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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Bishopsbourne, Kent (†Canterbury) Mid C.14

Weighing of Souls

Weighing of Souls, Bishopsbourne

There is a (forthcoming) Doom at Bishopsbourne, but this Weighing of Souls is entirely detached from it and faces it on the opposite (north) wall. The red masonry pattern against which it is painted forms the background to all the paintings at Bishopsbourne, including the Martyrdom of St Edmund, also newly on the site.

A stern-looking St Michael stands at the left, reduced now to head, halo and curving wings. He is holding the very painstakingly painted balance (the bar and the lines suspending the pans were probably ruled, rather than painted freehand). This soul is evidently not found wanting – the left hand pan of the balance drops dramatically downwards, and in it is a small figure with hands clasped in prayer.

Accumulated sins, represented here by a row of discs filling the opposite pan, failed to tip the scales. The interfering devil, painted in yellow but very faint now, stands below the right hand pan of the balance, reaching for it and trying vainly to pull it down. The entire painting, confronting anyone entering through the south door of the church, must have been a striking and discomfiting sight when it was first painted.

I suspect that the rendering of this subject was originally a much better measure of the painter’s skill than the rather more clumsy-looking Martyrdom of St Edmund. It fits very comfortably into the available space in the spandrel between two arches, the relative proportions of the details are well handled, and there is a general air of confident assurance about the whole thing. The symbolic treatment of the sins, possibly intended as stones, effectively conveys the idea of the weight of sin on the individual soul.

Of the other paintings at Bishopsbourne, St Nicholas with the three boys in the barrel was new on this site at the last update. The rather problematic and atypical Doom will be here in due course.