3 Aug 2019

Historical Saturday: Medieval Wall Paintings

A lot of the Medieval novels I've read recently talk about the interior walls of Castles and even monasteries being decorated with tapestries and pictures hanging on the walls. Being the historically minded and naturally curious person I am, I've wondered how Historically Accurate this is. 

Not to say there weren't tapestries and such. Of course there were: but we tend to think of the interiors of Medieval buildings consisting of bare, grey stone. Tapestries would seem to be the only form of decoration suited to a bare stone wall: but some recent discoveries are shedding a new light on this subject. 

It would seem that the inner walls of many Medieval buildings were in fact not just left bare: they
 Wall Painting in a Medieval Church in Wales
were covered in plaster and sometimes had a layer of whitewash applied in top of that.
Evidence now suggests Medieval people used these plastered and whitewashed walls of their homes, castles, manors and churches as a blank canvas to create beautiful murals and wall paintings.   

I think this makes a lot of sense, because the thing about tapestries is that they're really expensive. They had to be sewn or woven by hand, and it could take months or even  years to create a large one. Even if a noblewoman decided to make her own, rather than paying someone else to do it, it would take a long time and a lot of careful attention. 

Its the same with pictures: there weren't a lot of full time professional artists or portrait painters in Medieval Europe, and where they did exist they didn't tend to make lots of copies of their paintings. Medieval portraits tend to be one of a kind. Literally.
So again, most people, even many knights or nobles wouldn't have the money to bring some artist over from Italy to paint a picture for them. 

Painting in a Church, Berkeley, England
If they wanted their walls decorated, murals would have been a quick and relatively inexpensive solution. 
In the last few decades, renovators and builders have uncovered some beautiful examples of wall painting in Medieval churches. Many of these were covered up or painted over during the Reformation because they were held to be extravagant or 'idolatrous'. Or in secular buildings, the plaster simply deteriorated and crumbled away with time, or was replaced with new styles of decoration that came into fashion.

This is why there are so few examples of wall paintings in buildings that survive from the Medieval period, and many such building are ruined so little survives of the internal structure. However, there ARE some precious and rare examples, and as previously mentioned sometimes by an amazing stroke of luck, new ones are discovered. 
Painting from Pickering Church, Yorkshire

Designs for wall paintings varied according to personal creativity and taste. They could be anything from simple patterns, to scenes from mythology, Literature, the Bible, or even just drawn from life. Hunting and jousting scenes seem to have been quite popular. 

I've attached a short clip from a BBC Documentary made a few years ago entitled Secrets of the Castle. It involves 3 British Historians who went to work on the Guedelon Project in France, which is a project to build a Medieval castle from scratch using only methods and materials available at the time. 

This 10 minute segment shows the plastering and whitewashing of one of the Castle's rooms, followed by the painting of a mural using natural dyes and home made paint. Enjoy. 

So Medieval people liked colours and decoration as much as us, and for those who could not afford to fill their homes with tapestries, wall paintings were a great alternative. Perhaps its time that we started incorporating these into Historical novels.

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