A treasure trove of medieval wall paintings shines from one of Norfolk’s most remote churches. There is no village, no road and no electricity – but dedicated activists are determined to save the deteriorating art
Crostwight’s little church stands in the fields. It lost its village centuries ago and much of its tower over 100 years ago.
But push open the door of the medieval building in flint, thatch and tiles and see the walls animated by saints and angels, characters from the Bible and folklore, demons, donkeys, fish and plants.
The church, between North Walsham and Happisburgh, has some of the best medieval murals in the country.
It is an art treasure created over 700 years ago. In the past, many medieval churches would have been decorated in this way. Now most of the vivid murals are gone – and Crostwight’s remarkable images are in dire need of preservation.
It will cost £56,000 to stabilize the most vulnerable sections of the paintings. Remarkably, members of this small church have already raised much of the money needed through grants and generous individual donations – but still need £10,000 before work can start, ideally this summer. “It’s not an easy task for a small rural community,” said churchwarden Peter Williams.
The church shares its rector with nearby Honing and five other parishes and holds about nine services a year, mostly in the summer as there is no lighting or heating, as well as a candlelit Christmas carol service.
The paintings have been described as ‘exceptionally complete’ by Historic England – but as part of its Heritage at Risk register.
“They are in a very fragile state, as the layer of plaster they were painted on is peeling off the wall,” Peter said. “When so much medieval religious art has been lost in this country, it is important that what little remains is preserved for future generations to enjoy.
And he said that despite its isolation, the church and its remarkable art are loved by many. “It’s amazing how many people visit such a remote little church,” he said.
Crostwight parish is joined to nearby Honing and the parish church’s joint council organizes several fundraising events each year to help maintain the two churches, but Peter said: ‘It is very difficult for such a small community to do more, especially since there are no facilities at Crostwight Church. However, parishioners sold booklets, garden products, old linens, etc. specifically to raise funds for the murals.
Peter and his wife Fiona have been members of the congregation since moving to Crostwight six years ago. “We first saw the paintings just after arriving in Crostwight and immediately realized they were special,” said Peter.
“None of us were Church historians. Researching the history of the church and the paintings has been a retirement activity, driven by curiosity,” said Peter, who was chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
Fiona has now written two fascinating and beautifully illustrated guides to the church and its paintings to help raise awareness of the treasures within, piecing together the history of this ancient place from wills, land deeds and books of accounts and indices of the building itself.
The Crostwight paintings represent art made for the common people, and we are particularly fortunate to know the names and occupations of some of the first parishioners to see the murals, as their names are listed in the 1381 tax return. “, she said. .
And do Peter and Fiona have any favorite paintings? “We love them all, but we especially love the Seven Deadly Sins Tree, which would have looked so dramatic when it was first painted,” Peter said. “It is a good example of the vivid way in which the teachings of the Church were presented to the laity in the late Middle Ages.”
Today the paintings are a stunning survival from our distant past, a living parade of village figures alongside people, angels and demons from folklore and the Bible, who still speak to the people of Crostwight, Norfolk and beyond.
The parish has appealed to raise the final £10,000 needed before restorations can begin. Donations can be made on its JustGiving page.
The paintings – from the seven deadly sins to the warning against gossip
No one knows who painted the images that once covered the walls of Crostwight Church, but between 1350 and 1380 vibrant scenes from the Bible, portraits of patron saints and warnings to village gossip took shape.
At a time when few people could read and Bible readings were in Latin and not English, these images told stories.
Two women are chatting in the painting above the north door, watched by demons. Women’s rosaries are forgotten from their hands as they speak, and the painting is seen as a warning against talking during services. Similar paintings can also be seen in the churches of Colton, Eaton and Little Melton, all near Norwich and Seething.
A tree, its branches heavy with demons holding images of the seven deadly sins in their mouths, grows from the gaping jaws of a hellish monster. Sins are labeled in Latin with pride at the top of the tree, above Gluttony, Avarice, Envy, Sloth, Lust and Wrath.
A painting of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, stands opposite the front door, ready to bless passers-by.
Further along the wall, paintings tell the story of Easter in nine scenes from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.
This is East Anglia’s most comprehensive medieval Easter sequence.
But when the Reformation took hold, paintings, statues and sculptures began to be considered idolatrous and superstitious. In 1547 Edward VI they were to be destroyed throughout the country.
More than 200 years later Crostwight’s paintings were rediscovered during restoration work and each image was faithfully copied in drawings and watercolors – before being repainted.
Some were destroyed forever and exist today only as these 1847 paintings and drawings by artist Harriet Gunn. His watercolors are now in the British Library.
One shows a delicately feathered Archangel St Michael defeating a dragon, another of the lost murals depicts Jesus being baptized in a river full of fish.
“Church restorers wanted clean, unadorned walls,” Peter said. “A few people were intrigued by the old wall paintings, but the idea that these paintings should remain visible was not common. We are lucky, however, that the medieval plaster on Crostwight’s north wall was strong enough to be whitewashed rather than replaced.
“However, some plaster probably had to be replaced, destroying the paintings.”
The images would originally have been mostly red, purple and yellow, with paint made from natural minerals – but are faded as a large amount of pigment was lost when the whitewash was scraped off in 1847.
In 1938 the surviving paintings were rediscovered and conservation work, carried out with the best of intentions, probably accelerated the decline. A waxy coating designed to preserve paintings and restore their luster trapped in salt solutions, forcing layers of paint and plaster to separate and over time darkening and obscuring images.