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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Lathbury, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (†Oxford) Late C.14/Early C.15

The Virgin Intervening at the Weighing of Souls

Lathbury, Virgin Mary intervening in the Weighing of Souls

Lathbury once had a very fully painted scheme in the nave, including a Doom over the chancel arch and extending on to the north and south walls. Little is left of the paintings now, apart from a scene of Burying the Dead, part of a Seven Works of Mercy sequence.

I have however managed to isolate another fragment, the very fine Virgin intervening at the Weighing of Souls, shown at the right. In the early 1930s the Rev. H. Bull, then Rector of Lathbury, said this:

“…By him stands the Virgin Mary, with her crown of glory; in her left hand extended over her shoulder she holds a lily, her right apparently is placed on the beam, as if she were inclining the scale to mercy’s side The drawing is excellent, and nothing can be more graceful than the Virgin's attitude, the expression of the countenance, and the action, both imply reverent, but prevailing, intercession.” ¹

The ‘him’ in the first line of the quotation is St Michael, who is no longer identifiable, although the balance-bar of his scales appears in the photograph as a white unpigmented slanting line on the left halfway down. Nothing is left of the lily; much more important is the rosary dangling from the Virgin’s right hand and appearing as a green circlet here. It is this rosary, and not her hand, that the Virgin places on the balance-bar to tip the scales in favour of the soul being weighed, but the painting is very high on the wall and Mr Bull probably simply could not see this detail. The Virgin also uses her rosary in this way at South Leigh and (possibly) Slapton, and there were once a few more examples of the detail, most of them now long gone, in English parish churches. There is a great deal of apparently green pigment at Lathbury – it may be the green terre verte much used for the underpainting of flesh – hands, faces and so on – or it may simply be malachite, used particularly for symbolic purposes.

I think the Virgin at Lathbury may once have been sheltering souls under her cloak – there are hints of faces on the held-out lining, particularly on the right. I have seen a few such details in medieval manuscript painting, so investigation continues on this point.

¹ Rev. H. Bull, Church of All Saints, Lathbury, in Records of Buckinghamshire, Vol. iv, pp.36-42