Belchamp Walter, Essex (†Chelmsford) c.1350
Virgin suckling the Child, with donor(?) and birds
Tristram¹ has a brief description of this particularly beautiful painting of the Virgin suckling the Christ Child, but only part of it was visible to him before it was restored by Eve Baker for the Pilgrim Trust in 1962.²
The figures of the Virgin and the Child, along with the elaborate canopy above the Virgin’s head, need little elucidation, beyond suggesting that this is a more obviously ‘devotional’ painting than those at either Beckley (linked to a theme of Judgement and retribution) or Faversham (part of a Nativity series). There might once have been an altar below the painting, as suggested by Eve Baker, especially since censing angels were once visible on either side of the central group of figures.
There is certainly another figure visible – kneeling or standing at the lower right, with upraised hands. Mrs Baker also suggested that this might be the patron praying his rosary (there is a group of red dots that might be rosary beads). The church was in the patronage of the Benedictine Priory of Earl’s Colne in the 14th century, and this figure might indeed be the donor of the painting. A faint suggestion of a tonsure on the kneeling man would support the idea, but I am nevertheless uncertain.
The unique feature here though is the inclusion of two perching birds. A small falcon or hawk, possibly a kestrel or perhaps a sparrowhawk, appropriate to a cleric (the Canon Law prohibition on hawking by priests was widely flouted), is on the central pinnacle of the canopy over the Virgin’s head, and a smaller bird on the left-hand (onlooker’s viewpoint) finial of her throne. As well as these, there is a suggestion that the kneeling figure is holding up before the Virgin something that might be another bird, with narrow tapering wings held upright. An alternative or additional possibility then is that this a man, donor or not, offering up an image of a hawk along with prayers for the healing of a real one, as in the well-documented 1368 case of Nicholas de Litlington, Abbot of Westminster³. At any rate it is hard to escape the feeling that the birds in this painting must have more than merely decorative significance.
Apart from the two paintings linked above on this page, there are very few other examples of the Virgin suckling the Christ Child left in the English parish church; the only other one known to me, at Great Canfield, also in Essex, will be here soon. All four of them show the Virgin crowned as Queen of Heaven and with loose hair, as here.
The Three Living & Three Dead at Belchamp Walter is on this site, and the Passion Cycle is now also here, as is a very rare Pelican in its Piety. Others including a Martyrdom of St Edmund will be here in due course.
¹ Tristram III, p. 139
² The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Belchamp Walter (leaflet available in the church), August, 2001 (no author cited)
³ C Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England, Alan Sutton Publishing (Stroud, Glos.), 1995, p.112. In Medieval Panorama, Cambridge, 1949, p.594, GG Coulton quotes Abbot Nicholas’s Account Roll – “Item: for a waxen image of a falcon bought to offer [at the altar] for a sick falcon, 6d.”