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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Wissington, Suffolk (†St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) Late C.13

The Nativity, with Joseph and Midwife
Annunciation to the Shepherds

Nativity, with midwife & Joseph, Wissington

A very rare scene, particularly in England, of the Virgin in bed at the Nativity. There may once have been many more like this, but I suspect that that as veneration for the Virgin grew ever higher in the later Middle Ages, conscious choices were made to show her at the Nativity in a more ‘decorous’ manner, as at Corby Glen (link below).

The Virgin lies on the left, looking appropriately weary despite the insistence of theologians that she suffered no discomfort at the birth. Further right stands the midwife, in this case almost certainly Salome, who took Mary’s intact virginity on trust, unlike her ‘unbelieving’ companion Zalome, who once appeared at Corby Glen. Salome, her hair in a net, with a round cap tied under the chin, appears to be holding the infant Jesus. Beyond her is Joseph, chin propped on hand in a reflective manner. As with all the paintings at Wissington, an elaborate tabernacle-frame surrounds the scene.

Annunciation to Shepherds, Wissington

To the right (west) of the Nativity is the Annunciation to the Shepherds, in two scenes. At the left stands the angel, holding a scroll and with right arm raised to indicate the heavens. At the right, a shepherd, leaning on his crook, seems to be doffing his hat. He once had a small dog, visibly barking at the strange sight, but this has faded into invisibility. There may have been another shepherd beside him. The next scene to the right shows shepherds again, and the painter must have had a reason for presenting this in two separate scenes instead of one. Probably there was more going on in this second ‘moment’ than now appears. Only one shepherd again doffing his cap or shielding his eyes can be made out now, but there was originally at least one more. In the lower right-hand corner are two sheep and, rearing up and facing rather pointedly in the opposite direction, a horned goat. Symbolic meaning (hardly needing elucidation) must surely be present here; it may well be a product of the painter’s own imagination and not a detail copied from elsewhere.

Several other paintings from Wissington are on the site, including the Adoration and Dream of the Magi (link below), with the Magi in bed this time, a St Michael Weighing Souls, St Francis Preaching to the Birds – probably the earliest representation of the saint in England, the remains of a Passion Cycle, and, newly on the site, Two Miracles of St Nicholas.

Website for St Mary the Virgin, Wissington