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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

South Leigh, Oxfordshire (†Oxford) C.15

The Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins, South Leigh

The booklet in the church describes this painting as a many-headed monster rising out of the Mouth of Hell. Certainly the red shape at the bottom, which looks like a medieval cooking-pot at first glance, is probably intended for a monstrous bestial fire-breathing mouth, turned on its side so that the projection at the lower left corner represents its ear. I think I can detect the pupil of the creature’s eye at the left-hand edge. Yellow flames rise up, and the remains of the various subsidiary heads/mouths of the monster are shown above. These are vomiting out human figures representing the Seven Deadly Sins, as at Raunds and Hoxne. None of these latter are clear now, but the two arranged above each other at the upper left – the lower of them like a monstrous gaping tadpole – of the photograph still retail the faint yellowish outline of human heads, with the vomiting red mouths from which they issue, mirroring in miniature the main Hell-Mouth below.

Otherwise, it has to be said that the painting in its fragmentary state looks almost abstract, and it is not surprising that it was believed at one time to be a ‘Tree of Heaven’. But despite that it is of roughly the same date as the Doom at South Leigh, and has obviously been restored as far as it could be. Surviving examples of this subject are too rare for this painting to be ignored, battered and incomplete as it is. It must once have made very explicitly the point that sin is a literally a hellish thing, with the Doom and the Weighing of Souls at the other end of the nave making its consequences equally explicit.

The addition of another painting, of the seldom-found saint Clement, means that all the paintings at South Leigh are now on the site.

Website for St James the Great, South Leigh

† in page heading = Diocese