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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Purton, Wiltshire (†Bristol) C.14

The Dormition (Death) of the Virgin

Death (Dormition) of the Virgin Mary, Purton, Wiltshire

Much more commonly found in the Eastern church, the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel at Purton is rare in the west, and very rare indeed in the English parish church. Nevertheless a few examples of the subject are in these pages, and this well-painted example from Purton now joins them. It cannot quite match the example at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire for refinement, but it is high-class work nonetheless.

The supine figure of the Virgin herself, lying across the picture space at the bottom of the painting, head to the right and long curling hair loose to signify her perpetual virginity, is particularly fine.

Above Mary stand nine of the disciples (Judas Iscariot was dead by now, and a tenth disciple, now gone with the original plaster removed in a Victorian restoration, may have been somewhere at the left-hand edge). The fourth figure from the right has particularly finely painted facial features. In the approximate centre of the group, one of the disciples, probably Peter, holds up a tiny child-like figure representing the Virgin’s soul, about to be assumed into Heaven. This specific detail is vanishingly rare in England, and I have not seen another. Another uncommon feature is the preponderance of a pale green pigment found only rarely in England. It may be malachite or terre verte, but unusual pigments are further testimony to the care and expense which has been lavished on this subject.

There are other paintings at Purton – a very interesting Warning to Sabbath Breakers further west on the south wall, and several other scenes, including Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene and the Weighing of Souls over the chancel arch. But this one is by far the rarest and most important. It deserves to be better known.