kneeling top-right. Below, a richly-attired St Peter holds the key to a castellated heavenly city – a papal tiara exuding maximum glory for a church dedicated in his honour.
The souls being judged are naked to show human equality in the eyes of God, but it just so happens that the four naturists poised for salvation wear the headgear of king, queen, bishop and cardinal.
Wenhaston began collecting for a supporting rood beam in the 1480s, with the resulting scene likely to have been painted either by a journeyman artist or a monk at Blythburgh Priory a decade or two later.
So the message of faith in the status quo was very timely given the new Tudor era – and the fact that the 1486 marriage of Elizabeth of York to Lancastrian Henry VII, five months after the Battle of Bosworth, had just confirmed the end of the Wars of the Roses.
To the right St Michael hovers on angel wings while wielding the sword and scales of justice. In the unbalancing dishes, one good soul outweighs two bad imps. The saint is too busy to notice a goading Satan – a bat-winged beast with a second face in his stomach to indicate base appetite.
Above, five risen corpses – four naked and one shrouded after a recent funeral, and all around 33 (the supposed age of Christ at his crucifixion) – are making their penitent way towards judgement.
But the main drama of the piece is in the leftmost section where all-too-innocent souls are being pulled and prodded towards the sharp-toothed jaws of a hellish fish as a ghoul sounds a trumpet. For light relief, one doomed soul is thumbing his nose at his fate.
Looming above an Elizabethan Biblical text, the Doom transcends the centuries. In the 1920s it was surely spied by painter Stanley Spencer, wooing and then marrying Hilda Carline in nearby Wangford.
He noted in his diary that, for all the topography of his native Cookham, the figures in his great Resurrection painting now in the Tate were actually based on the attitudes of guests as they left the Wangford wedding. That hopeful picture also has more than a faint hint of Wenhaston.