Long obscured by the whitewash of the Reformation, then buried beneath the discoloured varnish of a botched nineteenth-century restoration job, a rare and extraordinary medieval painting of The Last Judgement has been uncovered in the church of Holy Trinity, Coventry. As these first published pictures of the newly restored work show, it is a vigorously scary depiction of the moment when the Last Trump shall sound, painted in a crude but bold style and teeming with fascinating and unusual detail. It is hard to think of a more potent relic of English fifteenth-century dread. The picture must be counted one of the most important discoveries to have been made in the field of medieval art.
The so-called “Coventry Doom”, painted above the chancel arch of Holy Trinity and therefore dominating the nave of the church, shows the monumental figure of Christ passing judgement on the souls of all humanity. The blessed, on his right-hand side, make their orderly way towards the gate of heaven, which lies at the top of a flight of stone steps. The damned, on his left, tumble towards hell, envisaged as the snarling maw of a grotesque beast. Some figures already cower within its fanged cavern, their naked bodies licked by flames of hellfire, rendered as a pleasingly regular grille of serpentine lines in bright red pigment. The costume worn by some of the men and women rising from the dead, in particular the heart-shaped horned head-dresses worn by three ale-serving wenches in the right portion of the picture, suggest that the work was painted in the early 1430s. Although scenes of the Last Judgement were common in medieval English churches, the people of Coventry had good cause to order such a cautionary picture for one of their principal religious buildings at this particular moment. An earthquake had shaken the city in 1426, leading many people in the area to believe that the end of the world was indeed nigh. Prolonged contemplation of the Four Last Things, and above all of the terrors of hell, so vividly communicated by the painting, might lead some – or so it was hoped – to repent of their evil ways. In its own time the picture was conceived not just as a work of art but as a machine for saving souls.
The conservation of the painting, which was completed at the end of November, has taken a workforce of six specialists, led by John Burbidge, more than a year to carry out. According to Burbidge the surface of the painting was so totally blackened that every square inch of it had to be cleaned using a special solvent and implements “no larger than a cotton bud” moved in “infuriatingly small circles”. In earlier times such patience and would have been thought to earn him and his team a reprieve from some of the longueurs of Purgatory, but he implies that the process of seeing something so miraculous emerge from such pitch blackness has in itself been enough of a reward. There have inevitably been areas of loss, analysis of paint samples showing for example that Christ’s halo originally shone with a splendid reddish-tinged coat of gilding. But given all that the picture has been through, over the centuries, it is in remarkably good shape.
The conservator might never have been called in in the first place had it not been for a fire in the neighbouring Archdeacon’s Court in the mid-1980s, which caused damage to part of the nave of Holy Trinity. It was while examining that damage, from a temporarily erected scaffold, that painting conservator Anna Hulbert realised that the Doom painting over the chancel arch, well documented in the church archives and in the accounts of local antiquarians, but long presumed lost to the ravages of time, was still very much there. She performed a trial restoration of a tiny section of the picture, feasibility studies were carried out, funds were eventually raised and now, seventeen years later, the work is finally complete. In the words of art historian Miriam Gill, who has written an extensive report on the picture for the Courtauld Institute’s Conservation of Wall Painting Department, the picture stands revealed as “one of the most important depictions of this subject from fifteenth-century England.” John Cook, retired schoolteacher and Gothic enthusiast, is less cautious: “It’s the best medieval Last Judgement in England, no question.”
Spoken like a true Coventrian; and he may well be right. While making a programme about English medieval art for the BBC a number of years ago, I went to see some other extant Doom paintings. The only one to run the Coventry Doom close is to be found in the church of Wenhaston in Suffolk, but it is painted on wood, rather than on the wall of the church itself, and has suffered rather larger areas of damage. It too, incidentally, is a remarkable instance of survival, having been removed from the church as a piece of whitewashed lumber in the early twentieth century and placed on a bonfire. It still exists thanks to a sudden downpour which washed away the obscuring layers of white to reveal the painted figures of the damned and the blessed.
Like the few other surviving religious works of art of the English Middle Ages, the Coventry Doom has led something of a charmed existence. Painted in the 1430s, it was limewashed in the 1560s, according to church records in Coventry, as part of the vicious crackdown on “Popish” imagery that followed the downfall of “Bloody” Mary and the accession of Elizabeth I. But the fact that it was covered over, rather than scratched from the wall, like many another painting of its kind, may have expressed the strength of local affection for it – as well as the hope that, one day, the Protestant proscription of religious images might be lifted and the work be seen once more. That hope was not realised, so the picture remained unseen and undisturbed, behind its wash of white paint, for nearly three centuries. Having been sent to Coventry, so to speak, it was at least safe.
The next chapter in its story was related by the local nineteenth-century antiquarian Nathaniel Troughton. “In the year 1831, in the course of cleaning the Church [of Holy Trinity] a very extraordinary fresco was discovered in the space of the spring of the west arch under the tower, and extending to the roof of the Church. The accumulations of dirt and old whitewash having been removed from the surface, the picture was found to exhibit a curious representation of the Last Judgement..” After a long and circumstantially entertaining account of some of the picture’s several scenes, Troughton concluded that “As a relic, it is interesting from its antiquity; but is otherwise less attractive.”
