Ickleton, Cambridgeshire (†Ely) C.14
Doom (central area & detail)
Although much of it has been lost and most of the rest is faded, this 14th century Doom (over the chancel arch) has one very unusual feature, namely the Virgin baring her breasts in supplication to her Son.
This gesture, pagan in origin but found occasionally in Christian art, is extremely rare in the English church, but there is another example of it, probably from around the same date (but very different in style), in the Doom at North Cove in Suffolk. The gesture might almost have been designed to draw fire from those of an iconoclastic turn of mind, particularly after the Protestant Reformation. In 1570 the Flemish theologian John Molanus had this to say of it:
‘Many painters show Mary and John the Baptist kneeling beside Our lord at the Last Judgment…But we may not think that at that day the Virgin Mary will kneel for us before the Judge, baring her breast to intercede for sinners. Nor may we think that John the Baptist will fall upon his knees to beg mercy for mankind in the way the painters show. Rather, the blessed Virgin and St John shall sit beside the supreme Judge as assessors. The mercy which is extended now will have no place then. There will only be strict justice at that day.’¹
Hard as it is to warm to Molanus, his pronouncement is a telling comment on the magnitude of the Reformation sea-change.
There are other paintings at Ickleton, including the early and high-quality true fresco Passion Cycle already in these pages.
¹ J.Molanus, De Historia SSt Imaginum et Picturarum pro vero earum usu contra abusus, Louvain, 1594, Book iv. cap.24. in A. Caiger-Smith, English Medieval Wall Paintings [Bibliography Page], p. 35.