Little Wenham, Suffolk (†St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) Late C.13/Early C.14
The Virgin and Child with SS Margaret, Catherine & Mary Magdalene
Probably the first point to be made about the very high quality paintings on this page concerns the blackened hands and faces. This is the result of deterioration probably caused by an injudicious (perhaps experimental) choice of pigments. For all its high status as compared with the commonly found red ochre, vermilion, which I suspect was used for the painting of the flesh tones here, is often unstable in the presence of the lime used in lime plaster and limewash, with the results visible at Little Wenham.
But the paintings undoubtedly are of the highest quality, and the best comparison on this site is with the censing angels that once accompanied a vanished statue of the Virgin at Brent Eleigh, some 12 miles away to the north-west, although the delicately poised fingers also recall those of the Virgin in the Tree of Jesse at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.
The pose of the two principal figures can seem rather strange at firSt The Virgin is the taller figure at the left, and she is holding the Christ Child wrapped in her light red mantle, with her left hand on his shoulder. It is hard to see (the small image at the left should help), but her head is turned to the right to look at the Child, who in turn has his left hand on her left shoulder, his own right hand out of sight behind the Virgin’s neck. It is a very ambitious composition, the like of which I have not seen elsewhere in an English wall painting. The relationship of the two figures to each other becomes clearer when it is realised that the two are not standing, but seated on a long bench or throne covered by a blue-green cushion. An elaborate illusionistic tabernacle is painted above them in the same soft green as their robes, haloes and the cushion. The two angels flanking the pair may once have held censers, but it is impossible to be sure about this.
The painting is in the chancel – another indication of high status – flanking the High Altar on the left (north). Beyond the altar on the right stand, from left to right, St Margaret with a long cross ending in a spear (the vanquished dragon at her feet has effectively gone), St Catherine holding her rather faint wheel, and St Mary Magdalene with her jar of ointment held in the crook of her right arm. The blackened hands and faces are evident again.
The only other painting in the church is a very large St Christopher (forthcoming) on the north wall. It shares the same restricted colour palette as the paintings flanking the altar and appears to be contemporary with them. Oddly, although the facial features of Christopher and the child have faded almost completely, there is no blackening of their hands and faces at all. It is difficult to know what to make of this, but perhaps the painter found a different way of mixing his pigments and/or preparing his ground.
The paintings at out-of-the-way Little Wenham, especially those of the three female saints, will bear comparison with those on the Treasury vault of Norwich Cathedral, and to my mind they are in no way inferior.
There are links to other paintings of the Virgin and Child on this site in the table below, and a link to paintings of the three saints here, along with many more, at the top and bottom of this page.
Website for Little Wenham church