That slightly snooty attitude to the picture may explain the approach taken to it by its first “restorer”, Troughton’s contemporary David Gee. Gee, who was himself a painter, attempted to dull down the Doom’s disconcertingly bright reds and give the whole work the type of “antiqued” finish favoured by nineteenth-century English taste. Having negotiated a fee of five guineas for his trouble, he covered it in a layer of varnish known as “megilp” – a once fashionable but fatal compound containing asphaltum and bitumen, responsible among other things for the ruin of many of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings – which so successfully smoked the picture that within a generation it had become all but invisible to the naked eye. As well as darkening spectacularly quickly, megilp also contracts with time, wrinkling like alligator skin and pulling the paint beneath it out of shape. So the very latest restoration came, according to John Burbidge, “in the nick of time”. In between there was one other lucky escape too. Alan Wright, who has long served as church architect to Holy Trinity, remembers a failed proposal back in the 1950s to redecorate the entire chancel arch with a mural showing the contented post-war workers of
Coventry rallying together under the gaze of God.
So comprehensively destructive were the English iconoclasts of the time of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell that the Middle Ages in England should really be called the Missing Ages. As the historian Lawrence Stone once memorably remarked, the task facing the historian of English medieval art is analagous to that of “the palaeontologist, who from a jawbone, two vertebrae, a rib and a femur contrives to reconstruct the skeleton of some long extinct creature and endow it with flesh”. Because the Coventry Doom is such a rare survival, it is difficult to know which of its elements are merely conventional, and which reflect particularly local preoccupations – or indeed the originality of the unknown artist responsible. There is for example nothing unusual about Christ’s gesture of raising his hands in judgement, while the globe beneath his feet is also a standard element of Last Judgement iconography, recalling the description of the earth as God’s footstool in the Gospel of Matthew (it is divided into three sections to represent air, earth and sea). The book lying in the flowery meadow by his right foot is presumably a standard and intentionally chilling symbol of the comprehensive evidence concerning the deeds of every human being on which he will deliver his judgement. But other elements are less common. Christ’s body is conspicuously scourged and bloodied in the Coventry Doom, his feet in particular veritably seeping gore. According to Miriam Gill, this may reflect the ideas of certain contemporary preachers, such as the fiery John Mirk, who regularly warned his congregation that “the sight of these wounds would comfort the saved but horrify the damned whose sins had caused them.”
Other unusual details include a woman rising from the dead still in her fifteenth-century grave clothes, complete with a white bonnet similar to a modern chef’s cap. The kneeling figure of the Virgin Mary, pleading with her son on behalf of souls in torment, is frequently found in scenes of the Last Judgement, but her gesture of baring her breast is less common, deriving from an apocryphal story of around the eighth century in which she successfully arouses his pity by reminding him how she once suckled him as a babe in arms. Devotion to the cult of Mary was strong in late medieval Coventry, focused on the image of Our Lady of the Tower in Whitefriars (which was, as might be expected, one of the first of the city’s cult statues to be thrown on to the bonfires of the Reformation).
Seemingly unique to the Coventry Doom are the three robust “ale-wives”, clearly on their way down to hell, to the left of the figure of Christ. Doe-eyed, wearing fine head-dresses and clutching huge tankards perhaps meant to be sexually suggestive in form, they embody one of the perceived social evils of the day. Unregulated female brewers and serving wenches, who use their sexual charms to palm off their watered-down beer on to unsuspecting customers, are stock figures in medieval religious drama. The Coventry Doom Play, which might have provided a useful key to some of the scenes in Holy Trinity’s Last Judgement, does not survive. But in the Chester Doom Play, which is still extant, a fraudulent ale-wife repents of her wicked practices at length; and in a light-hearted tribute to the charms of the medieval barmaid, one of the demons dragging her to hell proposes marriage.
The same spirit of knockabout humour characterises quite a few sections of the Coventry Doom, which presents a distinctly democratic view of damnation and salvation. Disconcerted kings and cardinals are to be found among the ranks of the damned and although the Pope, at least, is allowed to lead the blessed to heaven, he is accompanied by a number of evidently quite ordinary individuals. The style of the picture, a provincial English variation of what art historians tend to call “International Gothic”, might not be sophisticated but it is powerful and effective. The faces of the figures are softly modelled and expressive, with large eyes and prominent noses, reflecting the influence of the once renowned Coventry school of glass painting. Hands are made to seem somewhat larger than life (the effect reminds me, anachronistically, of the work of Chagall), which intensifies their gestures of supplication, prayer and pleading. All in all, Holy Trinity’s Last Judgement is a truly wonderful discovery: a scene of resurrection, painted by an anonymous artist in the fourth decade of the fifteenth century, which has itself been resurrected from the graveyard of neglect, destruction and loss.