At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Wenhaston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Wenhaston sloightly on the huh


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Wenhaston, pronounced wenn-er-st'n, is a fine village on the Blyth, not far from two of Suffolk's most important stopping off places for church explorers, Blythburgh and Westhall. One of the thrills of visiting Suffolk churches is the anticipation and shock of amazing medieval survivals. There is that font at Westhall, the retable at Thornham Parva, the wall paintings at Wissington and North Cove, and much else besides. Some churches, like Ufford, Bramfield and Westhall, seem to have more than their fair share. It is easy to blame the Victorians for destroying medieval features, but, in many cases, it was the Victorians who rescued and restored them. Many of the medieval objects in our churches today would not have survived if it were not for the Victorians. And yet, perhaps the most significant medieval art object in the county exists by a supreme irony, for if it had not been for an act of gross 19th Century carelessness, it might not have survived at all.

If they had been efficient, the decaying wooden tympanum taken down from above the chancel arch at Wenhaston in the summer of 1892 would have been stripped, repaired and painted. Instead, it lay out in the churchyard waiting for someone to do something with it, while the restoration continued inside. That night, it rained. The whitewash, applied centuries before, dissolved. When the workmen arrived on site the following day, they saw wonderful things.

What the rain revealed is essentially a doom painting, although there is a little more to it than that. A doom shows the final judgement of souls after death; each person comes equally before the throne of God, and is selected to go to Heaven or to Hell. Probably, all churches had them. The one at North Cove is on the north chancel wall, but ordinarily the doom was above the chancel arch, usually painted directly on to the plaster as survives at Earl Stonham and Cowlinge. Where there was no chancel arch, or the chancel was not sufficiently lower than the nave to allow a painting, the top of the arch would be infilled with a wooden tympanum.

Why is the Wenhaston Doom so significant? Although few dooms survive in Suffolk, there are quite a few elsewhere in the country. But the Wenhaston Doom is special for two reasons. Firstly, in front of the chancel arch stood the great rood, a feature of every medieval church, Christ crucified, flanked by his mother and St John. The rood was supported on a rood beam, or suspended from the ceiling, above the roof loft and rood screen. Every single rood in England was destroyed by Thomas Cromwell's cronies in the 1540s. Not a single one survives.

We can see at Earl Stonham the way that the centre of the doom painting has fewer details, since it would be obscured by the rood. However, at Wenhaston, the rood group was actually attached to the tympanum, and although it was ripped off in the 1540s, the outlines of the crucifix and flanking figures survive, like ghosts of lost Catholic England. The other reason that the Wenhaston Doom is significant is that its colours are so bright, and its details so vivid. There's nothing else like it in the country.

When was it built? Wills specialist Simon Cotton tells me that in 1480 there was a bequest towards a new screen. Since the tympanum would have followed the construction of the screen and rood, then a date in the 1500-1520 period for the Doom seems likely. So it was completed about 25 years before its destruction, that's all.

The last trump is sounded and the dead rise from their graves. Christ sits on a rainbow, overseeing everything that is going on. His mother and St John the Baptist bring forward intercessionary prayers for the souls of the dead. However, the real battle is between St Michael and the Devil, who have charge of the scales, and weigh each soul against its unreconciled sins. St Peter is seen receiving nobility - we can tell from their headgear that they include members of the Royal family, a Bishop and a Cardinal. However, they are otherwise naked, to signify that all are equal before God. So they'd better have a good excuse... To the left, souls are received into Heaven, while those on the right are marched off to Hell.

Wenhaston doom
Wenhaston doom: Christ in judgement Wenhaston doom: Blessed Virgin and St John the Baptist
Wenhaston doom: the narrow gate into heaven Wenhaston doom: St Peter welcomes a king, bishop, cardinal and queen into heaven Wenhaston doom: St Michael and the Devil share out souls Wenhaston doom: the dead drawn into hell

What happened to this amazing art object in the middle of the 16th century? After the rood group was removed and burnt, it was whitewashed over. Why was it not removed? Simply, the order was that roods were to be replaced with coats of arms, to remind congregations that the State was in charge now. The tympanum provided the best way of displaying the coat of arms as it had the rood.

Fear God and Honour the King was the new watch-phrase, but at Wenhaston, more was felt necessary. Along the bottom of the tympanum (and thus below the coat of arms) was added from St Paul's Letter to the Romans: Let every soule submyt him selfe unto the authorytye of the hygher powers for there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordeyned of God, but they that resest or are agaynste the ordinaunce of God shall receyve to them selves utter damnacion. For rulers are not fearefull to them that do good but to them that do evyll for he is the mynister of God.

When Edward VI died in 1553, and his half-sister Mary I ascended the throne, the English Church restored its connections with the European Church, and the coats of arms were removed. Officially, the roods were meant to be replaced, but this doesn't seem to have happened in many places. Most likely, there simply wasn't time, for Mary died in 1557, and the roods came tumbling down again under the orders of her half-sister Elizabeth. The break with Rome was made final, and the new Church of England was born.

There seems to be an orthodoxy of thought that our English churches were painted with pictures because the people were ignorant, and this was their only way of learning theology. There is no evidence for this. On the contrary, the ordinary people of England seem to have had a rich spiritual and liturgical life, to which the furnishings of their churches only contributed a small part.

No, the creation of these extraordinary folk art objects was an act of devotion, and we mustn't get sidetracked into thinking that they were lost because they were no longer necessary. They were destroyed, wilfully and purposefully. But some survived, and Wenhaston's Doom painting is simply one of the most beautiful.

The chancel that once stood beyond it has gone, replaced in the 19th Century with one that seems a little over-grand for the size of the church. At the west end, a charity board and a good royal arms for George III huddle around the font. The font is instantly recognisable as one of the Seven Sacraments series, but the reliefs are all completely vandalised. The surviving colour reminds one of Westhall, and this was probably in a group with the similar fonts at nearby Blythburgh and Southwold. You'll be appalled to learn that at least some of the carvings survived into the early 19th century, until someone took it upon himself to cleanse the font of them. He's the one in the doom you can see being led away to Hell.

Simon Knott, May 2019

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looking east crucifixion charity board, royal arms, font 17th Century pulpit
by whose death she was depriv'd of the greatest and chief happiness of her life Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross George III royal arms (detail) her temper was so adopted as to soften every care (1747)

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