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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Chalgrove (†Oxfordshire) Early C.14

The Annunciation

Annunciation, Chalgrove, detail, Gabriel Annunciation, Chalgrove, detail, Gabriel

The walls of the entire chancel at Chalgrove are devoted to paintings narrating the histories of Christ and the Virgin. The Tree of Jesse, farthest west on the south wall, announces and stands as a preface to these, and directly opposite it on the north wall is the Doom or Last Judgement, prophetically completing the story.

The first logical narrative scene after the Tree of Jesse is the Annunciation, painted in the splays of the first (west) window. Gabriel, rather patchy and obscure now, is at the left.

Mary, clearer, although her facial features are indistinct now, is in the opposite (right) splay, holding a book, and her swaying body has the same elegant S-curve and aristocratic fingers as it has in the Tree of Jesse. It is impossible to show in a photograph the scale of the paintings – both figures under their tabernacles are enormously tall, as are all those in the window-splays at Chalgrove.

The whole scheme is very carefully planned and executed, and the Chalgrove chancel seems to me – provided the words ‘bible’ and ‘poor’ are used in their broadest senses – to be the closest thing the English church has to a true ‘bible of the poor’ – “so that those who know no letters may yet read”, as St Gregory the Great (?540-604) demanded.¹ The saints who stand in attendance in the other window splays are not all strictly Biblical, but they have been selected with as much care as everything else in the chancel, and the two non-scriptural inclusions are saints whose historical reality is unquestionably accepted – Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who made his empire Christian, and Laurence, the Roman deacon and martyr whose existence, if not the manner of his martyrdom, is very well attested indeed. As to the painted Lives of Christ and the Virgin (the later Life and Death of the Virgin is now here), not every incident in them is in the Bible either, but they are certainly illustrative of the what medieval people believed to be scriptural truth.²

Website for St Mary’s, Chalgrove

¹ The English term ‘Bibles of the Poor’, often used rather loosely to describe church interiors in the past, needs to be treated with caution, and illogical as this may sound, it is safer not to regard it as a translation of the Latin ‘Biblia Pauperum’. The Biblia Pauperum is a typological work, and very specific in its material and arguments. For the (excellent and highly recommended) Internet Biblia Pauperum click the link here or on the Links Page. There are also brief notes on typology, and an example of it, on the pages for the Friskney Last Supper and in the introduction to Genesis scenes
² The whole grand scheme is in the chancel, not normally the domain of the people, and King Edward II gave the church to Thame Abbey in 1317. But such evidence as there is suggests that lay patrons paid for the work, although the Abbot of Thame’s approval must have been sought. Thame Abbey, rich on wool exports at the beginning of the 14th century, nevertheless had a bad year in 1317, with foul weather, sheep murrain, and the cost of hospitality all resulting in debt. (R. Midmer, English Medieval Monasteries: A Summary, Heinemann, 1979, p. 303)