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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Sutton Bingham, Somerset (†Bath and Wells) c.1300

The Death, Burial and Coronation of the Virgin

Death & Burial of the Virgin, Sutton Bingham, Somerset

The painting is on the south wall of the nave and it is shown as a continuous narrative, with the Burial of the Virgin following her Death without a break. The Coronation of the Virgin (below) is painted separately, in the chancel, but it is probably contemporary in date.

The actual deathbed scene is shown enlarged at the left (detail, below left). The Virgin lies on a bed, her head on a gold pillow. A group of Apostles gathers at the far side of the bed, with Jesus, unfortunately now the faintest figure of all, in the centre. He holds Mary’s soul, and this detail is best located by finding her right hand, which lies on the red coverlet in the centre of the painting, and then following a line upwards to Jesus’s hand holding a small figure who kneels, hands held upright, in prayer. This figure represents the Virgin’s soul. At Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, angels hold Mary’s soul in a napkin, but the Sutton Bingham example is, as far as I know, the only one in an English wall painting to show the soul being held, literally, in Jesus’s hand.

Death & Burial of the Virgin, Sutton Bingham, detail, death

At the foot of the bed (detail, left) stands St John, painted as usual as a beardless youth, with another disciple’s hand resting on his left shoulder. His bowed head rests on his right hand, and in his left he holds a broad whitish palm leaf – the palm leaf given to the Virgin by Gabriel three days before her death. (The incident is painted at Broughton in Oxfordshire, where it is clearer).

At the right below, the Burial of the Virgin is damaged and generally fainter. It might well have been deliberately attacked, since the non-scriptural Death of the Virgin and its sequel were particularly unpopular subjects at the English Reformation (an example at Croughton in Oxfordshire has been almost totally obliterated). In the centre of this enlarged detail, Apostles are carrying the Virgin at shoulder height on a bier. The heads and hands of those at either end are still faintly visible, but much detail has gone.

Burial of the Virgin, Sutton Bingham Coronation of the Virgin, Sutton Bingham

At the extreme right are the remains of another figure. The booklet in the church identifies this as an Apostle carrying the Virgin’s girdle, which was handed down by her to St Thomas as proof of her bodily Assumption (the incident is painted at Broughton), but not enough remains for certainty about this now.

The sequel to the legend of the Death of the Virgin is her Coronation by her son (photo, left). At Sutton Bingham, this is painted in the chancel, quite separately from the Death and Burial. The Virgin is on the left, shown against a heavily diapered background, wearing a short veil and with hands again raised in prayer as Jesus on the right places a diadem on her head. Some of the lines have been blurred by later overpainting, and the photograph does not really do justice to the quality of the original.

Also in the chancel are several paintings of saints, most of them bishops and all of them impossible to identify now. Accompanying them is a tiny figure of a man, painted on an entirely different scale, who might be the patron who paid for the decoration of the church, or indeed the painter himself. This, and other paintings from Sutton Bingham, will be on the site in due course.