Look hard enough, and you’ll find remnants of medieval wall paintings in many English churches. And the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk in East Anglia have a particular abundance of these paintings. But why were these pictures painted, and why were they later lost? And where can you discover the painted churches of East Anglia?
What Are Painted Churches?
Back in the Middle Ages the interior of every church would have been a feast of colour. Every available surface would have been covered with images of Bible stories, saints, and Heaven and Hell. The artists are unknown, and we don’t really know why the pictures were painted. However they are commonly known as the “poor man’s Bible”. Our best guess is that they served to reinforce the church’s teachings for a largely illiterate audience.
However, during the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century these pictures came to be seen as idolatrous. They were whitewashed over and sometimes covered with religious texts. It wasn’t until churches began to be renovated in the Victorian era that the wall paintings were rediscovered. Many were lost for ever, but others were gradually brought back to life. (Read more about The Painted Churches Of England.)
(If you are travelling further afield, there are many fine painted churches in eastern Europe. An example is Boyana Church in Sofia, Bulgaria.)
St Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk
The wall paintings in St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, are considered to be some of the finest in western Europe. As in many churches, pictures were painted on top of one another, and here we have at least six layers of paint. The earliest dates back to around 1090.
On the east wall is a large Last Judgement which includes a rare picture of the Trinity (the earliest known in Europe). Elsewhere we see the Harrowing of Hell and the Creation of Adam and Eve. An interesting detail is that the Creation has Eve’s face blanked out – as the originator of human sin she cannot show her face in the church!
Rediscovering St Mary’s And The Wall Paintings
The discovery of these paintings is a remarkable story in itself. The church had fallen into disuse and was completely covered in ivy by the time a rambler came upon it by chance in 1992. The finder, and her husband, were horrified to realise that the building had been used for Satanic rites. They immediately set about raising money for the restoration of the church, uncovering the wall paintings in the process.
Of course only one layer of the paintings is currently visible. However, as technology advances we may one day be able to see what lies beneath.
Houghton-on-the-Hill is around 30 km from Thetford and 45 km from Norwich. The village itself was deserted in the middle ages, and nothing now remains apart from a farm and the church. You can access the church via a bridleway close to the Peddars Way hiking trail.
You will be shown around the church by a volunteer guide. The guide who was there when I visited was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, full of information about the paintings and other snippets about the church and its history. See the website for opening times.
St Mary The Virgin, Troston, Suffolk
Troston is a small village around 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds. The 13th century church of St Mary the Virgin has three cycles of wall paintings, by different artists at different times. They were rediscovered in 1869. The most prominent pictures are those of St George and St Christopher. In fact, in the Middle Ages you could find St Christopher in most churches, usually opposite the door. This was so that he was the first thing you saw as you entered, due to a superstition that anyone who looked upon his image would not die that day…
Another picture is of the martyrdom of St Edmund. He was an East Anglian king who was patron saint of England before being supplanted by St George. The 14th century painting shows him being shot through with arrows.
Other Painted Churches In Suffolk
There are several other painted churches in Suffolk. The most famous is Lakenheath, with five separate series of wall paintings, covering a period of 400 years (unfortunately it was closed when I visited, so no pictures). You can find some others on this map.
Wall Paintings In Norfolk
Other wall paintings can be seen in Edingthorpe Church and Waterden. However, Norfolk is more famous for its painted rood screens, images that probably performed a similar function to wall paintings. You can see an example of this at Binham Priory.
If you are spending more time in the region, have a look at the Best Places To Visit In East Anglia.