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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

South Leigh, Oxfordshire (†Oxford) C.15

St Michael Weighing Souls

St Michael Weighing Souls, South Leigh]

This painting is a palimpsest; the fifteenth century subject shown has been painted over an earlier (C.14) version of the same subject. The square frame of the 14th century painting, its top edge running behind the shoulders of the Virgin and St Michael, can still be seen quite clearly. Little else is left of this earlier version, but the head of the 14th century St Michael is a ghostly presence in half-profile just to the left of his 15th century counterpart’s right elbow. An equally spectral 14th century Virgin shows on a fold of the later figure’s robe, but that detail is not visible here. (It shows clearly however on this much more recent photograph taken by Robert Mealing South Leigh Weighing of Souls. There are many excellent photographs of the South Leigh paintings on Robert Mealing’s website/blog).

The fifteenth-century version has been many times restored, but is now in good condition. St Michael brandishes his great sword above his head, his golden wings outspread, and holds the large balance with his right hand. The pans of the balance have gone almost completely, but a single soul can be seen in the right-hand (onlooker’s left) one. The scales tilt in this soul’s favour as the Virgin, standing at the left, intervenes by placing her rosary on the balance bar. She is standing on a crescent moon, a detail seen more often in manuscript painting, wears her hair loose as befits a virgin, and is crowned as Queen of Heaven. Beside the other pan of the balance to the right of the scene, frantic if now rather obscure devilish activity is going on as devils try to counteract the Virgin’s influence. Other devils are busy with souls already condemned to Hell. One blows a curved horn, in parody of the trumpeting angels in the Doom here; others push souls into the Mouth of Hell at the bottom right and yet another perches on top of it, flourishing a three-pronged flesh-hook of a kind used in medieval cooking.

St Michael’s costume is interesting. He wears a short tunic fringed at the lower edge with what is probably a chainmail skirt. But his arms and legs emerging from his voluminous cloak are feathered to symbolise his angelic nature and his progress through the air. This feathering is very typical of Michael’s appearance in fifteenth century painting, and there is an excellent example on the screen at Ranworth in Norfolk, one of the finest medieval artefacts still in existence anywhere. The detail may have come, more or less directly, from medieval Mystery Plays of the Doom – there are still property-lists in existence setting out in details the costume requirements for plays. Michael’s wings, moreover, seem to be linked together by a thin gold line above his head (it shows very faintly here). It has been suggested that this is a detail taken directly from a dramatic performance of the Weighing – some means of holding a pair of heavy wings outspread and upright probably would be needed.

I remain unsure about this though, and even more so about another detail in the 14th century example – the inclusion of a puzzling pair of small round objects (wheels?) linked by an axle(?) about three-quarters of the way down the original painting to Michael’s left, by the edge of the frame. I was able with difficulty to make these out on the wall, but they are not really discernible here. Again, the suggestion has been made that this is part of a wheeled stage-pageant on which the Weighing was acted out, included by the painter presumably in ignorance of the fact that it was a piece of stage machinery. But I think it would take a rather naive painter to suppose that Michael or any other character in the drama actually went about on wheels.

The background is powdered with small stars, and the whole painting is surrounded by a broad frame in a rather un-medieval looking leaf design. It may however, be authentic, since other decorative painting at South Leigh resembles a William Morris wallpaper rather than anything painted in the Middle Ages. Additionally, traces of medieval paint have been found in the pattern on the frame, below the Victorian restorations, so the decorative leaves may indeed be medieval in origin, despite over-enthusiastic Victorian retouching.

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

Website for St James the Great, South Leigh