Skip to Content

Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Hessett, Suffolk (†St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) C.15

Warning to Sabbath Breakers

Warning to Sabbath Breakers, Hessett [147KB]

It is very faint now, but this Warning to Sabbath-Breakers compares very well with the much clearer example at Michaelchurch Eskley, on the other side of England. Many of the implements of agricultural and domestic labour are present, surrounding the remains of a figure of Christ The large harrow or griddle (it could be either) is again on the left, and on the other side are scythe-blades, reaping hooks, long pincers or tongs, sheep-shears and various other objects difficult to identify, but obviously tools. Christ’s front-facing pose also matches Michaelchurch Eskley, although his left arm is no longer visible.

The two most intriguing objects, though, are beside Christ’s head on the left of the picture. There is something that is fairly certainly an inverted jug or ewer, with a handle (with perhaps a spear-head beside it), and further left is a playing-card, the six of diamonds. These may be a reference to the much-deplored drinking and gaming that went on on Sundays, or they may be Instruments of the Passion. The ewer and basin, in which Pilate washed his hands, are sometimes found in illustrations of the Instruments¹. I know of no example featuring a playing card, but the dice with which the soldiers drew lots for Christ’s garments are sometimes included. Once again, I think, iconographical details from depictions of the Instruments of the Passion fit quite neatly into the context of proscribed activities on the Sabbath – the analogy between what was done to Christ during his Passion and the reprobate activities indulged in by Sunday tavern-haunters would not have needed much explaining to medieval people.

There are several other paintings at Hessett, including a very interesting Seven Deadly Sins, the lower edge of which is visible as a patch of red pigment at the top here. The placing of this subject above the Warning to Sabbath-Breakers is probably not accidental.

¹Pilate’s ewer is included among the Instruments in Eamon Duffy’s example (The Stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992, plate 85).
† in page heading = Diocese

Website of St Ethelbert’s, Hessett