Work conserves rare church paintings

They may have faded over the centuries, but in their day they projected a powerful religious message to the inhabitants of a remote Norfolk farming community.

They may have faded over the centuries, but in their day they projected a powerful religious message to the inhabitants of a remote Norfolk farming community.

The wall paintings at the church of St Mary the Virgin at Houghton-on-the-Hill, near Swaffham, are rare and early survivors of a formerly common means of teaching Christianity.

And now a major project has been launched to preserve the ancient images, which are thought to date from the late 11th century and came to light during the restoration of the once-ruined building.

Hailed as the most important medieval paintings to have been discovered in this country in the last 20 years, they include depictions of the passion of Christ, the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden and a huge representation of the Holy Trinity on the east wall of the nave.

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"What we are trying to do is to stabilise the paintings," explained Tobit Curteis, who is leading a team of specialist conservators at St Mary's.

"They are extremely old and in many areas they are very unstable. Left untreated, they would disappear over time and what we are trying to do is to stop that happening, taking away materials on the surface which are causing direct damage."

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Created by professional painters, the artwork is thought to date back to about 1090.

Despite the reverence with which such images are regarded today, they would have been unceremoniously replaced with new paintings as generation succeeded generation.

"It's fantastically early by the standards of paintings which survive," said Mr Curteis. "The nearest significant scheme in date is about 1120, which is in East Sussex, and this predates that. This is the most incredible find - and so much of it. There's nothing else like this.

"We have now found up to six different schemes of painting, one on top of another, which is more than anticipated. The idea of dealing with multiple layers of painting is a very common one with wall paintings and particularly in churches where the basic fabric has stayed pretty much the same."

In the early days, when the vivid spectrum of colour in the paintings could still be seen in all its glory, there were only tiny windows in the church and the interior would have been lit by candles as the long-dead parishioners, who led brief, hard lives as they eked out an existence, arrived for worship.

"You are seeing a very dulled down version of it now," said Mr Curteis. "It would have been bright - very bright. You would have had these things illuminated from the floor in a flickering glow and the whole magic of Christianity would be at its strongest.

"It would have been the most impressive thing you could ever see."

The project, which has also involved further improvements to the church, including the installation of electricity, attracted a £191,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund earlier this year, with Norfolk County Council contributing £4,000 and the Council for the Care of Churches providing £8,000.

It is one of the highlights of the 14-year renovation of St Mary's, which has been masterminded by Bob Davey of nearby North Pickenham.

"It's brilliant to see it coming to life like this - it's what I have been trying to get for ages," he said.

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